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Lady Janice Martinelli

Eye On The Locals: While Mike McCoy saved the largest coastal wetland in Southern California, Janice Martinelli reduced crime by 29% in National City when she bought and turned the Heritage Square buildings into a nationally acclaimed historic site.

I interviewed Lady Janice, a charming visionary, who explained, with a touch of laughter,

“You know, Kimball was here for, I think, 42 years and I’ve been here for 36. I’m like Kimball. I’m gonna die broke. But I really think that if I drop dead tomorrow I’d feel like I made a difference.”

Lady Janice Martinelli’s Victorian Heritage

Lady Martinelli  is half-Cherokee, half-East European. She was born in Carmel, California. Eventually, her parents and four siblings re-located to Point Loma.

Lady Martinelli recalled how the whole family would go to the Sierras three weeks every year and sleep in a tent as well as fish. This was not Lady Martinelli’s cup of tea at all. She was second to the oldest. “But I’m also the only red head and the biggest pain in the ass of all of the kids. So I would spend the whole vacation ruining everybody’s time, sweeping out the tent, boiling water, crying because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom outside.”

Finally, it dawned on her parents to start leaving Lady Martinelli at her grandmother’s house while they went to the Sierra’s.

Lady Martinelli’s grandmother, Frieda Kohen, was from Romania and also Jewish. The story Frieda told was that during WWI her mother (Lady Martinelli’s great grandmother) was outside screaming and yelling at the Germans coming through town ruining everything and they chopped her head off with a sword. Frieda hid under the bed and when she looked out the window, they walked by with her mother’s head on a stake.

Her Romanian father (Lady Martinelli’s great grandfather) couldn’t afford to keep all the kids, so he gave them to people who could teach them a trade. Frieda was given to a tailor. However, the tailor didn’t do what was promised, so Frieda stowed away on a ship. She was about thirteen at the time.

Frieda came through Ellis Island and she described how everybody was screaming and cheering, so she snuck out from the bowels of the ship and said she saw the Statue of Liberty. It was bigger than life. She then found odd jobs until a matchmaker set her up with Abraham Jacob Zubov, a shoemaker of Latvian descent.

After they got married, they ended up in Monterey, probably because Frieda got offered to do some tailor work in the Army/Navy store and eventually she ended up owning the store. Abraham ran that business with her.

Lady Janice’s mother was Cherokee from Indiana, but she grew up in Monterey where Lady Martinelli’s father (Frieda and Abraham’s son) proposed to her in the fourth grade.

Lady Martinelli’s parents, realizing their daughter did not want to be in the Sierra’s, dropped her off at grandma’s house and Lady Janice would then spend three or four weeks with Frieda. It turns out, her grandmother had a passion for everything Victorian.

“That’s where I learned all the Victorian stuff. I started collecting things when I was ten years old and I always wanted a Victorian house. When I was divorcing my first husband, I lived in Point Loma and I was in my twenties. A friend of mine called and he said, ‘Janice I have this Victorian place in National City.'”

Lady Janice Sets Off To National City

She came to National City in 1978 and although the outside looked like Skid Row, she fell in love with the inside of the Victorian style building. She remembered the rental agent, Jim Ladd from Brick Row Property Management, say, “You can choose all the wallpaper and all the colors.”

She was 24 years old. She had graduated from Point Loma High School and then went immediately to real estate school. She was also a musician. She played bass and was the band leader.

After she agreed to rent the place, she bought, “Oh no. This is going to take 25-30 years to turn this street around. And it’s been 36 years.”

She ended up living in unit 916 for 12 years. The rent was $650.

Unit 916

After a few years Jim Ladd came to Lady Martinelli and said, “Janice I’ve found this house that I want. If you can help me get this house, then I’ll sell you the unit here at Brick Row.”

By then Lady Martinelli had been a real estate agent for about ten years and owned her own mortgage company. She had contacts with about eighty banks.

“Some of them care more about income and some of them care more about credit, some of them care more about equity. So I went and looked at this house, it was the Dickinson-Boal Mansion at the end of 24th Street. It’s one of the finest Queen Anne’s in the United States. It’s on the Mills Act 2, but it’s not a National Site. It was on 4 acres of land and the house was 6,000 square feet. And it was ramshackle. It needed to be painted, the wood was falling down. There was an older lady who lived there, so no banks would finance it. I went through 80 different places and nobody wanted to finance it because it wasn’t the normal thing and this was in the early 80’s by then. So I finally figured out how to get a private loan and get him a better house. He kept his word and sold me 916.”

That’s how Lady Martinelli bought her first unit of Brick Row. The next opportunity she received was 926 and she lived there for 20-something years. It had four bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs had a dining room, a kitchen, a parlor and a large entry hall.

