1925 K Street, San Diego, CA 92102
Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Shepard traveled the world composing music. For one year, he lived in a grandiose mansion in San Diego, performing concerts and séances. Ever since, those who have owned the house have been met with grave misfortunes.
Many urban legends have been told through the years about the spirits that may reside within the halls of the villa.
One tells of a butler who hanged himself in the villa’s tower. Some say that you can see his anguished face reflected in the tower windows.
Other stories mention the appearance of a tall man in a grey suit. Could this be the spirit of Benjamin Shepard, finally returning to his old home after such a long time away?
Or could it possibly be one of the many owners that the Villa Montezuma has had over the decades?
Although, it has been said that visitors can sometimes hear the sound of a piano being played faintly through the home.
Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Sherpard lived a life many would have dreamt of having. He traveled the world. He built a palace for himself. He spent his entire life playing music. He was like a modern-day Mozart. And he died in the same extraordinary way.
Benjamin Henry Jesse Francis Sherpard was born in England in 1848. A year later, his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. During his childhood, Shepard became quite skilled at playing piano. As a young man, he traveled across Europe to play, during which he became involved in séances and spiritualism.
In 1885, Shepard met his life-long friend and secretary, Lauritz Tonner. They would spend the next 40 years traveling together. There has been speculation that they were lovers, yet there has been no evidence to prove it.
In 1887, two wealthy ranchers in San Diego decided to coax Shepherd to America’s Finest City in order to have him play for the elites of the West Coast. And they convinced him by building him a house.
The so-called Villa Montezuma soon began construction. It was of a Queen Ann design with a smattering of Russian architecture thrown in. Its multiple windows were beautifully crafted with stained glass, each one representing one of Shepard’s favorite artists and authors.
There are even a few secret passages scattered throughout. Most notable is the fireplace, which lifts up to a hidden room in the house.
In the villa itself, Shepard threw lavish parties, concerts, and séances. His playing was described as “otherworldly.” It was also during this time that Sheard began writing essays and articles for The Golden Era.
In 1888, Shepard decided to leave behind the Villa Montezuma and return to Europe to pursue his writing. It was then that he changed his name to Francis Grierson, which was his middle name and mother’s maiden name.
Benjamin Shepard never stepped foot in the Villa Montezuma again. And neither did Francis Grierson.
Shepard’s later years were not kind to him. His popularity had dwindled, and he was financially impoverished. He had pawned off all of his possessions and treasures. Tonner, had been graciously supporting him financially.
By 1919, he and Tonner were living in Los Angeles. During this time, Shepard had met writer Zona Gale, who had also graciously supported him.
In May of 1927, she had put together a benefit concert for Shepard. Unbeknownst to everyone, it would be his last.
At 79 years old, Shepard played like a young, vibrant man. As the night was ending, he played his most famous piece, “The Egyptian March.” As his finger hit the final note of the song, he bowed his head.
He had died right there on the piano, finger still on the note. He had suffered a heart attack from malnutrition.
He was buried in Los Angeles as Francis Grierson. He died as he lived, playing music. Tonner would follow suit 20 years later in 1947.
Shepard sold the Villa Montezuma to one D.D. Dare, who was vice president of the new California National Bank. Like Shepard, he hosted parties at the villa and invested in several companies.
After completion of his own house, Dare sold the villa to H.P. Palmerston, who had invested in Dare’s bank as well.
Unbeknownst to Palmerston, Dare was a professional con man and one day fled California with a case full of money and a closed bank.
Palmerson was financially ruined and was forced to foreclose the villa.
The house was sold to Dr. George Calmus, who lived there for six years. But one day, he ditched his wife and headed to Northern California.
The villa went through several other hands throughout the years, each resident never staying for too long due to financial reasons. Stories started to circulate that the home was cursed and that each owner was doomed to end up like Shepard, poor and dejected.
In the 70s, the villa was restored to its original state and opened up as a museum for visitors to explore its decadent halls. Since then, many repairs have been made to the villa to keep it in pristine condition.
Now, the villa is only open four times a year, a very rare treat amongst the other historic tours in San Diego.
Tours are currently unavailable at the Villa Montezuma due to COVID-19. Visitors can drive to the villa and take in the sights of its radiant stained glass windows and beautiful gothic architecture.
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