The first stroke of bad luck hit Cornelio Rodriguez, a Mexican potter established in La Jolla, in 1931 when he bought what he thought was one-and-a-half acres of land on what is now known as Pottery Canyon. The lawyer who arranged the deal, Mr. Shipley, misunderstood the property dimensions, which ended up costing Rodriguez his land, his craft and his legacy.
Rodriguez arrived in La Jolla in 1928 and found in Pottery Canyon the clay needed to manufacture tiles and pottery. That year, he built two one-story homes and a kiln, and a drying shed in 1932. His family ran a successful pottery business, from which tiles can still be found in many La Jolla homes and buildings.
The roof and floor tile manufacturing fell apart in the 1950s when Shipley’s land assessment mistakes were unveiled. The application to the City of San Diego Historical Site Board Register, written by fellow potter and family friend Triano Ciani states, “A mix-up in survey points had evidently occurred back in 1931. The land the plant was on was sold without their knowledge.”
The factory was dismantled, but the family kept a hand-made pottery business. But Rodriguez’s hardships were not over. In 1951, a complaint was filed against him in an effort to steer him from his land. Around that time, he met former La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) president Pat Dahlberg, who played a main role in the events that shaped Pottery Canyon. She said she remembers Rodriguez as greatly appreciated by his friends. Among them, Lorin (Speed) Kopp was a “character” from Hollywood that took personal interest in the potter’s affairs. “He wanted to stay down here (to support Rodriguez), and he decided to build a restaurant, Su Casa,” Dahlberg said.
With the support of the community, the complaint issue was resolved and Rodriguez was allowed to rent a part of the public-owned land. The “Pottery Canyon Site Archeological Evaluation Project” submitted in 2011 by Brian F. Smith and Associates stated, “A petition from the local community convinced the City to allow the family to continue living at the 60- by 125-foot parcel on a lease back agreement for $260 per year.”
The report continues, “Cornelio and his wife continued to produce decorative clay products using a newly-constructed wood-fired kiln. The original structures from 1928-1932 had been dismantled.” The crumbling state of the wood-fired kiln was featured in the July 8 La Jolla Light story “Pottery Canyon: A Forgotten La Jolla Story.”
One of Rodriguez’s clients was Bob Warwick, founder of local bookstore Warwick’s. Bob passed away, but his wife Marion keeps many of the pots that he acquired at the potter’s store. “He was always in need of pots and he found that he could find them hand-made in Torrey Pines Road,” Marion said.
A Memo to File from July 22, 1998 by Robert Vacchi, Associate Planner with Neighborhood Code Compliance, found among the records of Pottery Canyon preserved at the LJHS reads, “In the early 70s the City started a condemnation action in order to widen Torrey Pines Road. Historic designation was requested in an attempt to save the site.”
The Rodriguez family counted on the collaboration of friends (Bob Warwick, Dahlberg and Ciani) to try to protect their assets. In 1973, the public-owned land was designated as a public park. In 1976, after the application written by Ciani, the buildings that remain on the Rodriguez’s property were designated historical resources, and therefore couldn’t be demolished.
The City confirmed that the historical designation went through. Besides the kiln, five buildings were mentioned in the application: A drying shed, a pottery room, the Rodriguez’s house, his brother Abraham’s house, a retail store and a newer house close to the road where his daughter and grandchildren lived. The latter is the only one that is still standing, due to a demolition error.
After noticing missing buildings as she drove on Torrey Pines Road, Dahlberg sent a letter to Harry Mathis, then San Diego District 1 City Councilmember, in April 1998. “It has come to the attention of the LJHS that at least two and maybe three of the five historically designated buildings in Pottery Canyon have been demolished recently without a city permit or community notification,” it reads.
When asked about his recollection, Ciani was quick to blame the City. “The City came in and said that it was in bad condition and needed to be demolished, they apologized for it later,” he said, “I remember that I was shocked when it happened, and I said, someone gave you the wrong information with the city, because this was protected as a historical landmark along with the kiln.”
Cornelio’s nephew, Abraham Rodriguez, grew up in one of the now-gone houses. He says he wasn’t involved in the demolition, but he remembers that it was the City who requested it.
In the Vacci Memo to File from July 1998, the mistake was admitted, “By 1996, Mr. Rodriguez had passed away and Mrs. Rodriguez, then 79, moved to a nearby house located on her own property. A misunderstanding of the Right of Entry Agreement caused Mrs. Rodriguez to tear down all of the structures except for the kiln. City staff also failed to recognize the error and the demolition was not brought to our attention until two years later.”
The Right of Entry Agreement was signed between the city and Matiana Rodriguez (Cornelio Rodriguez’s wife) for the use of Pottery Canyon Park for pottery making and incidental uses in June 25, 1990.
By December 1998, councilmember Mathis sent a letter to LJHS apologizing. “The demolition of the historic structures at Pottery Canyon Park was truly a blow to the preservation of La Jolla’s rich history. On behalf of the City of San Diego, please accept my apology to the LJHS and the community for any actions by the city staff that contributed to this unfortunate event.”
The last historically designated structure standing, the wood-fired kiln, is on the private property that used to belong to Rodriguez, sold a few years ago. LJHS has taken up an investigation to find a way to preserve the kiln.