Board struggles with Nobel Prize winner’s home designation

The historical designation process of 2345 Via Siena, former home of Physics Nobel Prize winner Maria Goeppert Mayer, challenged the members of the Historical Resources Board (HRB). After a two-hour discussion Aug. 25, the matter was sent back to the applicant, attorney Scott Moomjian, to provide additional information at a later meeting. Moomjian is representing the current owner, Sonoca Corporation, which is in the process of remodeling the home.

Goeppert Mayer was hired in 1960 (along with her husband Joseph Mayer) to teach and research at UC San Diego. She received the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her work on the nuclear shell structure, while living at the house. Shortly after moving to San Diego, she reportedly suffered a stroke that jeopardized her health, and she died in 1972. Her house came to the attention of the HRB when the new owner turned in a construction permit and the property went through the 45-year review the city applies to all structures age 45 or older. 2345 Via Siena was reviewed under HRB’s Criterion B, which designates properties related to significant persons or events on the local, national and international level.

The key to the Goeppert Mayer designation, as explained by city senior planner Kelley Stanco, is the lack of information on the record about her contribution to the sciences after she moved to La Jolla in 1960. Shortly thereafter, she suffered a stroke, which city staff and Moomjian presume undermined her work capacities. As Stanco explained, “there’s conflicting documentation about the impact of Maria’s stroke on her work and career, nevertheless she continued to teach, and to participate actively in the development and exposition of the shell model. Her last publication … appeared in 1966, and she continued to give as much attention to physics as she could until her death in 1972.”

The guidelines for Criterion B, adopted in 2009, state that for a property to be designated “historical,” the relevance of the owner must be substantiated, and the best structure to be designated is one where the person carried out the most significant part of their work. Moomjian’s review concluded that the home was not to be designated under any criteria, and it gave three examples of existing properties in Chicago and Baltimore that would better represent Goeppert Mayer’s contributions. Moomjian deemed the La Jolla home less significant, “All the important historical achievements occurred only before she occupied the property, not while she lived at the home.”

The formal presentation for historical designation of the property was led by Lewis Branscomb, physicist and visiting scholar at UC San Diego, who claimed to have met Goeppert Mayer during her time in La Jolla. “The work that she did, did not terminate completely at her departure from Chicago, in fact, in Chicago she had a relatively minor job compared to other people where she was,” he testified.

The effort, continued by David Goldberg, son of early UCSD faculty, chronicled how the hiring of laureate scientists, including Goeppert Mayer, played a key role in the establishment of UCSD as a major technical and science university. “To argue the Maria Goepper Mayer’s scientific accomplishments, and those of her husband Joe, were made prior to coming to UCSD, somehow diminishes their role in the creation of the university and (doesn’t) make much sense,” Goldberg said. “It’s precisely the accomplishments of these great scientists earlier in their careers that helps us stage for the creation of one of the world’s greatest scientific institutions.”

La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) executive director Heath Fox pressed the same point, “What we have here is a Nobel Prize woman physicist in an era of severe gender discrimination, part of the inaugural faculty at UCSD, if this is a person who doesn’t qualify as important for the purpose of local designation, then the credibility of Criterion B must be brought into serious question.”

The criterion was also questioned by Amie Hayes, historic resources specialist at Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), who advised the HRB discuss the issue at their next policy meeting “to address the deficiencies in the application of Criterion B ... because under new interpretations, significant individuals who earned recognition are not currently being recognized, we just need to discuss this in our policy subcommittee and correct that.”

During her turn, LJHS preservation committee chair Diane Kane challenged the compliance of the municipal ordinance that regulates the historical designation process. “The report you got is for voluntary designations, not for involuntary designations. Why is that important? The involuntary designation report is supposed to be looking at criteria for federal, state and national designation, the report you have doesn’t do that,” she said, adding that the interested parties (SOHO and LJHS) weren’t consulted for the report.

To those claims, Stanco responded that the board does have two separate report formats; the less rigorous historical resource research report and the more careful historical resource technical report. “The historical research technical report is only required for properties that are associated with a discretionary permit application. … If a property is coming forth with a building application, or voluntary designation, the historical research report is an acceptable format,” she said.

During the discussion, board members brought up the gender issue. Chair Courtney Coyle said, “You have to wonder if sometimes when we are thinking about important people, we maybe have a bias against the full range of people who can actually be historically significant. They don’t have to be just the Caucasian males who were involved in different things.” Trustees were interested to know more about Goepper Mayer’s role for the development of San Diego’s biotech and scientific community. But this role would fall under Criterion A, and for the board to consider this a new analysis is required. Further discussion of the designation was slated for a later meeting of the board.

In other HRB news

Archeological Committee report: After considering the staff’s recommendation to consolidate the Policy and Archeology subcommittees into one, the HRB denied the petition. Archeologists Abel Silvas and Ron May spoke in favor of conserving both subcommittees. May included in his speech a mention of the Pottery Canyon kiln issue reported in the July 7 edition of La Jolla Light, “Pottery Canyon: A Forgotten La Jolla Story,” implying that discussion on the issue would require an expert archeology committee and not a general assignment one.

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