Secret La Jolla: 11 Things only La Jollans know about their hometown

Secret La Jolla: 11 things only La Jollans know about their hometown
(Graphic design by Daniel K. Lew)

When you’ve lived in The Jewel long enough, you come to know things that tourists and snowbirds miss. (For instance, “La Jolla” probably isn’t Spanish for “the jewel,” but was translated from the Spanish from Kumeyaay Native-American for “land of holes.”)

Below are 11 of our other favorite examples. (If you can think of any we missed, enter them in the comments below this article!)

1. Someone was eaten by a shark here

You won’t see this one in the tourism pamphlets, but on June 14, 1959, a 33-year-old engineer named Robert Pamperin departed this earth in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable.

According to sworn court testimony by his diving buddy, Gerald Lehrer, Pamperin screamed “Help me!” while diving for abalone off La Jolla Cove. He then rose “upright and unnaturally high out of the water,” the entire lower half of his body enveloped by the mouth of a 20-foot shark in an expanding pool of crimson water.

Lehrer’s story could never be physically corroborated because no body was found — or even parts — just Pamperin’s swim fin and inner tube, giving rise to conspiracy theories that, um, hold little water.

2. Bell’s Pavilion

Bell’s Pavilion was designed and built by architect Dale Naegle in 1968, in a highly secluded oceanfront spot south of Black’s Beach, for Sam Bell of Bell’s Potato Chips.

Most tourists have no idea something this Jetson’s cool exists in actual life -- much less on a bluff just south of Black’s Beach. The rare few who do know erroneously call it “the Mushroom House.”

One of the most spectacular structures in all of Southern California, Bell’s Pavilion was designed and built by architect Dale Naegle in 1968 as a guest house for Sam Bell of Bell’s Potato Chips (which used to be a thing).

And it’s as strong as it is stunning. Bell apparently wanted a structure that could withstand waves, rock slides and earthquakes.

A private tramway transports guests 300 feet almost straight down the bluff from a main house at 9044 La Jolla Shores Lane. (The original house was reportedly demolished in the 1990s.)

3. Secret public lot

This parking lot just south of La Jolla Elementary is not what it appears to be.

The parking lot most people assume is dedicated to the La Jolla Seville condominiums next door — an impression reinforced by the occasional Seville resident — is actually a public lot maintained by the City of San Diego. Anyone can park there, for any amount of time up to 72 hours. The two signs reading “NO PARKING: Unauthorized vehicles will be towed away at owner’s expense” refer only to two specific off-limit areas within the lot, not the entire lot.

4. Raymond Chandler lived, worked and died here

Raymond Chandler, at one time the highest-paid screenwriter on the Paramount lot, lived and worked in this Bird Rock house.

Although his literary canon keeps Los Angeles mythologized to this day, it’s actually La Jolla where best-selling novelist Raymond Chandler lived from 1946 until his death in 1959. And he didn’t retire here. Instead, La Jolla was where he wrote “The Long Goodbye,” “The Little Sister” and his final completed Philip Marlowe novel, 1958’s “Playback,” which thinly fictionalized La Jolla as “Esmeralda” and set scenes at both La Valencia and the Marine Room.

Chandler spent most of his final years in a ranch house with his ailing wife, Cissy, at 6005 Casmino de la Costa. (The Bird Rock house was remodeled beyond recognition about 10 years ago, after a failed attempt to get it historically designated.)

After Cissy died, just before Christmas 1954, Raymond drank regularly at LaV’s Whaling Bar (which closed in 2013), but also enjoyed driving into The Village every afternoon to go food-shopping, check the mail and chat with familiar faces. He died of pneumonia at Scripps Clinic on March 26, 1959.

5. Modern La Jollans live atop ancient La Jollans

This marker sits on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus atop the first ancient archeological site found in La Jolla.

Dig this: Some of the oldest known archaeological sites in the Western Hemisphere are in La Jolla. It seems the soft soils that make La Jolla’s bluffs unstable also keep artifacts and remains well-preserved — some under as much as 10 feet of it.

The first site was discovered underneath the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus in 1962. Then, in 1976, two sets of nearly 10,000-year-old skeletal remains (from a man in his 20s and a woman in her late 30s) were unearthed near the UC San Diego chancellor’s home. In 2016, the remains were returned to the La Posta, one of the Kumeyaay bands of Native Americans who occupied this area.

6. Tom Wolfe was played and got it mostly wrong, according to La Jollans who were there

Author Tom Wolfe introduced La Jolla to the East Coast intelligentsia, but La Jollans claim his reporting was largely inaccurate.