The Kimball Diaries

From the beginning, Lady Martinelli was determined to turn her block of historic homes into a tourist attraction. The first thing she did was go to the history room where she spent weeks reading. Notably, she read all the Kimball’s diaries and learned about the Kimball family.

Lady Martinelli tells the Kimball story with enthusiasm. “They were from New Hampshire. They were five brothers and they had a breathing disorder. And they were told in the 1860’s that they had to move to a warmer climate or they weren’t going to live long. They decided they were going to move to California. They came and looked at 31 ranches and places in Southern California, which were basically nothing. All that was in San Diego was that one street in Old Town that had Ramona’s marriage place and the Whaley House. That’s all that was here. Everything else was just barren wasteland. Mexico didn’t want it. It was owned by Mexico and the Kimball’s wanted the same thing that people want today: they wanted to be close to the water, good soil for growing because Frank worked for the Department of Agriculture, good year round weather and centrally located. This had everything you needed and it was huge. It was called Rancho de la nation. So it was the Mexican land grant to the Kimballs and then they all moved here and together they all had the skills to form a city. One of them was a bricklayer, a mason, and he made the bricks to build Brick Row back in 1887. Cost like 20-grand to build this whole building.”

Turns out, the Kimballs were responsible for the growth of National City, which became known as the “La Jolla” of San Diego for a time. They built the Sweetwater Dam, started the first free school, they started the citrus industry and they built the first wharf. The Kimball’s also wrote the first newspaper for Coronado and they opened a bank there. They started the olive industry and the citrus industry. Kimball also traveled several times to Philadelphia until he landed the contract to build the first railroad terminus in National City.

“After he built the railroad, well after he landed the contract, his brother made the bricks to build a duplicate Philadelphia Row House so that the executives would feel comfortable while they put the railroad in, so that’s where Brick Row came from.”

National City boomed. It had a tile factory that created the tiles for the Santa Fe Depot. They also had a china factory. After Kimball got the train through, he went to the world’s fair and he brought three cars full of lemons, limes and oranges that people in the colder climates had never seen before. National City then hosted a fair in Granger Hall. The showcase was the Alligator Pear, which was Kimball’s avocado.

“So when you hear about the big Exposition in Balboa Park, it really wasn’t the first San Diego Fair. The first San Diego Fair was in National City. It was about 1912-ish. We know it today as the San Diego Fair or the Del Mar Fair, but it started here in National City.”

Lady Martinelli explains that there were even Presidential visitors to the Kimball home.

“I read all the diaries of the hardships Frank Kimball and his wife went through. Nobody ever said thank you. Nobody ever returned their property. Nobody ever paid them back. They financed everybody building their houses, starting their businesses. Kimball went broke because nobody ever paid him back. They were in that house for thirty years and they spent two nights alone. The rest of the time was entertaining people building their houses, starting new businesses and they financed them too.”

Wyatt Earp Lived Here

After Kimball’s death in 1912, things started going down hill in National City.

In the 1990’s Ken Kramer from KPBS was walking around outside Lady Martinelli’s unit when she came out and asked, “Can I help you?” He wanted to know which unit Wyatt Earp lived in. At the time, Lady Martinelli didn’t even know Earp had ever lived here, but apparently, at one time the Marshall lived in “the end unit” of Brick Row.

A gambler who ran prostitutes Earp started bare fisted boxing, which soon was outlawed in San Diego, so he moved the operation down to Tijuana. Then he moved to Brick Row and he took the train into Tijuana every night to go to the fights.

The Mile Of Bars

That wasn’t the end to National City’s downhill fall. By the 1980s Lady Martinelli recounts that behind Brick Row was what people called the mile of bars.

“They had Mario’s Pizza Place. That was the crime center. They had all these bars — pretty big name musicians, actually — but there was a lot of crime and then they had Pussycat Theater. Then someone opened Chuck’s Books, a porno shop right behind Brick Row so all my tenants moved out.

“This was in the 80s, so I had to do a lawsuit against the porno shop, hire a private investigator and got my tires slashed, got my life threatened I don’t know how many times because all these people at the Pussycat Theater, then they’d get all worked up and go to the porno shop and then they would come over to Brick Row and do their thing in backyards. So I started putting up fences and I started accumulating units over the years.”

Despite the turmoil, Lady Martinelli was determined to remain in Brick Row and Heritage Square. Today, she owns six of the the ten units in Brick Row. The other four are individually owned.

“It’s all been worth it, but it’s just been one fight after another. I was the city’s key witness in the closing of Chuck’s books. And then the Trophy Lounge was another huge problem.”

