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This Month in La Jolla History: The La Jolla Rec Center opens to the public in 1915

The La Jolla Rec Center, then called the Community House, as seen on a 1920s postcard.
The La Jolla Rec Center, then called the Community House, as seen on a 1920s postcard.
(Courtesy)

This Month in History is a new feature in the La Jolla Light highlighting local happenings from yesteryear. If you are aware of historical events from any year in La Jolla history that deserve recognition, email efrausto@lajollalight.com.

The La Jolla Recreation Center, 615 Prospect St., first opened to the public in July 1915, and has remained an iconic feature of the coastal community it was built to serve.

Nestled between Draper Avenue and Cuvier Street in The Village and run by the city of San Diego Parks and Recreation department, the Rec Center was born of Ellen Browning Scripps’ desire to “to educate and inform citizens of every race, color and creed,” according to Molly McClain, professor of history at the University of San Diego and author of “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money and American Philanthropy.”

In her biography of Scripps, a journalist who used her immense wealth to establish several Southern California institutions at the turn of the 20th Century, McClain said in 1914 the philanthropist “decided to do something for the ordinary people of San Diego.”

Scripps had the idea to found a playground and community house following nationwide movements to reform child labor practices and encourage play and recreation, as well as efforts to create recreational facilities that would replace local saloons.

“By altering the physical environment of the city’s youngest and most malleable residents, she hoped to change the moral environment of the modern city,” McClain wrote.

Scripps’ intentions followed nearly 20 years of contributing to local establishments such as what is now the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and the Bishop’s School.

McClain wrote that Scripps decided to develop a playground on three lots across the street from her house, an expansive building called South Molton Villa on Prospect Street and now the La Jolla site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, currently under renovation.

Scripps purchased the intended playground land from her neighbors, acquiring nearly the entire block. She planned to close Kline Street between Draper Avenue and Cuvier Street to allow for a multitude of sporting areas.

With the land acquired, Scripps set about the plans, meeting with city playground commissioners to discuss turning the parcel over to the city for a playground. She and the developers went through several plans before settling on one she felt best fit her goals.

In the meantime, cottages along the plot were moved to nearby parcels or destroyed.

The La Jolla Rec Center has retained much of its original exterior in its 105-year history.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The design of the community house came from esteemed local architect Irving Gill, who had already designed many other La Jolla buildings at Scripps’ behest, as well as many other historical San Diego structures. The community house plan featured arches and a tilt-slab system similar to the one Gill used in designing the La Jolla Woman’s Club, which Scripps funded two years prior.

Construction began in August 1914, with the concrete house built to accommodate many interior spaces, such as locker rooms for boys and girls, a large assembly room, and smaller club rooms.

The community space also included a basement with kitchen, training areas for boys and girls, storerooms and a first aid room.

Outside, Scripps had a wading pool installed near the corner of Prospect Street and Draper Avenue, with vines over a pergola. Also constructed were playground equipment, a volleyball court, three tennis courts and a baseball diamond.

The playground and community house were completed in 1915 with the time’s most modern amenities, McClain wrote. Scripps funded the $180,000 project, estimated at $4.6 million today.

Scripps said of the project that she hoped it would be “a place where ordinary people could meet and speak their minds without fear of harassment from civil authorities,” McClain wrote. Until then, the public could only gather in La Jolla at the La Jolla Woman’s Club.

The playground and community house held its grand opening on July 3, 1915 with an invocation by Reverend H. Gough Birchby of The Bishop’s School and a speech from Scripps herself. The opening ceremony also included folk dances and a basketball match.

Though the wading pool is long gone and the playground equipment and other features updated over the decades, the playground and community house, now the La Jolla Rec Center, still stands today, 105 years later.◆