John Nelson Mortenson

Architect | 1919-1983

While John Mortenson did not achieve a college degree, or proper academic training in architecture, he worked for Jackson and Scott, one of the major housing developers of the time, for 7 years, until 1958, when he obtained a general contractor’s license and hung his shingle in El Cajon. His custom-built homes, or ‘Mortenson Houses’, is what he became known for.

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…” - John N. Mortenson : Designer and Builder by Roxana Lunday Phillips (1984)

John Nelson Mortenson was born in Minneapolis on February 17, 1919. 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. Traveling 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 he 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 misrepresented 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 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 replete with steep grades and large boulders. Mortenson 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." - John N. Mortenson : Designer and Builder by Roxana Lunday Phillips (1984)

"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…" - John N. Mortenson : Designer and Builder by Roxana Lunday Phillips (1984)

"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." - John N. Mortenson : Designer and Builder by Roxana Lunday Phillips (1984)

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 the office work, started to provide interior designs for spec houses as well as consulting with John’s clients on their own interiors.

John once reflected on hallways, “…unless they serve a purpose for cabinetry… or other things that weren’t being used every day, 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…"

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 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.

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.”

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. Mr. Mortenson passed away on February 15, 1983.

Partial List of Projects

Adams Residence (1959)
El Dorado Lane, La Mesa

Adams Residence (1969)
10000 Ward Lane, La Mesa

Anderson Residence (1959)
Mesa Vista Drive, El Cajon

Anderson, Fred Residence (1962)
Alto Drive, La Mesa

Bell Residence (1964)
Lorena Lane, El Cajon

Bennett Residence (1967)
10478 Russell Road, La Mesa

Bloom, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey M. Residence (1967)
1035 Shadow Road, La Mesa

Bowers Residence (1966)
4919 Longview Way, El Cajon

Daley Residence (1962)
9663 El Granito, La Mesa

Emery Residence (1963)
9631 Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Enright, Judge William Residence (1959)
Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Epstein, David & Charlotte Residence (1965)
4339 Mayapan Drive, La Mesa

Field Residence
Cantilevered House, La Mesa

Fletcher Residence (1968)
1683 Hacienda Drive, El Cajon

The Forever House / Dr. E. N. Reithmayer Residence a 'Medallion Home' (1961)
1191 Hacienda Drive, El Cajon
According to San Diego Magazine, "...Builder John Mortenson collaborated with Robert Platt, AIA on the highly individual design use of masonry throughout'

Gaffney Residence (1963)
1756 Lexington Avenue, El Cajon

Gibson Residence
9874 Summit Drive, La Mesa

Gooding Residence (1968)
4878 Avion Way, Alvarado Estates

Green Residence (1962)
9801 Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Hamer Residence (1966)
10448 Russell Road, La Mesa

Harrington Residence (1964)
1875 Circo del Cielo, El Cajon

Herbert, Dr. Residence (1960)
9441 Alto Drive, La Mesa

Hill Residence (1964)
4668 Garfield, La Mesa

Hines Residence (1963)
9701 Sierra Vista Drive, La Mesa

Hyndman Residence (1964)
9620 Alto Drive, La Mesa

Jach, George & Mercille Residence (1962)
10446 Russell Road, La Mesa

Jeffries Residence (1965)
9902 Shadow Road, La Mesa
*Attribution by Realtor

LeBlanc Residence (1967)
1031 Chase Street, El Cajon

Lee Residence (1962)
10931 Rockwood Road, La Mesa

Levitt, Judge Jack Residence (1959)
Sierra Vista Drive, La Mesa

McCanless Residence (1968)
Hacienda Drive, El Cajon

McCarter Residence (1966)
2142 Shire Drive, El Cajon

McKee Residence (1964)
Evans Place, La Mesa

Mortenson, John Residence I (1958)
10405 Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Mortenson, John Residence II (1960)
10404 Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Mortenson, John Residence III (1964)
1792 Circo del Cielo, El Cajon

Mortenson, John Residence IV (1972)
7126 Vista Del Mar, La Jolla
Published in the San Diego Union Tribune on 3/11/73 (p. F-1) and on 4/6/75 (p. F-1)

Myer, Dr. Roger G. Residence (1964)
261 Horizon Hills Drive, El Cajon

Norris Residence (1965)
295 Horizon Hills Drive, El Cajon

Olson Residence (1962)
9600 Sierra Vista Drive, El Cajon

Peterson Residence (1964)
1784 Circo del Cielo, El Cajon

Peterson Residence (1965)
4715 Alta Rica Drive, La Mesa
*Attribution by Modern San Diego

Private Residence (1967)
1760 Hacienda Place, El Cajon

Private Residence (1968)
1645 Hacienda Drive, El Cajon

Private Residence (1969)
11038 Horizon Hills Drive, El Cajon

Private Residence (1971)
2539 Singing Vista Way, El Cajon

Private Residence (1973)
316 Pointing Rock Road, Borrego Springs

Spec House
334 Horizon Hills Drive, El Cajon

Ramos Residence (1965)
9500 Sunset Drive, La Mesa

Spencer Residence
10935 Redwood Avenue, El Cajon

Swearingen Residence (1966)
1390 Helix View Way, El Cajon

Vanderbosh Residence
4609 Grandview Terrace, La Mesa

Venieris Residence (1969)
10602 Noakes Road, El Cajon

Wright, Warren & Elleene Residence (1961)
4431 Palo Verde Terrace, Alvarado Estates