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Pottery Canyon: A Forgotten La Jolla Story

The property off Torrey Pines Road, north of La Jolla Parkway, once belonged to the Rodriguez family, who operated the La Jolla Canyon Clay Products Company on the site. In the center of this photo, the crumbling historical kiln can be seen.
The property off Torrey Pines Road, north of La Jolla Parkway, once belonged to the Rodriguez family, who operated the La Jolla Canyon Clay Products Company on the site. In the center of this photo, the crumbling historical kiln can be seen.
María José Durán

Historical kiln deteriorates on private property adjacent to park

Continuing to deteriorate on the bare slopes adjacent to Pottery Canyon Park, the 6-foot historical kiln that once produced the artisan pottery manufactured and sold in La Jolla, has raised the concern of residents and passersby who contacted La Jolla Light for an update on the situation.

There was a time when the Rodriguez family ran a successful pottery business off Torrey Pines Road. The business and its owners are now dead, the property was sold, and the remaining historical artifact neglected by the new owners.

The crumbling kiln where pottery and roof and floor tiles baked, from 1928 to the 1970s, can still be seen from the Pottery Canyon Trail off Torrey Pine Road, if you know what you’re looking for. Uncovered and partially blocked by the current tenant’s truck, the historical object sits in a sorry state.

Heath Fox, executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) explained that “it hasn’t been inspected up close by anyone that I’m aware of, but it appears from afar that it’s continuing to deteriorate, and so that’s a concern.” In 1976, Pottery Canyon Park was designated a historical site by the City of San Diego. Of all the structures registered in the designation, some on public land and some on private, the kiln is the only one that remains standing.

“The pottery produced there is probably still in many old homes in La Jolla,” Fox said. “It was a significant early enterprise that was going on here, very unique, in regards to the type of commercial businesses at the time. It speaks to the history of this community.”

The story ‘Pottery Canyon abuses brought to light’ by Pat Dahlberg was published in the La Jolla Light on Feb. 10, 1977. Pictures by David Eidenmiller.
The story ‘Pottery Canyon abuses brought to light’ by Pat Dahlberg was published in the La Jolla Light on Feb. 10, 1977. Pictures by David Eidenmiller.
Light File

Mary, Star by the Sea Catholic Church and the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club are among the buildings where the Rodriguez tiles can be found. Pat Dahlberg, former LJHS president who worked intensely to preserve the area, said that most Spanish-style buildings in San Diego were constructed with Rodriguez pottery.

During its Tuesday, July 5 meeting, the LJHS Preservation Committee held a discussion on the issue. “We were trying to figure out what is the appropriate action to take, and we are trying to get a sense of what the current situation is,” said member Diane Kane.

For Fox, the best solution would be to move the kiln to the public land of the Pottery Canyon Park where it can be preserved by the city. However, this idea found opposition from archeologist Ron May, who brought up the fact that the whole area might be contaminated by lead and other metals.

Two years ago, the city started a remediation job that consisted of filling the lead-contaminated areas in the public park with new soil. May said he fears that the contamination found then will also be present inside the kiln and around it.

Sister Mary (cropped left) and the Rodriguez family with the kiln in the 1990s.
Sister Mary (cropped left) and the Rodriguez family with the kiln in the 1990s.
Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society

“The problem is that the people who operated the kiln and made pottery for sale back in the 1930s and ’40s used a lead oxide to glaze the pottery and make it waterproof. The lead oxide itself is generally not dangerous until it makes contact with something that’s acidic. Then, it breaks down. For example, if you have a lead bowl and you put a tomato paste-type food inside, that makes it dangerous. You don’t want to eat food cooked on lead-glazed pottery.

“But the other problem is that the kiln itself is where they cooked the pottery pieces with the lead oxide … The lead oxide also went up into a chemical form, a gas if you will, into the bricks in the kiln, and the structure of the kiln itself is permeated with the lead oxide.”

May explained that the heavy kiln cannot be moved as a whole, it would have to be broken down to the bricks to be transported, risking the lead oxide to become airborne and dangerous for the people working on the site. “The best thing you can do for a lead-contaminated kiln is leave it in place, not move it anywhere. But if you treat it like the city did with their (other contaminated areas), burying it, there’s nothing for anybody to see, so no one really benefits from this at all.”

For May, the solution involves building a replica of the kiln on the public park, “so at least people can see what it looked like … It’s a city historical landmark and the whole park is named after the pottery industry that was there. People go to that park because it was Pottery Canyon, where the pottery was made.”

The Rodriguez brothers use ancient pottery techniques on pieces that were fired in the kiln.
The Rodriguez brothers use ancient pottery techniques on pieces that were fired in the kiln.
Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society

However, Fox stated that if the appropriate funding was found, he would like to see a team of experts deconstruct the kiln and move it to public land “in a manner that it can be appreciated by the public who use the park.”

If the kiln was to be moved, May suggested having a professional architect and photographer document the process. He said, “Part of the plan would be to get someone to test the bricks to see if there’s lead contamination in them, if there’s not, it makes the whole project a lot easier.”

The Historical Society recently communicated its concerns about the deterioration of the kiln to the City of San Diego. “We got a response from the Code Enforcement Department, saying they have a working case on it, but they didn’t provide us with any details,” Fox said.

The latest update from City officials states that a close-up inspection of the kiln is underway prior to submitting a report to the City Attorney. “We would like to inspect prior to determining our course of action and also to get a good up-close look at the condition of the historic resource,” wrote a City employee on an email to the LJHS Preservation Comittee.

However, when La Jolla Light contacted the city to obtain more information on the case, a communications officer wrote in an e-mail that, “Development Services Code Enforcement Division is not aware of any coordination with Historical Resources or City Attorney.”

City staff also said that the responsibility for maintaining the kiln lies with the owner of the property. The Light has unsuccessfully tried to contact the current tenant and owner of the property.

Coming next week in La Jolla Light: A look at La Jolla Canyon Clay Products Company and how its historical patrimony has almost disappeared.