The Trophy Lounge

“The Trophy Lounge, it’s right on the corner, right behind us. National City Boulevard, 900 block. It used to be owned by an ex-military guy and his wife and it was a military hang out. But all of a sudden the husband died and the wife took over the business and it turned into a war zone, basically. It was pretty smooth there since my dad’s band started playing there and chased them all away. This was in the 2000’s. They’re still open, but they aren’t what they were anymore. There were hookers there and drug dealing. That’s when I sent a private detective over there for two weeks and had him sitting there and then give me a report. From about 12:30 to 1:30 closing time, it was so loud. Cars screeching, people having sex in the alleys. I couldn’t keep any tenants because it was just so loud. I had to spend $50,000 on soundproof windows to keep people in my units.”

Brick Row Filled With Bags Of Urine

Lady Martinelli bought her third unit from an alcoholic who inherited it from his mother “…who didn’t like me, but she knew I would take care of it. She thought I was a busy-body. So he comes over and knocks on my door one day and told me his mother died, he’s in so much financial trouble, no one’s paying the rent, he’s got tenants in every room like a boarding house, nobody pays, the bathrooms don’t work, but he wouldn’t let me see the inside. All I could think about is — that place is getting ruined.”

She agreed to buy the unit — sight unseen.

“That cost me a marriage, buying this one, because I had to buy it without seeing the inside. He didn’t want me to see it, so my husband, when he saw the inside, I mean buckle your knees, the smell. And I’m all, “Oh look, it’s got all the original woodwork. I’m looking at the good stuff. Oh look, original doorknobs and he’s going, “Oh my God, look at this mess!”

She had to put about $70,000 into refurbishing the place and Lady Martinelli did a lot of it herself. “I had to paint everything. There were a lot of cracks in the ceiling. The guy was a hoarder. The bathrooms hadn’t worked for more than ten years. I had to put a new sewer system in. I mean, I don’t know what they were doing for a bathroom. Upstairs there were newspapers stacked this high and a guy that was sleeping on them and he had bottles of urine, those plastic bags, around the whole perimeter of the room.”

She backed up a dumpster and just started throwing 11 tons of trash out the window. The tenants, about 15, didn’t want to leave. “Most of them were druggies, so I bought them out. I said if they moved out by the 1st, I’d give them 500 bucks. There were no utilities in here. The city turned off the utilities. There were code violations and the previous owner hadn’t paid taxes on the property in five years.”

Lady Martinelli explains that when she refurbished the units, it cut crime 29% in National City.

“You have to remember, every time I got into another one of these units, it caused me a divorce and I had to start over.”

Protesting At City Hall In Milliner’s Hats

Lady Martinelli has been on the City Council Planning Commission (selected by the Mayor and the City Council). She often sat right next to Chicano rights activist Herman Baca. She was Vice-President of the Chamber of Commerce, Chair of the Public Art Committee, Chair of the Neighborhood Council and currently is President of the National City Historical Society.

When Lady Janice was on the Planning Commission in the 2000’s, she and the National City Historical Society wanted to have the Heritage Square street closed to traffic.

“It says right in the general plan that we want a pedestrian friendly, foot traffic area to create a tourism industry.”

Lady Janice insisted that the city do a traffic study. The study showed that the street should be kept closed. To prove her point, Lady Janice stomped into City Hall with about 20-30 of her Historical Society ladies, all wearing milliner’s hats.

Lady Janice explained that this was just one incident. She had her historical society friends descend upon City Hall many times in their hats clamoring to better the city.

Happily Ever After, With Poise and Tea

Lady Janice now lives on the top floor of the Kimball House, which is leased by the historical society and she is the curator. In addition, Lady Janice has created an archive room and a tea house in the downstairs units of Brick Row, while she rents the upstairs. Tea House was opened in 2007 with a work-live permit. You can have a three-course sit down meal that seats 24 inside and 40 outside. The entire downstairs is filled with milliner’s hats and Lady Janice even hosts a Junior Victorian Club for teenagers where she and the other members of the Tea House teach visual poise and manners to kids.

Thank you, Lady Janice Martinelli!

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3 Responses to Lady Janice Martinelli

  1. Gil December 6, 2014 at 8:46 PM #

    What an amazing woman! Really amazing the positive impact that just one person can make on a city. Just loved this story.

  2. bzzaragoza December 7, 2014 at 5:57 PM #

    Thanks, Gil! She really is inspiring.

  3. melinda murphy June 22, 2015 at 4:03 PM #

    I finally found you Janice …would love to see you when I visit San Diego in August.

Copyright Barbara Zaragoza. All rights reserved.

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