News Local News

HITTING HOME: Former residents recall house to be swallowed by museum expansion in La Jolla

Ashley Farson walks the familiar sidewalk over to her mother, Dawn, so they can take one final look at 636 Prospect St. together — through the diamond holes in the security fence that now blocks all access to it. As the memories flood back, they wrap their arms around each other for support.

“It was always great to be able to just walk down to the ocean,” Dawn says. “When we first looked through the house and could see the ocean through the outside, we thought, ‘We have to live here.’”

“I remember it being a lot more green,” Ashley adds.

Dawn and her late husband, Richard, raised Ashley and her two older brothers, Joel and Jeremy, here from 1980 to 2000. It’s where they had their regionally famous July 4th parties, where Jeremy practiced with his rock band in the garage, where Ashley had her first boy visitor.

“We loved living here,” Dawn says.

INSET: Richard, Dawn (top), Jeremy and Ashley pose long ago at the gate shown today at right. (Joel is not pictured.)
INSET: Richard, Dawn (top), Jeremy and Ashley pose long ago at the gate shown today at right. (Joel is not pictured.) COURTESY

The house is about to be demolished to make room for a $55 million expansion of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego next door. Set to debut in the summer of 2020, the expansion will quadruple the museum’s exhibit space, from 10,000 square feet to 40,000, and replace a 24-space surface lot with 41 spaces underground. (Markers denoting the location of the underground garage can be found around the house’s dead lawn.)

Living so close to a museum was both cool and weird, say Dawn and Ashley. It allowed them to befriend artists during the longer outside-exhibit installations, and allowed museum patrons to watch a de facto exhibition featuring the Farsons.

“You’d be standing at the sink doing dishes and people would see you through the kitchen window as they walked through this one part of the museum,” Ashley says.

Ultimately, though, living so close to a museum is what put an end to the experience. The museum purchased 636 Prospect St. in 2000 for about $2 million. Dawn says it’s why they moved out. When the house was owned by Barbara Hill Kennedy of Del Mar, she says, the rent was about $1,300 a month. Dawn said it more than doubled after the sale to the museum.

The expansion slowly gets underway next door at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
The expansion slowly gets underway next door at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. COREY LEVITAN

A discussion of the family dog was unavoidable.

“Oh no, Shiloh!” Ashley says.

Shiloh escaped one night and got hit by a truck on Prospect Street.

“He crawled from where he got hit all the way to the house,” Ashley says. “He was sitting under the table on the side patio, huddling.”

Brochure for La Jolla Terrace
Brochure for La Jolla Terrace COURTESY LA JOLLA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

House history

When Ellen Browning Scripps’ home at 700 Prospect St. was purchased by the group of La Jolla citizens who turned it into The Art Center in La Jolla in 1941, its expansive garden was sold and subdivided.

“One of the loveliest gardens in Southern California is to be divided into homesites,” advertised a brochure for La Jolla Terrace. “The gardens have been so divided that each lot has an ocean view, and so that homes may be built without disturbing the luxuriant semi-tropical trees and shrubs. Each home can be made one such as you have dreamed of and, surprisingly enough, at a cost below the amount you would expect to pay.”

Thomas Shepherd designed 636 Prospect St. The master architect, who arrived in La Jolla in 1926 and died here in 1979, designed about 200 residences here, including the internationally renown “La Fenise” at 6019 Avenida Cresta.

His client at 636 Prospect St. was Alma Skinner, a widow from Detroit who, in her single life, had been an actress in the Maude Adams company that originally staged “Peter Pan.”

Skinner’s dream home, totaling 3,238 square feet inside and out, had no stairs on the main level — doctor’s orders due to her ill health — and all rooms connected to a salon-style living room (a Shepherd trademark) so that members of her household staff could attend easily to her needs. It included three furnaces, permitting different temperatures in different parts of the home, and a steep-pitched roof, shingled with cedar shakes, for rustic charm.

Skinner paid contractor Carlos Tavares $58,000 to make it a reality, and had it painted pink.

TOP: Architect Thomas Shepherd's original renderings for 636 Prospect St. BELOW: The house as it appears just before the wrecking ball.
TOP: Architect Thomas Shepherd's original renderings for 636 Prospect St. BELOW: The house as it appears just before the wrecking ball. TOP PHOTO COURTESY LA JOLLA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

“Perhaps the most dramatic thing about the home,” read a full page “San Diego Union” story about it on Aug. 21, 1949, “is the use of glass to frame scenic panoramas of park lawns, beach and ocean from almost every room — particularly from the dining room and adjoining lanai or terrace.”

“We used to watch the whales go by, remember?” Dawn asks Ashley.

‘Not an individually designated resource’

According to a City spokesperson, the demolition of 636 Prospect St. was reviewed during a March 23, 2017 public hearing by the San Diego Planning Commission with opportunity for public comment and review.

“Furthermore, it was a discretionary project that required a Planned Development Permit, Coastal Development Permit and a Conditional Use Permit, which provided several opportunities for public review and comment,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to the Light. “The potential historicity was one of the many elements of the project addressed in the review, as described in the report to the decision-makers.”

A marker near a tree in the house's front yard tells demolition workers the location of the museum's future underground garage.
A marker near a tree in the house's front yard tells demolition workers the location of the museum's future underground garage. COREY LEVITAN

In its report to the Planning Commission, the City concluded: “Historic Resources staff reviewed a Historical Resources Technical Report for the subject property, and determined that the structure is not an individually designated resource.”

And although this new information probably wouldn’t have put the Historic Resources staff over the edge, the Light was surprised to hear Dawn recall the evening she and Richard had Oscar winning-actor Marlon Brando over for pre-dinner drinks in the early ‘80s.

“He was just very friendly,” Dawn says. “He came with his Tahitian wife. I remember he had on a white belt and a beige leisure suit, and he was kind of large. A lot of people were interested in what my husband was doing, because he did a lot of innovative things.”

Richard Farson was a world-renown psychologist, author and educator. He headed up the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, which he co-founded in 1958 with physicist Paul Lloyd and social psychologist Wayman Crow. He used the back room adjacent to the master bedroom at 636 Prospect St. as a study for his research.

“He worked there all the time,” Dawn says.

Dawn and Ashley Farson stare up at the room over the backyard that formerly served as Richard Farson's study.
Dawn and Ashley Farson stare up at the room over the backyard that formerly served as Richard Farson's study. COREY LEVITAN

Richard died less than a year ago, at age 91, so this experience is extra emotional. He spent his final year at Casa de Manana in declining health.

“One thing my husband really loved about living here was that he could walk to work at his office on Silverado,” Dawn says, “and he loved seeing all the Irving Gill architecture around us, and hearing the church bells.”

Dawn says she supports the museum’s expansion, but wishes there were another way for it to happen.

“It’s such a classic house,” she says, “and it makes me sad to see it go because of all the memories. We also lived in a wonderful house in Beverly Hills that burned down, and now this.”

Special thanks to Mike Mishler of the La Jolla Historical Society for the historical evidence his research brought to this story.

Copyright © 2018, La Jolla Light
67°