Woman’s Club repairs stymied by city permitting process

At almost 102 years old, the walls of La Jolla Woman’s Club — built with funding from La Jolla benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps — have seen a lot. And as the club works to upgrade the building and keep those walls standing for another 100 years, challenges in obtaining city permits have created stumbling blocks for the historic club.

Adding to an already complicated process, members of the La Jolla Woman’s Club (LJWC) shared with La Jolla Light the struggles with unexplained delays they recently faced in trying to carry out a necessary replacement when it came to working with the city. Although the ball is now rolling, members of LJWC have been scratching their heads and felt frustration that it took so long to get here.

A little over a year ago, the club decided to replace the pergola (wooden beams) over the patio, where cocktail hour is often held during weddings and other events. The weathered beams were not posing a safety threat, but because they are the original beams from over 100 years ago, they were due for a replacement.

House director Pat McGill explained the beams have been damaged by termites and overall wear and tear. She said, “They didn’t treat wood 100 years ago like they do today. The new wood would be treated so it will last longer.” But the board will need to take it one step further and replace the beams “in like kind” meaning, “We have to replace these beams in the exact same size as they did 100 years ago. You can’t just buy them off the shelf at a lumber yard,” McGill said.

So club members set to work getting cost estimates and seeking grants.

In April 2015, they applied for a grant from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation, and in what LJWC president Mithu Sherin called an “unprecedented” move, the club was granted the entire amount they requested.

“We were dumbstruck when we got the whole amount, because we were ready to get some funding through grants and fundraise for the rest. We are so grateful,” she said.

With funding secured, they applied for the necessary permits — and the waiting game began. “We were awarded the grant in June 2015 and immediately started the permitting process. But despite us filing everything on time, we have not fixed one single beam. It’s ludicrous” Sherin explained.

Finding ironic humor in that the entire project would take “two weeks, maybe three,” Sherin said she never imagined the permitting process would take more than a year. “It’s not transparent what the delays were for, and (we had) no insight into the process. It’s been really frustrating,” she said. “I understand we have a historic building and there is certain scrutiny and a process specific to that, but it was hard to believe just how long everything has taken.”

And because so many weddings take place at the Irving Gill-designed building, the intention was to have the replacement take place before busy wedding season (typically April to September), when there is not a weekend to spare at the facility.

Now hoping for some forward momentum at the end of wedding season, Sherin reports an inspector recently came to assess the situation and start the process of getting the beams replaced. But even that has come with some challenges.

“We were not approved for the whole project, they signed off on a permit to replace one section of beams. They are going to come back when that section is done and decide whether the rest could all be worked on at once or a few at a time, with them coming back to sign off on permits after each round,” Sherin lamented. “If we could do the whole project at once, it would be at our budget and the amount given to us through the grant. But if they come back and say we have to do things piecemeal — and there has been no indication on which way the city will decide — the cost could be three or four times the original quote.”

She added, “We’re at their mercy.”

And though things are “moving along more smoothly” now, McGill said she wanted to speak out so clubs or organizations associated with historic buildings can learn from LJWC’s experience.

“We are a group of volunteers, we are not experts in construction, and we wish we had known to get our ducks in a row, learn what we would need to produce or provide in advance, or have some sort of guidance through the process. For those that manage historic buildings that are looking into something like this, I think if you can learn as much as you can about the process … or get some guidance, it’s a huge help.”