The Bunker House – A Building With a Past

The Bunker House located at 322 North Cleveland Street was first owned in 1886 by Theodore C. Bunker. This two-story building is one of the first brick buildings in Oceanside and one of three brick buildings built in the 1880’s which are still standing.

The Bunker family arrived from Los Angeles and operated a store on the first floor and a boarding house on the second. Bunker also owned a single-story wooden structure next door, which served as a meat market. The Bunker House was used as a meeting hall as well as for dances and church services. 

After Bunker’s death in 1892, Ysidora Bandini Couts, wife of Col. Cave J. Couts, held the mortgage on the building and retained ownership.  The local newspaper reported that Katherine Mebach purchased the building in 1896. 

Frederick Rieke bought the brick building in 1904. Rieke was a general contractor and built many homes and buildings in Oceanside, including the house located on the same block at 312 North Cleveland Street. 

In 1923 the building was sold to by H. J. Crawford and it was subsequently deeded to two other members of his family: Thomas J. Crawford, and then to Samuel J. Crawford, a prominent attorney in Los Angeles who maintained ownership until 1945 when it was sold to George Edmond Haddox of Los Angeles. 

Renamed the American Hotel in 1943, the building, which continued to serve as a boarding house, developed a rather “seedy reputation”. Longtime residents recalled as children they were forbidden to visit or linger near the building and its use by prostitutes rampantly rumored.

Those rumors were in fact true. Audrey Wetta, a 36 year old married woman from Louisiana, became the manager of the American Hotel in about 1945. She was arrested in December of 1946 for operating “a house of ill fame, and with prostitution.” During her trial Helen E. Shepherd was called to the stand and testified that she arrived in Oceanside in June of 1946 to visit her husband who was apparently stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. She returned to Oceanside “at the suggestion of Mrs. Wetta in December, where she entertained men for pay at the American Hotel, and part of the pay went to Mrs. Wetta.”

Adeline Vincenzo also testified, stating that she too worked at the hotel “entertaining men” until late December of 1946, when the Oceanside Police Department arrested Audrey Wetta.

Police Captain Harold Davis testified that they had been notified from the Marine MP station in regard to the activities at the hotel. Captain Guy Woodward then submitted reports to the court from the San Diego county health department, “which showed they had on file two reports of VD infection, alleged to have originated from the hotel.”

Harold Davis and Guy Woodward of the Oceanside Police Department (1940)

Audrey Wetta did not deny her role as a Madam or even as a prostitute herself. She testified that “she believed correctly managed ‘houses’ were a service to men, as she had noted when she was employed in a hospital that 84 percent of the girls men picked up for immoral purposes transmitted a social disease to the men, while only four percent of the cases came from girls who were recognized prostitutes.”

Wetta told Judge D. A. Parson, “the first time she allowed her hotel to be used for illegal purposes was when a young Marine returned from a year and a half overseas to find the girl to whom he was engaged was going to marry someone else. In remorse he approached Mrs. Wetta and she arranged for a young wife in the hotel, who was in need of $10, to ‘entertain’ the remorseful Marine.”

She went on to say that after military personnel at Camp Pendleton diminished, so did her income. Wetta was $20 short in her monthly rent, and had “decided to entertain two men at $15 each, $10 of which was to go to a marine bringing the men to her, in order to raise the $20.”

After hearing her testimony, Judge Parsons sentenced Audrey Wetta to a year in the county jail.

Owner George Edward Haddox sold the hotel one week later to Ralph and Ella Rogers who promptly renamed their establishment the Traveler’s Hotel (as listed in phone directories) or Hotel Travelers (painted on building).

Rogers opened Rogers Music Co., also known as Rogers Phonograph Service, on the lower level and maintained the boarding house on the second floor.

1968 Ad for Rogers’ Phonograph Service

In 1959, Ella Rogers operated Gale’s Café near the Oceanside Pier at 300 1/2 North Strand, and in addition to his record store, Ralph Ross Rogers ran the Silver Dollar Tavern located at 312 Third Street (now Pier View Way). Rogers was described as “a goodhearted man who loved his parents dearly and was respected by many.”

Ralph Ross Rogers courtesy Ruby Rogers McCormick

True to its reputation, in 1962, there was a very public arrest at the Traveler’s, which made local papers and only solidified its reputation.  A young woman from Ohio, who had recently arrived in Oceanside, brought two 15 year old runaways from San Diego to the boarding house to exploit for prostitution. The girls told Oceanside Police Detective Floyd Flowers that they were to work in exchange for lodging, food and clothing.

Ella Rogers died in 1973, as Ralph continued to operate his music business while living in his building on Cleveland Street. On September 26, 1976 Ralph Rogers was found murdered at the Traveler’s Hotel, stabbed multiple times and strangled.

One month later an arrest was made. Joseph Shavon Whitaker, age 21, was arrested for not only Rogers’ murder, but that of William O. Clark’s in a San Diego hotel. Whitaker went to trial in 1977, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

After Rogers’ death the building was vacated and left to deteriorate. It seemed destined for the wrecking ball until it was purchased by realtor Chris Parsons in 1982. Parsons saw the potential in the weathered building and began its restoration.

Ownership of the building changed hands again until about 2009 when it was purchased by the current owner, who has maintained this gem of a building. While its reputation has been tainted with scandal, the building itself is nearly unchanged from when the Bunkers owned it over 130 years and provides historic charm and character to Downtown Oceanside.

4 thoughts on “The Bunker House – A Building With a Past

  1. Floyd Flowers vice Oceanside Police, now that is a name I haven’t heard in forever, great friend of my dads. When OCeanside was a great place to live still a little hide away in San Diego county

    Liked by 1 person

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