A Plaque for The Shack: Proof of historical designation comes to WindanSea Beach in La Jolla

A plaque recognizing the Surf Shack at WindanSea beach as a historical landmark has finally been installed — 70 years after the iconic La Jolla shelter was first constructed. The Shack got its historical designation May 27, 1998, but due to the “aloha spirit” of the surfers behind the designation, the plaque was a little slow in coming. 

Posted a few weeks ago, the plaque reads: “Historical Landmark 358, The Surf Shack (at) WindanSea Beach built by returning World War II (soldiers who were also) surfers in 1947 for shade and aloha.”

According to the “Historical Landmarks Designated by the San Diego Historical Resources Board” document that identifies such sites, the Surf Shack at WindanSea Beach (6800 Neptune Place) is the “oldest continuously used shelter of its kind on the West Coast.”

Melinda Merryweather, one of those responsible for the designation and later the plaque, said The Shack needed the protection that comes with designation, in case it were ever destroyed. “It was built by surfers, not a formal construction company, and a while back we thought, ‘we need some assurance in case it comes down.’ Lo and behold, it did come down during a storm and we were able to rebuild it as it was,” she said. 

“We admit, it was a farfetched idea to designate a shack, because it’s not some important house or building, but we wanted to do it. For me, it’s a church in my neighborhood. I christened my son there. It’s the heart of our surfing community.” 

Among other criteria, historic designation typically goes to properties identified with persons or events significant in local, state or national history (according to the City’s Historic Preservation website). For The Shack, its contribution to the period in which surfing became popular in the United States was cited as a reason for its significance. 

Although there are a few different reasons, or perhaps a combination of reasons, for the Shack’s construction, it all comes back to surfing in the late 1940s. The Shack was originally constructed by soldiers coming back from World War II, and one theory is that they wanted a place to surf, and needed it have a sun shelter for their children. 

Merryweather said, “When these guys would go surfing, their wives would say they needed to take the children with them. Then they would get here and realize there was no shady, protected place for their kids.”

Tony Ciani, also part of the team that got the Shack designated, said he heard it was because their board wax would melt, and a shady place was needed to keep their equipment cool. “Maybe it’s both — the kids needed shade and their boards needed shade,” he said. 

Regardless of the impetus, The Shack’s synonymy with surfing at WindanSea makes it arguably relevant to the history of La Jolla. Ciani added, “It’s just legendary, part of the legend of surfing. It’s one of those landmarks you want to be able to touch over time. In 1966, Congress adopted the National Historic Preservation Act because they wanted to protect these buildings because of the feeling and connection to a historic time.”

The Shack has been moved twice. Both times, its orientation was kept the same — a crucial factor in maintaining its connection to surfing. 

“The story I was told is that the orientation of two of the poles allowed you to line up along a surf break along a certain swell,” Ciani said. “If you lined up on the northwest pole and southeast pole, you could paddle out and use those as landmarks. Then you are in the primo spot for a take-off.” 

The first time, at a date unknown, The Shack was moved directly inland because its sandstone base was deteriorating. In 2015, a storm destroyed The Shack and it was rebuilt by Friends of WindanSea. 

Now that the Shack has been designated, and there is the plaque to prove it, the Friends group is trying to get the word out to not hang hammocks or other swings from The Shack’s roof. “You can’t do that on historic buildings in Balboa Park, why would you be able to do that here?” Merryweather posed. 

Although it has historically been topped by palm fronds, recently the Friends group has removed the leafy roof when storms are projected to be large. 

Landscape architect Jim Neri, a member of Friends of WindanSea, said the roof is not made to withstand the weight of water and pounding waves, and each year, the decision to remove the fronds is made. 

Expecting the heavy rains that took place in late 2016 and early 2017, the fronds were removed. New fronds should be in place by mid-March. 

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