La Jolla Belvederes: Historical look at the ‘signatures of cove beaches’

For more than 100 years, La Jolla has had unique trademarks along its coastline: sheltered belvederes that dot Coast Boulevard.

Perhaps as old as La Jolla itself, these little open-sided huts have been described as “signatures of cove beaches” and are still used in their historic way. Belvedere means “beautiful to view” in Italian.

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten is working on a piece for the Historical Society’s TimeKeeper publication about these seaside fixtures, and shared some of her early discoveries with the Light.

“They’ve likely been around since La Jolla’s early days,” Olten said. “I think their construction was an outgrowth of that whole movement in the 19th and early-20th centuries with this idea that you’d have a healthful life if you went and sat by the ocean and breathed in the salty air. Obviously, people wanted to sit, but not in the sunlight.”

Another working theory is that because the Scripps sisters (Ellen Browning and Virginia) were from England, where this practice was common, they probably had a hand in their installation.

“In La Jolla’s early days, people built things to make the beach a little friendlier; these belvederes fall under that category,” Olten said.

In her book, “La Jolla Then and Now,” Olten reports that La Jolla was first settled in the 1880s, and was immediately established as a “seaside community known for incredible beauty and natural wonder, shores washed by the surf of the Pacific, and hillsides by jagged sandstone cliffs rising from the sea.”

The book contains a photograph, dated 1900, of a group of women sitting under a belvedere next to an undeveloped coastline. The caption reads: “Belvederes were built along La Jolla beaches in the early days to afford semi-sheltered spots to enjoy ocean views. This one at The Cove had a particularly decorative touch with Gothic tracery along the roofline, and board and batten siding around the skirt. There is also a hand-made wooden bench sitting outside of it. Today, the belvederes remain a signature of cove beaches maintained by the City of San Diego. This one is at the same site as the older one, but all hints of Gothic Revival architecture have been long lost.”

La Jolla architect, beach-access advocate and historical researcher, Anthony Ciani, added: “I recall that one of the early site plans for the Ellen Browning Scripps Park referred to the green shelters as ‘pergolas.’ ”

Several decades went by between the belvederes’ installation — and in some cases replacements — before a few more belvederes were added to the lineup, one with a very specific purpose. Ciani said this one was built on the east end of the Children’s Pool as a Ground Observer Core for air raids during World War II (1939-1945).

“(It) was not really a picnic ‘shelter,’ “ he said. “It continued to be used as a lookout into the mid-1950s as a ground observation station that spotted and identified all aircraft types, direction time and approximate height. Then it became a lifeguard (lookout) for the Children’s Pool. In the mid-1950s, it became the permanent lifeguard station for the Children’s Pool.”

When a more formal lifeguard station was constructed in the late 1960s, the lookout was demolished.

“In 1967/68, the then-new lifeguard station was built at the former ‘point watch’ where the now-new station is located,” Ciani continued. “The old air raid/lifeguard station was demolished in 1968 and the land was left vacant until early 1990s, when the current green shelter replica was built and privately funded, but as part of the La Jolla Parks & Beaches committee.”

The replica green shelter was based on drawings of original structures.

There are five belvederes along the one mile stretch of Coast Boulevard from where it splits from Coast Boulevard South to The Cove.

There is a beach-view gazebo on private property near the end of Whale View Point at the south end of Coast Boulevard, but the first public belvedere is a few feet to the north. This first belvedere has an open-roof trellis and is painted forest green, with built-in benches and a clay tile floor, and has been decorated with palm frond thatches and a small surfboard fascia.

For about half a mile up the road, there are only unshaded picnic benches and park spaces. But at the Children’s Pool, just north of the lifeguard tower, there is a well-used belvedere overlooking Children’s Pool beach. Along the edge of Scripps Park, there are three belvederes.

That is where the trail seemingly runs cold, as Coast Boulevard veers to the left to the Coast Walk Trail up to Torrey Pines Road, and straight up to Prospect Street.

Previous incarnations were designed in a Spanish-style, with a clay tile roof and built-in benches and picnic table, and tile floor; but when replaced under the City’s care, have become a more unified to also be forest green with simple benches.

City spokesperson Tim Graham confirmed that the City does handle maintenance on these belvederes. “Staff will monitor them for trash removal and graffiti regularly, and report any other maintenance issues, but they will also conduct repairs as needed if the public notifies staff,” he said.

In areas such as Bird Rock, rather than belvederes, there are cemented, and sometimes landscaped, overlooks. In WindanSea and the Hermosa areas, the focus is on pocket parks and beach-access points.

The future of belvederes

At the Aug. 27 La Jolla Parks & Beaches meeting, trustee and WindanSea resident Melinda Merryweather announced Friends of WindanSea would like to reconstruct a belvedere that once stood on the ocean side of Neptune Street, between Palomar Street and the pump station. It was believed to have been torn down in the 1990s by a resident.

“There is still a platform when the belvedere used to be, and people bring umbrellas and post them up there. It would be exactly like the ones (along Coast Blvd. and) at Children’s Pool,” she said, adding that the Friends of WindanSea would pay for it. Specifics, such the cost and renderings, she said, would be provided at the next La Jolla Parks & Beaches meeting, 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24 at Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.

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