In 1965, Tom Wolfe spent somewhere between a few days and a month at Windansea Beach (depending on who you believe) investigating a dangerous “underground society” called the Pump House Gang (which served as the title for a 1966 “New York Magazine” article and a 1968 book of his collected stories).

Nearly all published accounts from La Jollans who were there claim that the late author approached some surfers in the parking lot, who belonged to the Mac Meda Destruction Company social club, but got run off. So he was forced to hang with some younger kids who claimed La Jolla Water System Pump House 21 as turf because no one else wanted it.

These kids talked big. They told Wolfe what they thought he wanted to hear — tales of drugs, debauchery and surfing derring-do — and he ran with it with minimal fact-checking.

7. Bunker hills

The Old Blockhouse is the biggest, but not the only, World War II bunker left standing on Mt. Soledad.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), cement-fortified bunkers were built high enough into the hills of La Jolla to look out for and attack Japanese ships, subs and airplanes. Many still exist, though most are hard to find.

Since these things were built to withstand shelling, it was nearly impossible to demolish them once peace was declared. So many of today’s houses were simply constructed on top of them. Other bunkers — such as one at the end of Avenida Manana — were obscured by landscaping meant to discourage visitors/vandals.

Fortunately, the easiest one to find was the biggest and highest of the bunkers. Nicknamed “Old Blockhouse” by long-ago residents, the currently abandoned building at 7110 Via Capri was used by the Signal Corp. as its primary San Diego lookout, and also functioned as a hub for radio transmissions and land lines to military bases all over the Pacific.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography owns the building, but hasn’t used it since 2012.

8. San Diego’s most scenic trail

This view awaits you on the trail through the La Jolla Heights Open Space Preserve.

A narrow trail cuts through 42 untouched and very public acres on the top of Mt. Soledad, providing the most jaw-flooring views in Southern California. Managed by the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, the La Jolla Heights Open Space Preserve wends through low-lying brush 800 feet above La Jolla. The trail begins by the bridge by Al Bahr Drive — park where it meets Soledad Avenue — and winds uphill 1.5 miles to Encelia Drive. And there’s not a “private property” sign in sight.

9. The railroad’s all around us

The La Jolla Methodist Church building at 6063 La Jolla Blvd. was actually constructed as the San Carlos Station for La Jolla’s old streetcar line.

When Pacific Beach was founded in 1887, a railroad was built to connect it to downtown San Diego. An extension to La Jolla followed on May 15, 1894. That line went belly up in 1918 and its tracks were removed and sold for scrap metal to Japan.

But remnants of a second La Jolla railroad, the San Diego Electric Railway (SDER), are everywhere. Operated from 1924 to 1940, the West Coast’s first electric streetcar system has tracks buried beneath tar, asphalt and mud along La Jolla’s streets and the bike path. In addition, the frontage of Bird Rock’s main San Carlos Station now forms the La Jolla Methodist Church at 6063 La Jolla Blvd.

10. Secret underwater memorial

A San Diego Freedivers member cleans algae and sediment off of one of the markers left for fallen water sports enthusiasts at Tombstones.

A couple hundred yards off Boomer Beach, under about 35 feet of water, lies a collection of about 40 stones with names etched onto them. Although the area is nicknamed “Tombstones,” no bodies are buried here — only markers for free-divers and other popular ocean legends who have passed on from accidents and other causes. (The first markers honored the deceased members of the Bottom Scratchers, an exclusive diving club founded in 1933 by Old Town residents Glenn Orr, Jack Prodanovich and Ben Stone.)

Since it is illegal to add heavy rocks to the ocean bottom without a permit, the existence of Tombstones is a locals-only secret.

11. Secret underwater graveyard

The wreckage of the USS F-1 submarine, shown in a photo provided to the ‘Light’ by the U.S. Navy, has sat untouched off the coast of Bird Rock for more than a century.

Actually, most La Jollans don’t even know about this one, since the Navy didn’t declassify the information until 50 years after the tragedy…

Somewhere between 6 and 15 miles off the coast of Bird Rock, the remains of 19 lost souls remain onboard the wreckage of the USS F-1. The submarine sank on Dec. 17, 1917 after colliding with its sister ship, the USS F-3 during exercise maneuvers.

The two subs, along with the USS F-2, were making a surface run from San Pedro to San Diego. Point Loma was just ahead when they all decided at the same time to change course to clear a fog bank. Each had signaled their intent by radio, but none had received the others’ messages.

Only five F-1 sailors escaped.

Because of the depth of water and the lack of submarine rescue equipment, no attempt was made to locate the sub at the time. And the Navy, which located the site in the ‘70s, considers it a sacred grave and does not want it disturbed.

— Can you think of any secrets we missed? Enter them in the comments section below!