At the time of her death in December of 1963, Mrs. Verna was a familiar figure on the streets near her home at 1364 Union Street in Downtown San Diego. Dozens of employees of nearby businesses arriving to work every morning noticed the 73-year-old woman pushing her cart up and down the streets, collecting trinkets, scraps of fabric, and any other discarded items she could find. What she did with these treasures no one knew, but she never missed a day until she became ill with pneumonia just before Christmas.
One of five children born to Italian coppersmith Louis Daniele, Maddalena Daniele came to the United States in 1904 when she was fourteen, originally settling in Los Angeles before moving to San Diego. She later married Cesare Verna, a successful restaurateur who died in 1932. After her husband's death, Mrs. Verna became active in volunteer political work, and spent her time reading and caring for her four cats. She once successfully represented herself in court in an effort to save from condemnation the beloved cottage her husband had purchased in 1925. Eventually she became a recluse, only venturing out in the mornings to collect debris in her cart. Little else is known about her, although her obituary in the December 27, 1963 San Diego Union states that she was the sister-in-law of film director Frank Capra. During the Christmas season that year, she pinned a note to her door saying she had a cold, put out her cats, and sat down in a kitchen chair and died. It was two or three days before her body was discovered on December 26, surrounded by piles of junk collected from the streets of San Diego. The official cause of death was pneumonia.
Upon her death, it was discovered that Mrs. Verna left an estate of about $150,000, including $30,000 in cash assets and three adjoining houses, her home on Union Street, another house at 317 Ash Street, and a two-story, redwood Mansard at 319 W. Ash Street. All three houses were filled with debris collected by Mrs. Verna. Verna had written three wills in longhand on April 2, 1938, all essentially the same. In these wills she bequeathed her jewelry, furniture, and furnishings to her two sisters, Mrs. Virginia Borelli of Los Angeles (who preceded Mrs. Verna in death) and Mrs. Catterina Capra of Alhambra. The bulk of the estate was to go to Mrs. Capra, a sister-in-law Margherita Verna Samuel of Seine, France, or their children. Mrs. Borelli's son, Louis John Borelli stood to inherit one third of the estate, with portions going to Mrs. Samuel's children, Leopoldine, Adrienne, and Horace. Bank of America, named as executor, was instructed to purchase a $1000 crypt in Calvary mausoleum, Los Angeles. Her husband's ashes were to be removed from Forest Lawn and placed in her coffin.
Mrs. Verna's Mansard at 319 W. Ash Street, with its windows boarded up and a padlock on the door, was acquired by the state which intended to use the property it stood on as part of a parking facility for the State office building at 1350 Front Street. The state, in turn, sold the building to the Historical Shrine Foundation for $1.00. The Junior Chamber of Commerce raised funds to move the house in 1965 to 2476 San Diego Avenue, 45 feet south of the Whaley House Museum, originally intended as a temporary measure to save the house from demolition. After rehabilitation, the building was used over the years as various shops and an artist studio. In 2001 the Verna House became the property of the County of San Diego, and today houses the SOHO Museum Shop.
The exact age of the Verna House has not been established, with estimates ranging from 1869 to 1887. The French Mansard or Second Empire style of architecture, while popular in the United States between 1855-85, was not common in San Diego. Originally, there was no interior bathroom, the rooms were very small and the back part of the house was added later. Its defining architectural features include its tall mansard porch and its sense of height. The other typical features of the Second Empire style usually include dormer windows that project from the roof, cornices at the top and base of the patterned roof; on this house the pattern is made by wood shingles. Note the scored foundation.
The ironwork crown on top of the roof is called ridge cresting; a piece of the original was discovered beneath the house and used as a model to reproduce. Note the original paint colors and design; the striped roof is a typical Victorian treatment during the 1870's and 1880's. The mansard roof fashion was not merely grandiose, but also practical, as the nearly perpendicular roofs transformed cramped attics into livable space.
The Verna House is now home to the SOHO Museum Shop, which carries unusual and hard-to-find museum quality gifts, collectibles, and souvenirs, as well as books on San Diego history, architecture, historic preservation, Mexicana, and food. Whaley House souvenirs such as t-shirts, books, mugs, shot glasses, and other ghost-related items are also sold at the SOHO Museum Shop.
See the 1870's Verna House renovation.
See the completed renovation.