City board designates La Jolla Helen Copley’s home ‘historical’

The late San Diego Union Tribune publisher Helen Copley purchased a small Tudor Revival house at 1263 Virginia Way in 1981. In the following months, she tailored the structure to her personal taste, adding decorative elements in the Tudor Revival style, such as a semicircular copper awning to the front entry and half-timbering (timber frames) to the façade.

The San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) voted to designate the home “historical” during its May 25 meeting at the Civic Center because of its Copley relationship, although City planners had recommended it deny the current owner’s request to include the structure on the City’s list of historical landmarks.

The property, built in 1927, is the only one Copley bought solely in her name, and it remained that way until 1984, when the ownership was changed to a family trust. The applicant’s report, crafted by IS Architecture, claims Copley lived at the property from 1981 to 1984, “even though she owned many other properties.”

However, during the HRB review, it was brought up that Copley may not have inhabited the Tudor Revival house. “I don’t know personally if she lived there or not, but I know her son had a large property across the street, and she had some other properties in the neighborhood,” argued board member and La Jolla resident Courtney Coyle.

The applicant’s research report highlighted the fact: “When comparing 1263 Virginia Way to the numerous properties in Helen Copley’s possession, including the 20,000-square-foot mansion ‘Foxhill’ where she often entertained, it is distinct and vastly different from the others by virtue of its small, quaint nature.”

The designation was brought forward by property owners Sandra Saw and Jeff Marchioro, who purchased the house in 2010. “She had a choice between many multi-million dollar homes,” Saw began, “but she didn’t (pick them), this powerhouse of a woman chose our home, a small Tudor Revival, placing her decorative touches while leaving the structure intact.”

The HRB reviewed the Foxhill property (7007 Country Club Drive) in 2015, which is now owned by real estate mogul Doug Manchester, and considered it not historic. The reasoning, as stated in the report, “At that time, staff recommended that Helen’s accomplishments, while highly admirable, occurred primarily after her husband’s passing in 1973, and were therefore too recent to evaluate objectively within their historical context.”

During the May 25 meeting, the question arose about how much time would be sufficient to evaluate Copley’s contributions in a historical context. City senior planner Kelley Stanco answered, “You have to show that enough time has passed to evaluate someone’s contributions. When you’re dealing with something (that happened) in the last 25 years, it’s more difficult to do that evaluation.”

But board members disagreed. Newly-appointed Cindy Stankowski said she was torn. “How many more years into the future do we have to look back and say, ‘it counts’? Fifty years from now, will anybody remember her? Being a feminist since Day 1, it’s obvious to me that women aren’t as equally represented in history — even in archeology.”

For board member Tim Hutter, “Ms. Copley was a fantastic representative of San Diego and the whole State. We know what she’s accomplished ... we have the new homeowners here and they want to designate (her home), and waiting longer is doing an injustice.”

The new owner Saw added, “We have a deep and profound respect for historic preservation and we would be honored to be placed by the board as guardians of this amazing woman’s history.”

Helen Copley

Publisher and philanthropist Copley was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1922. According to the historical report: “She moved to San Diego in 1951 and began work as a secretary at the San Diego Union in 1953, where she met her husband, Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego Union, James Copley. Following his death in 1973, Helen Copley took control of the business.”

Among her business decisions, in 1992, she merged the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune, creating the San Diego Union Tribune. “During her tenure, she owned nine daily newspapers and other publications in California, Illinois and Ohio, and her newspapers won two Pulitzer Prizes,” the report continues.

In 1996, Copley helped underwrite the Republican Party Convention that took place in San Diego. According to the research report: “She also maintained friendships with high profile Democrats, including Joan Kroc of McDonald’s fame, former Mayor O’Connor, and Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and other well-known politicians and celebrities including Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Congressman Jack Kemp.

“In 1974, she was the first woman elected to the California Chamber of Commerce and the following year was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the National Commission (on the Observance of International Women’s Year 1975).”

What does a historical designation entail?

  • Homeowner has a responsibility to maintain the resource;
  • All exterior changes must be in accord with Secretary of Interior’s Standards;
  • Homeowner is eligibile for Mills Act tax discount;
  • Homeowner may purchase and install a designation plaque.
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