Monterey's La Mirada Adobe

by Cathleen A. Freeman
This essay was written as a class assignment in SBSC 326: History of the Monterey Bay Area, 10,000 B.C. to Steinbeck, California State University Monterey Bay, Spring Semester 1996.

La Mirada began its existence as one of three small adobes built in the early 1800s on a little hill south and east of the old Presidio. It was probably built for a retired soldier from that post. The first record on the property, in 1836, showed it to be the home of Maria Beltran, widow of Antonio Mario Castro, a soldier in California from 1780 until his retirement in 1809. Maria sold a portion of the property, including a small adobe between her house and that of another soldier named Buelna. The "Buelna Adobe" still stands on that site. In confirmation of this, the 1849 map of Monterey shows the three building sites on the hill.

The Castro Period: The next Castro, a son of Antonio, married Mercedes Ortega, a granddaughter of the famous Sergeant Ortega, and it was their daughter, Modesta, who married Jose Castro, later both governor and military commander and one of the most prominent men during the Mexicanperiod in California.

Jose and Modesta and their daughter (also named Modesta) occupied the then four-room adobe until his departure for Mexico after the United States occupation of California. Modesta and her daughter remained in Monterey, never joining General Castro in Mexico. In fact, Mrs. Castro is buried in the Monterey cemetery across from her home.

The La Mirada Adobe in the 1890s. Courtesy of the Pat Hathaway Collection (image 84-02-01).

In the early days of the U.S. occupation, another family of prominence--John C. Fremont, his wife Jessie, and their daughter Elizabeth (Lily)--was connected with the Castro Adobe. Lt. Col. Fremont decided Monterey would be a good place for his wife and daughter to stay while he took care of mine holdings in Mariposa. There were no houses for rent in Monterey, but Modesta Castro agreed to rent two rooms in her adobe to Jessie. The rooms were bare and Jessie had to borrow cots and other necessities until Fremont could send furnishings form San Francisco. When the crates arrived, much was still needed, although Chinese matting, a teakwood table, grizzly bear rugs, a cane couch and chair, and lace and brocade for the windows were welcome. It was reported that Jessie Fremont used two fine punch bowls as much-needed wash basins.

Descriptions of the Fremonts' time in the adobe appear in two books by Jessie Fremont: Souvenirs of My Time and A Year of American Travel. Her daughter, Elizabeth (Lily) Benton Fremont also wrote about her memories of living in the Castro Adobe, in Early Days in California.

The state Constitutional Convention was held in Monterey in 1849, the year that Jessie Fremont lived in the Castro Adobe. She entertained the delegates as well as she could by setting up a long wooden table in the back garden and serving game, fish and fowl that people had brought to her, which she and her two Indian helpers cooked over an outdoor fire.

John Fremont came to Monterey whenever possible, usually bringing gold from a rich vein on the Mariposa property. Jessie spent Christmas of 1849 in the adobe. A few days later, Fremont arrived to tell her he had been elected to the United States Senate, and the family left for Washington, D.C. on January 1, 1850. Thus the Castro house was woven in the statehood period of California, just as it had a role in the earlier Mexican period.

For the next fifty years the house remained with various members of the Castro family, including well known names like Zabala, Dias and Sepulveda. In 1872, the property was in the name of Esteven Castro, who later deeded it to his wife Adelaida "for love and affection" on December 6, 1904. The last member of the Castro family to own the property was Francesca Dona de Dias, a granddaughter of Jose and Modesta Castro and wife of Rafael Dias. She sold it in 1919, closing the Castro chapter and the family's association with the Adobe.

Of interest are the old deeds on the property during that period, many of them in Spanish. They described the property as a "tongue of land, the Eastern, Northern and Western sides...enclosed or bounded by said Estuary." The waters of Lake Estero spread further up into little canyons like Iris Canyon of today. The 1849 map has Fremont Street ending just beyond the church--it could not be extended toward the cemetery until much fill was made in the arm of El Estero. The deeds tell us that the original road leaving Monterey towards the Huerto Vieja (Old Orchard) of the Spanish period had to circle along the property and around the hill to avoid the water. What is now Mesa Road was originally a road leaving Monterey.

The Gouverneur Morris Period: Cattle still roamed freely on the Monterey Mesa when Gouverneur Morris and his wife purchased the property in the early 1920s. Morris restored the remains of the adobe, added other structures, and turned the house itself into a fine residence of 8,000 square feet, with a 40-foot drawing room and a two-story wing with guest rooms and baths. He enclosed the entire house, courtyards and gardens, with encircling walls for privacy. He loved tile and incorporated decorative examples from France, Spain and Portugal into the exterior surfaces.

