Nobel Prize winner’s home dismantled while awaiting designation in La Jolla

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (in 1963) and Marie Curie (in 1903) are the only women to ever win a Nobel Prize in Physics. Goeppert-Mayer came to live in La Jolla in the 1960s to work at UC San Diego, and won the award for her discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure. She lived at 2345 Via Siena in a California ranch-style home.

The city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) will review a request to designate Goeppert-Mayer’s house a historical resource 1 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25 at a location to be determined.

Meanwhile, construction is underway on the property to the dismay of Diane Kane, chair of the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) preservation committee. “The house is half in the dumpster,” she told La Jolla Light. “The east front roof and gable are deconstructed and that whole wing of the house has been stripped … you can see right through the house.”

A code enforcement case was opened on March 16 from a citizen’s complaint of “demolition without permits on a possible historic site.” When the Light visited, there were no construction workers, though construction seemed to have resumed. The property was fenced off and an outdoor portable toilet could be seen.

The Goepper-Mayer’s house came under LJHS radar in March via a 45-year review, the process properties age 45 years or older undergo when applying for a construction permit. Planning groups and preservation non-profits, such as LJHS or Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) review applications and, if they believe them worth a potential Historical Designation Review, indicate such to the city. Both LJHS and SOHO filed on behalf of the Goeppert-Mayer residence.

If a structure is designated historical, all changes to it must be compliant with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment of Historic Properties and need to be reviewed by city staff. Applicants, usually the property owners, provide a preliminary report from a consultant hired from a pre-approved list of candidates. In this case, the review by Scott A. Moomjian denied the house’s historical character.

“The property does not derive any measure of historical significance as associated with Dr. Maria Goeppert-Mayer,” the review reads. The main argument was that the research, which merited Goeppert-Mayer a Nobel Prize, was done in Chicago before she moved to La Jolla, and although she received the award while living in the property, it was not deserving of historical recognition.

After accessing the preliminary report, SOHO sent a letter to the city dated July 1 requesting additional information to “determine the level of impact and influence the female professor had on the development of her two fields of research, physics and chemistry, specifically with regard to the female gender in these fields of study.”

Amie Hayes, SOHO historical resources specialist, highlighted the overall importance of Goeppert-Mayer’s contributions as a woman in physics. “Females need to equally contribute to the narrative of the country, and Professor Mayer is a very significant individual and should be recognized as such,” she said.

SOHO and LJHS agree that Mayer garnered enough personal merit for the house where she lived (and died in 1972), to fit the HRB Criterion B, which designates properties of significant individuals. In the July 5 letter LJHS sent to the city, the organization points out that Mayer’s legacy should be preserved as an inspiration for women in the STEM fields, adding that the hiring of intellectuals at the beginnings of UCSD shaped the current character of La Jolla. Kane commented, “Look at what her contribution was to the early campus, and to the setting the tone for UCSD campus to be a powerhouse in sciences. We wouldn’t be where we are today if she hadn’t be in that first faculty.”

However, HRB doesn’t often designate structures as historical based on the people who lived in them. On this note Hayes explained, “But that doesn’t mean that’s not a sufficient criteria. You can designate a building under any one of (existing) five criteria, and for this example specifically, she was a female, she lived there when she received the Nobel Prize, that’s very relevant for Criterion B.”

On Friday, Aug. 12 Moomjian’s report was made public, and both LJHS and SOHO representatives expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of changes added to the review. City communications officer Bill Harris said, “Any input like that, unless it points out some gross factual errors that would make the report invalid, is taken in front of the HRB when the report is presented, and the board itself is the one that decides to incorporate the concerns or details outside groups bring in the conversation.”

— The HRB agenda and location for the Aug. 25 meeting will be posted this week on bit.ly/2bliwxD along with the staff report on 2345 Via Siena.


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