Colorful mountaintop home to become a park, museum

Visitors to the secluded haven dubbed Hilltop must hang on tight as they bump along a narrow country lane that winds high into the clouds.

Past fields of wildflowers and a rusting 1938 Dodge, the road finally ends amid a pair of towering Peruvian cactus plants that guard an ancient granite house at the end of Castle Court Drive — where the view overlooks much of East County.

Despite its scenic wonders, few people have ventured up here since the 1992 death of Mildred Whitaker. She and her late husband, Hale, settled the hillside 50 years ago.

The few visitors situation will soon change. In what authorities call a rare example of civic generosity, the well-known Lakeside woman with a passion for Siamese cats and the color red has bequeathed her personal Garden of Eden to the public.

“She always thought that the place was just a few steps from heaven and that the best thing that could happen to it would be to share it with others,” said Lester Johnson, the lawyer handling Whitaker’s will.

County officials have agreed to accept the estate and are considering how best to preserve the house and surrounding seven acres for a park and museum, in accordance with her last wishes. The public can get an early look at the grounds, however, every Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the gates are open, although the house will remain closed for the time being.

The couple nicknamed their home Hilltop and poured their love into its creation.

Hale, a county heavy-equipment operator for 47 years, and Mildred, a longtime Red Cross volunteer and San Diego Unified Port District employee, camped out in a lean-to for several years during the early 1940s while laboriously carving their house from Granite Fresno boulders just down the slope.

They did much of the work themselves. Hale used a sledgehammer to split the rock. His wife dipped shingles in sticky creosote to protect them from winter torrents and blazing summer sun.

Over the years, Mildred — described as a strong-willed woman who befriended birds, rabbits and even skunks — planted dozens of fruit trees and cactus plants and marveled at the panoramic views of faraway landmarks such as El Capitan and the Cuyamaca Mountains.

“The good Lord made it beautiful; we try to keep it that way,” she once said.

Rick and Mary Stewart, park volunteers looking after the property, agree, saying the solitude is downright inspiring, providing a perfect spot for meditation and relaxation.

“It’s beautiful up here,” said Rick Stewart. “I’m just amazed at the initiative they had to build all this.”

A painter, pianist and member of many community groups, Mildred had outlived her husband by 12 years. She had no surviving relatives except for an elderly cousin. Few people knew her real age, a secret she took to her grave.

“She never disclosed it,” said Johnson, adding only that she was in her 80s when she died.

Much of the sanctuary remains frozen in time, much the way it was back when Hale first bulldozed the private road leading up the hill.

Weathered chicken coops still sit out in back; a massive water tank rests on a knoll. The 1,500-square-foot house is jammed with original appliances, fixtures and furniture from the 1940s

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