Gouverneur Morris was the great grandson and namesake of the Revolutionary War statesman who signed the Declaration of Independence and helped to frame the U.S. Constitution. He graduated from Yale in 1898, an soon established himself as a writer of short stories and novels as well as writing scripts for Hollywood. He was known as a genial host and his guests included movie stars, such as Charlie Chaplin, Pola Negri and Theda Bara, as well as literary figures, well known artists and bohemians of the period. During his residency in Monterey, he served as a director of the Monterey Bank, which was located on Alvarado Street.

Unfortunately, the 1929 economic crash brought an end to lavish spending, and indebtedness forced sale of the home--auctioned off on the steps of Colton Hall for $8,186.60. A foreclosure sales deed, dated February 8, 1934, completed the transaction, but by then Gouverneur Morris and his wife had moved to New Mexico. He died there in 1953.

The Work Period: In 1936, the property came into the ownership of a family long connected with the growth of the Monterey Peninsula, that of Thomas Albert Work, Sr. The Work name has been associated with La Mirada for fifty years.

Thomas Albert Work, Sr., known in the community as "T.A.," was born in the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland in 1868, the son of a minister and the grandson of a sea captain who had made three voyages to California before 1849. The grandfather told T.A. that one of the most beautiful areas in the world was along the coast near Monterey, and it was probably he who influenced T.A. to come to Monterey in 1883. He was preceded by a brother, John Work who arranged for him to live with a family in the first house built on the Upper Monterey Mesa, now on Alta Mesa Road. This house was later known as the Field residence and has been beautifully restored. The family T.A. moved in with operated a dairy, and his first job was delivering milk.

From then on his life personified the typical poor boy-to-riches story. He sold firewood from a horse-drawn wagon, opened his own small feed store, selling hay and grain, and in 1900 he bought into the First National Bank in Monterey, gradually acquiring it by 1906. He then purchased the Monterey Bank, where Gouverneur Morris had been a director, and established banks in Seaside, Carmel, Pebble Beach, Salinas and Hollister.

T.A.'s principal interest was in the land and real-estate. In 1896 he purchased 1,600 acres in Carmel Highlands, where the Highlands Inn now stands, selling them to Frank Powers and Frank Devendorf (the founders of Carmel) two years later for a tidy profit. Around 1930 he purchased 2,000 acres from the Jacks family--an area stretching form Seaside to Marina. He had the land, which was a hot bed of rattlesnakes, cleared of chaparral. At one time this land contained one of the largest pea ranches in the world. Before World War II the government approached T.A. Work to sell the Work fields for the military base which was subsequently named Fort Ord. Although he had been offered a much higher price in the 1930s, he agreed to sell. Frank Work feels this was done for patriotic reasons, because of his father's good fortune in this country.

T. A. married Maude Elise Porter in 1896. Her roots were deep in California. She was born in the Mother Lode community of Georgetown, attended the old Colton |School in Monterey, and graduated from State Teachers College in San Jose. For a while she taught in the little Bay School, between the Carmel River and Point Lobos, riding sidesaddle to and from her one-room school. It was there that she and T.A. met, when he stopped one day to water his horses.

The Work family lived in Pacific Grove until the Gouverneur Morris house became available. Betty Work, daughter of T.A. and Maude Work, purchased the adobe, and T.A., Maude, and their son Frank moved in. Betty was away a good deal of the time, as she was a dispersing officer in the United States Navy and stationed at Treasure Island. It was T.A. Work who planted the cypress groves and pines, as well as other trees, there having been no trees during the Gouverneur Morris period. The present courtyard was Maude Porter Work's rose garden. She passed away in 1946 and Betty sold the home to her brother Frank. Later, T.A. remarried and moved to Pebble Beach.

Photograph of the La Mirada Adobe, April 1996, by Cathleen Freeman.
View is similar to the historical photograph, above.

Frank Work married Zizi in 1946 and the house as it is today reflects their interests and joy in collecting fine furnishings. Zizi died in 1966. Frank continued to live in the house and to add beauty to the house and gardens until he deeded the property to the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art Association in 1983.

State-of-the-art exhibition space was added in 1993 with the completion of the Jane and Justin Dart Wing which was designed by internationally acclaimed architect Charles W. Moore. Visitors to La Mirada are invited to explore early California history, to experience a taste of life on the Peninsula as it was in the 1920s, and to enjoy exhibitions which focus on California regional art, Asian art, and art of the Pacific Rim.

Location: 720 Via Mirada - Open to the public Wednesday through Saturday 11 AM - 5 PM and Sunday 1 PM - 4 PM.


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