San Diego, minus the surf and zoos

MY wife and I have an interest in historic homes and have spent many a Saturday touring some of Los Angeles' finest. But we'd never thought to do the same in San Diego until recently, when we booked a weekend at the Britt Scripps Inn. Our plan was to complement our Victorian accommodations with visits to the nearby 1905 Marston House, designed by Irving Gill, and other nearby Arts and Crafts homes of note.

The Britt Scripps Inn is a block west of Balboa Park, in a downtown neighborhood called Bankers Hill, where prominent San Diegans built grand homes at the turn of the last century. We immediately spotted the inn's Queen Anne turret and tricolor facade, which stand out in what is now a workaday neighborhood of midcentury office buildings and new condos. The house, built in 1887 by attorney Eugene Britt and later owned by the Scripps newspaper family, was a bed-and-breakfast in the 1970s and then law offices. It was bought by the current owners and refurbished as a nine-room boutique hotel, opening in February.

A genial young concierge named Bryan helped us forget the Friday afternoon slog down Interstate 5 from L.A., pouring us complimentary glasses of Entre-Deux-Mers, a favorite white Bordeaux, served along with a silver tray of miniature crab cakes and bruschetta.

Another couple were just leaving for the evening, and Bryan sat and chatted with us as we admired the oak-paneled wainscoting, lace curtains, gilt-framed period drawings and the 1883 Steinway piano planted at the base of the staircase, which rises against a wall of stained glass.

Each of the guest rooms upstairs has a name and a different price. We had the Aesthetic Room, so-called because it reflects Victorian interests in Far East travel and art. The queen-size bed had an intricately carved Japanese headboard set against sage-colored walls, two Chinese Chippendale chairs and an ornately patterned ceiling. The bathroom was fine indeed, with hand-painted tiles in a koi fish pattern and a claw-foot tub with a rain showerhead the Victorians could only have dreamed of.

We walked the two blocks to Gemelli Italian Grill, a new restaurant that the staff at the inn recommended. It's an old-fashioned New York-style place, with leather-bound menus, baskets of thickly sliced garlic bread and sports on TV at the bar.

Nothing too elegant here, including the waiter, who didn't recognize the name of the California Pinot Noir we ordered from the small wine list. My wife, Kelly, and I ate adequate pasta dishes and soggy Caesar salads drenched in vinegar. After dinner, we didn't feel like lingering so we took the rest of our wine with us back to the inn. Bryan fetched two glasses and we finished it in the garden under the night sky.

Old San Diego

THE inn's complimentary full breakfast was served in the sunny dining room off the parlor. Hot blueberry muffins arrived on plates adorned with purple orchids. Kelly had a small stack of blackberry pancakes, and I had a portabello mushroom omelet with rosemary and watercress served with roasted finger potatoes — delicious.

From the inn, a 10-minute walk across Cabrillo Bridge put us squarely inside Balboa Park, named for the 16th century Spanish explorer who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. The park dates to 1868, when civic leaders set aside those 1,400 acres. The land looked nothing like the eucalyptus-lined green space it is today and was, in fact, largely desert. The trees all have been planted in the intervening years; dynamite frequently had to be used to blast holes in the rocky soil deep enough to accommodate the roots.

The park's landmark Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, walls and bridges were built for the Panama-California Exposition held here in 1915 and 1916, honoring the completion of the Panama Canal. The Botanical Building was the largest wood lath structure in the world in 1915: 60 feet high, 250 feet long and 75 feet wide. Still a marvel of craftsmanship, its finely curved wooden ribs are spaced so close together that you're not sure whether you're inside or outside while inspecting the 2,000-plus tropical plants gathered under its roof.

After a look through an exhibition of Old Masters at the nearby Timken Museum of Art, we boarded one of the free trams that circles the park. A few minutes later, it dropped us off near the Marston House, a mansion built for department store magnate George Marston, in time for a 1 p.m. tour.

Designed in the Tudor style by the early Southern California Modernist architect Irving Gill, the house was completed (per Gill's desire) in the Arts and Crafts style then gaining a foothold in America. The result is a landmark not as spectacular on the outside as the Gamble House in Pasadena but with an interior that is warmer, brighter and more inviting, owing to natural-fiber wall coverings and large windows. Various Marstons lived here until 1990, when it was given to the city and became a museum.

We were guided through most of its 8,500 square feet by the San Diego Historical Society's Dave Hedley, who recounted rich details about the Marstons and the domestic customs of the early 20th century. For example, Marston slept sitting up to ward off disease. At a time when outhouses were the norm, the home's six bathrooms were an anomaly, he said.

Thus edified, we set off up 6th Avenue to find a late lunch in the Hillcrest district, finally stopping at City Delicatessen. It was busy and friendly but not the sort of place where you should order a Cobb salad, I discovered.

We could have headed to Heritage Park to see the Victorians, but we were on foot so we retraced our steps to the northern end of the park to see the other homes Gill's firm designed along 7th Avenue. We also wandered down side streets in search of other historic houses featured on a recent San Diego home tour, including Conklin House (3329 1st Ave.) and an elaborate cottage (244 W. Brookes Ave.) built by Gill's nephew, Louis Gill.

Padres and martinis

BACK at the inn we took a breather, deciding to pass up the happy hour hors d'oeuvres and instead inspect some newer architecture — specifically, Petco Park, which opened last year as the home of the San Diego Padres.

We walked south on 6th Avenue (about 1 1/2 miles downhill) to the stadium, just in time for the start of an interleague game between the Padres and the Chicago White Sox. (The Padres won in the bottom of the ninth.) We were impressed by the park and wondered what other new stadium has sprays of bougainvillea draped from planters along the concourses.

We walked back through the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego's gambling and red-light district at the end of 19th century, since transformed into block after block of fashionable eateries and watering holes, with outdoor tables crowding the sidewalks. Emerging from the Mardi Gras-like throng, we caught a cab back up the hill and stopped for a martini at Mr. A's, a hangout atop an 11-story office building across from the inn, with views of the Pacific and landing planes,

A jog in the park the next morning took us across the bridge and past the museums, the Old Globe Theatre, lawn bowlers and Buddhists in robes. After showering, we came down to a dining room quite different from the day before: It was full. We had to wait almost an hour for a table, a sign that the inn is still working out the logistics of food service. But when we did get to sit down, the breakfast was again first-rate.



Budget for two


Two nights at the Britt Scripps Inn $497


Dinner at Gemelli Italian Grill $81

Lunch at City Delicatessen $24

Dinner at Petco Park (hot dogs, fries, peanuts, two beers) $31

Cocktails at Mr. A's $26


Padres-White Sox game tickets $36

Marston House tour $10


Cab $7

Final tab $712

Distance from L.A. 120 miles


Britt Scripps Inn, 406 Maple St., San Diego; (888) 881-1991, . Nine individually decorated rooms with private bath. Introductory rates $195-$335.

Marston House, 3525 7th Ave., Balboa Park; (619) 298-3142. Arts and Crafts mansion and museum. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. Tours depart hourly. $5, $2 ages 6 to 17.

— Sean Mitchell