Hit the Road

Little known museums offer big history

Southern California has plenty of museums, but chances are that you’ve never heard of these three:

AfricanMuseum-exterior – Retired Chula Vista teacher Chuck Ambers opens the Casa del Rey Moro African Museum on Congress Street in Old Town. He gives visitors a guided tour through history from the African perspective every day except Wednesday. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)Masks from various African countries are just a few of the many treasures and artifacts that are part of the African Museum in Old Town. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)Chuck Ambers, a teacher for 30 years with the Chula Vista School District, has dedicated his retirement years to establishing the African Museum in Old Town and teaching visitors and students history from the African perspective. He is a 1965 MiraCosta alum. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)Casa Romantica, the former home of San Clemente’s founder Ole Hanson, is one of the town’s best kept secrets. The Spanish Colonial Revival home sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)This main salon is the centerpiece of Casa Romantica, an historic on home on the bluffs in San Clemente. It features this atrium with the original frog fountain, an imported crystal chandelier, massive fireplace, oak and tile flooring, and a redwood ceiling. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)The back patio of Casa Romantica, home of San Clemente founder Ole Hanson, offers this view of the San Clemente pier. The home was built in 1927 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo by Jerry Ondash)The Map & Atlas Museum in La Jolla currently features 13 pictorgraphic maps like this one by Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876-1947), a painter, illustrator, sculptor and photographer who is known as the Renaissance Man of the West. The exhibit includes the  sketch map for the never-completed Santa Catalina" map and the  very rare  "butcher  paper" version of the Los Angeles map. (Courtesy photo)This colorful, detailed map of the world as cartographers thought it to be in 1632 is amazingly accurate for the time. In the top left corner of the map are portraits of great explorers, and in the lower left corner, Adam and Eve. (Courtesy photo)

Casa del Rey Moro African Museum — 2471 Congress St., San Diego. (619) 220-0022; africanmuseumsandiego.com. $3 adults; $2 children.

You may have been to San Diego’s Old Town several times, but chances are you missed this tiny museum on Congress Street. It belongs to Chuck Ambers, a retired Chula Vista school teacher, who is on a mission to educate anyone who will listen about the part that Africans have played in history — both locally, nationally and worldwide.

“There’s African history all over the place,” he says. “You just have to show people.”

And that he does.

Step into Ambers’ world; it is filled with artifacts, photos, artwork, crafts, masks, books, books and more books. He takes visitors on an intriguing journey through time and is proud to note that all his information has ample documentation. Facts roll off his tongue as if he could say them in his sleep:

Early California’s governor Pio Pico was African Mexican.

Cathy Williams served 17 months in the ranks of the African American Buffalo Soldiers until they discovered she was a woman.

Mabel Bell Lane in La Jolla was named after an African American woman who lived in early La Jolla.

Albert and Margaret Robinson ran one of the first black-owned businesses in the county — the Robinson Hotel in Julian.

The first casualty of the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, a man of African descent and a former slave.

There is oh, so much more, and while visitors may not remember all that they see and hear, they will understand that history is not composed of the simple stories we learned in school, and that Africans played a significant role is shaping our world.

Ambers, who stages classroom presentations (in costume) on African history, has roots in North County. He is a 1965 MiraCosta College alum and attended when it was Oceanside-Carlsbad Junior College and located on Coast Highway (then Hill Street).

And, he claims, “I was the first person to slam dunk in the new gym at (today’s) MiraCosta College,” he says.

Casa Romantica — 415 Avenida Granada, San Clemente; (949) 498-2139; casaromantica.org.; $5 adults; free for active military and children under 12.

Even longtime Orange County residents don’t know about Casa Romantica. This gorgeous Spanish Colonial Revival home sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and the San Clemente pier. It was built in 1927 by the town’s founder, Ole Hanson, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. San Clemente was became one of the first master-planned communities in the state.

Visitors can wander freely through the spacious abode which once had seven bedrooms and bathrooms. See the grand salon, with its imported crystal chandelier and clerestory windows; Hanson’s octagonal study overlooking the Pacific; the beautifully landscaped courtyard; exquisite tile floors; and many early photos of San Clemente and its residents and visitors. The grand surprise — the spectacular view — arrives when you step out onto the back patio.

Many hours and dollars have gone into restoring the crumbling home, and volunteers have planted beautiful and colorful (depending on the season) native flowers and succulent gardens. Don’t miss the butterfly garden on the north side.

The Casa hosts regular exhibits on the history of San Clemente and Southern California culture that are included with admission. Group tours for all ages are available.

Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla — 7825 Fay Ave. (lower level of the Merrill Lynch Building); (855) 653-6277; open Wednesdays, Thursdays and first and third Saturdays; free. Also free tours for school and social groups.

Most people would say that a love of old maps is a rather esoteric interest, but give this gem of a museum and its collection a chance. It contains about 500 maps and atlases that date from the 15th century to the mid-1900s. They are best viewed with one of the museum’s willing docents who explain why these are rare and precious documents, and how the influence of religion and pseudo-science affected map makers’ view of the world. Note to kids: There was no Google Earth in the 1400s.

There also are temporary exhibits such as the one that runs through Dec. 1 which features the maps of Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876-1947), a painter, illustrator, sculptor and photographer who is known as the Renaissance Man of the West.

We have La Jolla financier and philanthropist Michael Stone to thank for sharing his collection and having the desire to educate others on its value and beauty.