UPDATED OCT. 22: One of two beloved ficus trees cut down during $3 million Top of the Cove remodel

The stub of a felled ficus tree protruded like an amputated limb from behind a padlocked gate at the Top of the Cove Restaurant Monday afternoon.
The stub of a felled ficus tree protruded like an amputated limb from behind a padlocked gate at the Top of the Cove Restaurant Monday afternoon.
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The base of a ficus tree at the Top of the Cove restaurant on Prospect Street, in a photo taken last week before it was felled with a chainsaw Monday afternoon. A source close to the La Jolla Light said last week the property owner and architect intended to remove the tree. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

One of two beloved ficus trees at the Top of the Cove restaurant on Prospect Street met its fate at high noon Monday, as construction crews took a chainsaw to it during ongoing renovations.

La Jollans were abuzz last week about the possible removal of one or both of the trees, which have adorned the front patio at Top of the Cove restaurant since it opened on Prospect Street in the mid-1950s.

The restaurant, which for decades offered one of Southern California’s most breathtaking and romantic coastal views, has sat shuttered for six years. It is currently undergoing a roughly $3 million makeover designed by La Jolla’s Marengo Morton Architects.

Several community members eyeing the ongoing renovations contacted the

La Jolla Light

last week to express their concern that the trees might be removed.

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One of two ficus trees at Top of the Cove restaurant during a current remodel. “There has to be a plan for how to move machinery in and out without stressing the trees,” said Realtor and past La Jolla Historical Society board member Don Schmidt.

One source, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was told by the architect and demolition contractor that the tree on the left side would be removed.

The source said the trees contribute to the “special” character of the Village and should not be removed “just because the architect didn’t take the time to design it in a way that allows the tree to stay.”

Realtor and past La Jolla Historical Society board member Don Schmidt expressed concerns about whether the trees were being distressed or damaged during renovations. A recent visit to the site showed construction materials pilled against the tree on the left, before it was cut down.

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One of two ficus trees at the Top of the Cove restaurant met its fate at high noon, Monday Oct. 22 when construction crews took a chainsaw to it.

"There has to be a plan for how to move machinery in and out without stressing the trees,” Schmidt said.  “I would have liked to have seen a plan for how they were going to mitigate without disturbing that tree.”

Though the city’s Historical Resources Board or Urban Forestry division may designate a mature tree to have historical significance as part of the cultural landscape — for instance, if it was planted by a city pioneer such as Kate Sessions or Ellen Browning Scripps — a Historical Resources staff member said neither the Ficus trees, nor a beach cottage built on the property in 1893 and 1894 were deemed to be historically significant. A historical site review was conducted at the Top of the Cove property in 2004, and an addendum to it occurred in 2007.

According to Deborah Marengo, vice president of Marengo Morton Architects, what remained of the cottage was to be demolished, while the roughly 10,000-square foot restaurant is transformed into a two-story, 12,000-square foot shell, suitable for a tenant to come in with a design to meet their needs.

Marengo said renovations should be completed in about nine months to a year.

The La Jolla Community Plan, the community’s blueprint for development, states that, “The city should encourage the retention of significant trees ... and of endangered species on both public and private land, in order to preserve community character.”

However, community activist and development consultant Joe LaCava said there is no specific language that says a private property owner has to “preserve and protect” iconic trees, including La Jolla’s endangered Torrey pines.

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The stub of a felled ficus tree protruded like an amputated limb from behind a padlocked gate at the Top of the Cove Restaurant Monday afternoon.

“All you can do is sit there and cry,” and apply “public pressure,” he said.

La Jolla Historical Society staff historian Carol Olten questioned whether a proper inventory or study of potential archaeological resources was conducted on the property, noting that in 1969 the complete skeleton of a 6,000-year-old La Jolla Indian was unearthed by then-owners John Katzenstein and Dick Duffy.

Schmidt questioned why the Top of the Cove property was not subject to the customary 45-year review required by the Historical Resources Board for properties 45 years or older, before the work commenced.

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Construction at Top of the Cove.

Though it “may not necessarily (have showed) that the building’s historic … I think it probably would have saved the community a lot of grief and heartache,” he said.

History of 1214-1216 Prospect St. (Top of the Cove Restaurant) from a 1977 Historical Resources Inventory conducted by former La Jolla Historical Society President Pat Schaelchlin (1924-2006)

Historic name:

“Kalapaki,” “Brown House,” “Ripple”

Year of construction:

1893-1894

Architect/builder:

Thorpe & Kennedy

Assessment:

“What was once a fine example of cottage architecture has been so badly altered that little remains of its architectural integrity. This cottage has had a portion removed at the side to allow construction of a high-rise building.

Some distinguishing features still left are the hipped roofs with a hipped dormer, beautifully proportioned leaded windows and some interior detailing. The brick courtyard, wall and iron railings all add to its fine landscaping.”

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Rear view of Top of the Cove remodel.

Significance:

Although greatly altered, this beach building known today as “Top of the Cove” is significant because it was one of La Jolla’s first buildings.

It was built by real estate investor George Hawley, who helped develop San Diego’s University Heights and Normal Heights. The original house is an example of a beach cottage built by a wealthy San Diegan who used it as a vacation home and rental property.

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An old sign discarded at the rear of the Top of the Cove property.
   
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