Nobel Prize winner's home's historical designation halted, remodeling resumes

Any informed passerby who walked along the street in front of 2345 Via Siena, may have been wondering why remodeling construction resumed on the property without a decision from the Historical Resources Board (HRB) on its historical designation. That is because there was none.

The owner of the property (Sonoca Corporation) decided to redesign the project to comply with the U.S. Secretary of Interior Standards, treating the structure as if it had been designated. That stopped the review process until further notice.

“I’m very glad they did, because the sooner they get back into construction, the sooner it’s ready for winter weather. It’s in everybody’s interest to have that property ready in case the rains show up,” said Diane Kane, chair of the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) Preservation Committee.

On March 16, the City of San Diego opened a code enforcement case against the property for “demolition without permits on a possible historic site.” It was then discovered that the structure had been home to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the only female (other than Marie Curie) to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, when she moved to La Jolla to be part of the early UC San Diego faculty.

Construction then stopped to await the result of the historical review. The case was evaluated by the HRB at its Aug. 25 meeting. Staff and an independent review (contracted by the applicant), were in agreement to turn down the designation on the grounds there were other properties that better represented the life of Goeppert-Mayer, but HRB members voted to return the case to the applicant for more information.

After a notice of public hearing issued Oct. 3 to advertise continued historical review by the HRB at its Oct. 27 meeting, the item was pulled from the agenda. “The applicant decided to redesign the project to comply with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties,” reported City Public Information Officer Tim Graham.

City staff worked with the applicant to develop a project that eliminated the adverse impacts on the property, and signed it off. “Because the revised project now complies with the Standards, HRB review is no longer required and the item has been withdrawn from the Board’s consideration at this time,” Graham elaborated, adding that the applicant had expressed interest in pursuing a historical designation in the future.

The City has issued a permit for “the remodeling and addition (of a single-dwelling unit). Work includes interior demolition and remodel, new roof deck, covered patio and new entry ramp.” The holder of the permit is Claude Anthony Marengo.

The approval issue details, “This building is potentially significant as a historic resource. … No changes to the project scope are allowed without review and approval by Plan/Historic staff.”

The U.S. Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties are, according to its website, “common sense historic preservation principles in non-technical language. They promote historic preservation best practices that will help to protect our nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources.”

These standards identify as good practices “retaining and preserving structural systems — and individual features of systems — that are important in defining the overall historic character of the building, such as post and beam systems, trusses, summer beams, vigas, cast iron columns, above-grade stone foundation walls, or loadbearing brick or stone walls.”

On this topic, City Public Information Officer Arian Collins said, “The City of San Diego does not regulate the interiors of historic homes unless specific portions of the interior are either volunteered by the owner or are of exceptional significance. Neither was the case here.”

Before the code enforcement case for 2345 Via Siena was opened, the unpermitted work had taken down part of the front roof (see picture). In the guidelines about roofs, the Standards favor “Identifying, retaining, and preserving roofs — and their functional and decorative features — that are important in defining the overall historic character of the building.”

When asked how this was going to be sorted out, Collins said the part of the roof that was demolished will be reconstructed.

David Goldberg, son of early UCSD faculty members and a preservation enthusiast opined, “I think this is a very good thing. I grew up around the Mayers, and even as a kid, I was aware of the importance of Maria Goeppert-Mayer to set the standards of the UCSD Physics Department.”

Kane added, “We can always come back and revisit the designation at a later time. We still have it, (the property) is still in the community, and hopefully, it will be preserved for the next 40-50 years and a future owner will love it and want it designated.”

The City admitted to the unusual character of the historical review reversal. Collins explained, “It is not common for an applicant to decide to redesign the project consistent with the Standards while the property is being reviewed by the Historic Resources Board. Typically, an applicant will choose to do that either initially (so that review by the Historic Resources Board is never required) or after the property is reviewed by the Board and designated.

“However, redesigning the project is an option at any point in the process. In this instance, in order to keep their project moving, the applicant opted to redesign the project to eliminate the adverse impact, rather than spending additional time and resources revising the report to address the items identified by the Historic Resources Board.”

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