“John N. Mortenson, a San Diego building contractor, became well known in the local housing industry as an innovative designer and builder of custom-built homes… Over a period of twenty years, John designed and constructed over 200 custom-built houses in the San Diego area…Most of the homes are located on Mt. Helix…”(1)
John Nelson Mortenson was born in Minneapolis. During The Great Depression, the Mortenson family moved between towns like Edina, Stubbs Bay, Watertown and Tonka Wood, Minnesota as opportunities for work arose. Following high school graduation, John turned from small projects for his relatives (furniture and the like), to remodeling kitchens.
John enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. Travelling from western Minnesota to San Diego for basic training, he spent three years as an Aviation Machinists Mate at North Island Naval Air Station. Shortly before his discharge Mortenson was sent to a Naval facility in Banning, California for treatment of a back injury. Recuperating in Banning until his discharge in 1945, he rekindled an old relationship in Minnesota and was married. The back injury would continue to plague him for years.
While in Banning, John Mortenson worked for a short time, as a contractor, for local builder Ethel Allen. He soon relocated to work in Palm Springs where he supervised the construction of the Beachcomber Restaurant. Following this job, Mortenson would enjoy short stints of study in Wilmington, CA (at Northrup Aviation Engineering School) and at UCLA. Mortenson never achieved a college degree, or proper academic training in architecture.
In 1951, John lost a civil suit when an early client sued that he mis-represented himself as a contractor without a state license. At the end of the jury trial, the judge encouraged him to get more experience and obtain a proper license. He returned to Banning to work for Ben Allen during the week and returned home to his family in San Diego on weekends.
John moved to San Diego full-time to work for Jackson and Scott, one of the major housing developers of the time. He worked for them for 7 years, until 1958, when he obtained a general contractor’s license and hung his shingle in El Cajon.
Promptly, John Mortenson designed the first home for his family on Sierra Vista Drive in Mt Helix in 1958. This would establish Mt. Helix as the key location of many of his early home designs. Within months, John bought the lot across the street and began building his second family residence. Mortenson Residence #2 was completed in 1960.
Several homes were erected on previously unbuildable lots of steep grades and large boulders. Through his designs he was designed houses in harmony with their sites, embracing, even exploiting, the boulders, rather than fighting against them.
"…he felt it was important that a house blend into the landscape rather than just be placed on a lot. Because many of the houses were built on slopes, John was particularly conscious of the roof line as it would appear from above. When looking down on a Mortenson house, the roof is revealed as one sweeping line that ties into the surrounding area…To become familiar with the lot, John often spent many hours, at different times of the day, walking over the area or sitting on the boulders while he pondered a suitable design."(1)
"Certain distinguishable features were evident in Mortenson designs. Wide angled roofs with broad sweeping eaves create a design element that ties in with wide expanses of glass. The glass serves as a wall that extends from floor level to open-beam ceilings and provides an outstanding view of the surrounding area and local foothills. These elements are significant to Mortenson designs because of John’s efforts to provide light and to integrate the landscape of the out-of-doors with the interior of the house. The extended overhangs of roofline and the sweeping eaves were intended to nestle the house on to the lot…" (1)
"Perhaps the most spectacular house design was one situated on an exceedingly steep lot on Mt. Helix. Rather than cut into the hillside to create a large pad for the structure, John provided a secure concrete pier as a base for three 50-foot prestressed concrete beams. …The cantilevered house, that appeared to float over the land, drew thousands of visitors and potential clients." (1)
Business progressed at a steady pace in the early 1960s as a number of new homes went up… Generally four or five Mortenson projects were in progress at a time. Wife Veryl, in addition to handling all of the office work, started to provide interior designs for spec houses as well as consulting with John’s clients on their own interiors.
John felt strongly, not just about his exterior planning, but also the interior design and layout. John once reflected on hallways, “…unless they serve a purpose for cabinetry… or other things that weren’t being used everyday, they shouldn’t be there. A hallway is primarily… a way to get from one room to another. My houses were like the spoke of a wheel. We would come into the front entrance and immediately be in the center of the whole house… so nobody had to walk far…" (1)
In 1964, John began work as a developer by buying land on the lower slopes of Mt Helix. Splitting the acreage to create the El Jardin Verde subdivision, John created thirty lots for residential development. Here he built the fourth Mortenson Residence where he lived for for 8 years until relocating to La Jolla. With these lots up for grabs, John Mock designed two homes and the Weir Brothers built a few of their signature adobes.
In 1966, The Combined Arts and Education Council (COMBO) fundraising plan benefited from John’s talents. The American Housing Guild agreed to construct a house on a donated lot in an effort to meet COMBO’s fundraising goal of $400,000. Formed in 1964, for the purpose of raising funds for the benefit of arts and cultural affairs in San Diego, COMBO’s fundraising efforts on this project were fruitful. John did not like to be acknowledged as the designer of the COMBO house because of the numerous alterations to the original plan. (1, 2)
While his custom-built homes, or “a Mortenson House,” is what he became known for, in the late 1960s John began to branch out by building apartment buildings. And in these units “no attempt was made to incorporate unique design elements as in the residential units.” (1)
By 1972 John had purchased several beachfront lots in La Jolla where he built four houses, one of which was designed as Mortenson #4. Not long after building these houses, John retired in the late 1970s.
Partial List of Projects
Adams Residence (1959)
Adams Residence (1969)
Anderson Residence (1959)
Anderson, Fred Residence (1962)
Bell Residence (1964)
Bennett Residence (1967)
Bloom, Dr. and
Mrs. Harvey M. Residence (1967)
Bowers Residence (1966)
Daley Residence (1962)
Enright, Judge William Residence (1959)
Fletcher Residence (1968)
The Forever House
Gooding Residence (1968)
Green Residence (1962)
Hamer Residence (1966)
Harrington Residence (1964)
Hill Residence (1964)
Hyndman Residence (1964)
& Mercille Residence (1966)
LeBlanc Residence (1967)
Lee Residence (1962)
Levitt, Judge Jack Residence (1959)
McCanless Residence (1968)
McCarter Residence (1966)
McKee Residence (1964)
Mortenson Residence #2 (1960)
Mortenson Residence #3 (1964)
Mortenson #4 (1972)
Myer, Dr. Roger
G. Residence (1964)
Norris Residence (1965)
Olson Residence (1962)
Peterson Residence (1964)
Peterson Residence (1965)
Private Residence (1967)
Private Residence (1968)
Private Residence (1969)
Private Residence (1971)
E.N. Residence (ca. 1961)
Ramos Residence (1965)
Swearingen Residence (1966)
Venieris Residence (1969)
& Elleene Residence (1961)
1. John N. Mortenson : Designer and Builder by Roxana Lunday Phillips,1984