There’s an orb in the house, a prostitute’s license from 1876 in the archives and tea party space laden with vintage hats.
The absolute coolest place to be in National City is Brick Row. Sure, I could tell you it’s because the Frank Kimball House across the street is the oldest house in National City. I could also say that Brick Row is on the National Register of Historic Places. But, nah.
I visit for the hats, the 1876 prostitute’s license and, for those of you so inclined, to see the orb.
That’s right. The owner of several Brick Row apartments and caretaker of this historic landmark, Lady Janice Martinelli has such a strong connection to the properties that she saw and took a picture of the orb:
The spirits of the Kimball’s remain in the home, whether through their furniture, well-preserved architectural facades or just by sitting on the porch during the weekends feeling as though you’ve been transported back to Victorian times.
Brick Row was built in the Philadelphia row house style and consists of ten units. It cost Frank Kimball about $22,000 and was built with over 240,000 bricks, many of them made from the Kimball’s brick kiln. The row was completed in 1887 and was meant to house railroad workers for the upcoming train stop Kimball envisioned. It would, however, take many years before Kimball was able to get the California Southern Railway to stop in National City.
Lady Martinelli owns several of the apartments nowadays. She rents some out and has carefully renovated others, including the archive room that includes all sorts of interesting old books, including a National City Jail Registry and a 1879 prostitute’s license:
When Lady Martinelli gives you a tour of the Kimball home, she’ll also tell you about Frank’s salacious ‘riches to destitution’ story.
Frank Kimball was raised in New Hampshire and during the financial crisis of 1857, he went deeply into debt for goods purchased from the Manion Company (some type of cooperative grocery or farm equipment company). He and his brothers Levi and Warren left for San Francisco in 1861 where they found work and paid off their debts.
Soon, they found lucrative financial opportunities in Southern California where they purchased El Rancho de la Nacion for about $30,000 in 1868. The land encompassed around 30,000 acres. The brothers then were responsible for building up National City into an upscale community.
Frank built the first house in the area that had hot and cold water in every room of the house. He also created the Kimball Brothers Water Company in 1869, selling water by the barrel. He built the first wharf, had a sheep business and ran an olive oil company. He also purchased Janal Rancho in 1879 and built the Upper Otay Dam in partnership with E.S. Babcock, promoter of the Coronado Water Company. At a certain point, Kimball’s total assets amounted to $1.4 million. He owned 46 houses, 6 orchards and his olive oil mill ran day and night.
Through embezzlement by his colleagues, also Kimball accrued increasing debts. Frank and his wife Sarah were unable to balance their financial books, often giving away their money to help others. When Frank found himself in debt, he asked for his money back, but nobody was unable to return it. In 1897 the house went into foreclosure. Frank and his wife, who he always called “Sister,” had to move into an old restaurant building. “Sister” had a nervous breakdown.
Frank got a job planting olives in Mexico and then he leased a piece of land for more olive tree cultivation. He continued to work in business pursuits and olive cultivation well into his seventies, never recovering his wealth.
Hannah Lee’s Tea House
If you ask, Lady Martinelli will give you a tour of Kimball’s house (where she lives on the second floor), show you the archive room and let you roam around Hannah Lee’s Tea House. Lady Martinelli runs a tea house, which contains 100 custom-made Victorian hats and all sorts of antique items. She also offers Tea Time parties by appointment where she and other women from the National City Historical Associate re-create the Kimball era for guests.
Where: Between 9th Street and Plaza Boulevard, along A Avenue, National City.
When: Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. you can receive a tour from Lady Martinelli (donations requested) and sit on the porch with neighbors who live in Brick Row or some of her friends from the National City Historical Society.
You can also check out her website and call to book a Tea Party at: Hannah Lees’s Victorian Tea House
For a comprehensive history of Heritage Square and Brick Row, check out the South Bay Historical Society’s Article by historian Steven Schoenherr.