La Jolla Historical Society: Archives, exhibits and more



The La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) is where the past has a conversation with the present, according to Executive Director Heath Fox. The non-profit was created in 1964 and is housed in three historic buildings on the corner of Prospect Street and Eads Avenue. The 1904 Wisteria Cottage (formerly John Cole’s Bookstore) houses the museum gallery space; the 1909 cottage serves as offices and provides public research space; and the 1916 carriage house/garage has been retrofitted to store LJHS’ archival collection. The campus is characterized by lots of rounded-rock walls — all hauled up from the beach below.

The latest addition to the LJHS campus is a public pocket park, the Venturi Pergola & Garden, which opened in September. It’s built on a lower terrace of the property showcasing an architectural fragment gleaned from the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art (currently being remodeled).

LJHS hosts the Concourse d’Elegance each April, as well as the Secret Garden Tour in May — two of its biggest fundraisers. It also has a membership program (550 members strong), a funding contract with San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, and several grant supplements to round out its budget.

“The Society’s mission is to make history relevant to contemporary society, to the people who live today,” Fox told the Light. “We view history as not just reporting the past, but as a continuum of past, present and future. That’s the way all of us think, and wish others would think about history, as well.”

That thinking is reflected in LJHS’ choice of exhibits, which are always innovative. The current show, “San Diego: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” is based on a book written 50 years ago about the urban environment of Los Angeles.

“We took this concept,” Fox explained, “and created an exhibition that would work for San Diego. The four ecologies here are: the beaches, the urban and suburban built environment, the international border, and the freeways. The freeways are what connect us all to these other environments. It’s a way to take a historic concept and re-interpret it for audiences today.”

LJHS’ next exhibit in February, 2019 will highlight La Jolla’s female movers and shakers, prior to the Great Depression. Titled “Tangible Memories: Recollections of La Jolla Pioneer Women,” it features Ellen Browning Scripps and her cohort of friends — an accomplished group who had higher levels of education for the time and careers in business, education and architecture. They started La Jolla Woman’s Club and established the La Jolla philanthropic spirit that still exists today.

For the exhibit, LJHS commissioned 10 artists and assigned each a pioneer woman to research and then create a new work of art that responds to and reflects on what she accomplished. “It’s all about looking at history through the lens of time, interpreted by people who are practicing in arts and culture today,” Fox said.

LJHS is not only about re-interpreting the past; it’s also about preserving it. Fox explained that the archival collection has “been obtained over the years by people giving us stuff ... and sometimes we ask for certain things,” he said. “More often than not, people tell us, ‘Hey, I have this, would you like it for your archive?’ and we look at it from there.”

The LJHS archive contains 20,000 photos, architectural drawings, biographical files, a collection of La Jolla art, and “street files” about historic property. The best part about the collection is that it’s accessible for free to the public.

“Someone might want to research a piece of property they might be thinking about buying,” Fox explained. “Or wonder about a granddad who moved here in the 1930s. We have a steady flow of people coming in our doors looking for one thing or another.”

As Fox points out, one of the ways to track the history of La Jolla is through its architecture. What started out as a cluster of wooden beach cottages with no paved roads, no running water, and no electricity soon expanded.

After World War I, people began coming into La Jolla and building larger homes — mostly European reproductions in the Spanish Revival and English Tudor styles ... and French chateaus. These homes gave birth to the neighborhoods La Jollans know today — the Barber Tract, Hermosa, and La Jolla Shores. After the Depression, another style of architecture came into vogue here, which was more mid-century modern, often influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Another LJHS bonus is self-guided walking tours, whose routes can be accessed online or through free brochures at the museum. The tours provide insight into the history of The Village, the original beach cottages, mid-century modern architecture, and Irving Gill’s architecture and designs.

Next summer, look for Silent Film Nights on the LJHS lawn, for which you can pack a picnic and bring blankets and chairs. The evenings are planned in connection with an exhibit on cinematic entertainment in the early 20th century.

• The La Jolla Historical Society‘s gallery is open noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at 780 Prospect St., La Jolla. (858) 459-5335. Free admission.

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