City takes action on Pottery Canyon kiln case

The Pottery Canyon kiln observed from Pottery Park Driveway, Jan. 26.
The Pottery Canyon kiln observed from Pottery Park Driveway, Jan. 26.
(María José Durán)

On Jan. 23, the City of San Diego sent a Civil Penalty Notice and Order (CPNO) to Lai Ngai, owner of the property at 2725 Torrey Pines Road, regarding the historically designated kiln that stands on his land. According to the Code Enforcement Section of the Development Services Department (DSD), Ngai must “immediately cease any and all activity on the pottery kiln located on the rear of the property.”

However, in an e-mail to La Jolla Light, a perplexed Ngai maintains that no work has been done on the kiln nor its surroundings. “We have not done anything on the property, but have hired a developer to scope out the situation,” he wrote.

The original report, which is included in the Code Enforcement case online at, dates back to 2014 and concludes: “The Pottery Canyon Park historic kiln is uncovered and left exposed to elements, deterioration, etc. The kiln is being allowed to deteriorate more quickly.”

The six-foot-high kiln was designated “historical” in 1976, and considered part of the Rodriguez family legacy. They used the kiln to make the clay pottery and tiles they sold from their spot on Torrey Pines Road. The designation covers the kiln that sits on adjacent private property.

“It is clear to City staff that someone performed work on the kiln/property without a permit,” said City public information officer Paul Brencick. “But it’s unclear who did — owner or otherwise.”

He added that City crews inspected the site and “a violation was confirmed by the City’s Historic Resources staff and Code Enforcement. In addition to neglect, it appears that work, not in accordance with the Secretary of Interior Standards for a designated Historic Resource, was performed. It appears someone tried to assist in slowing the deterioration of the kiln and by doing so damaged its integrity.”

For the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS), the kiln is a “significant historical object representing an important story of La Jolla’s past,” explains executive director Heath Fox in a statement. The original concern, as discussed by the LJHS Preservation Committee in July 2016, was the kiln’s “rapid deterioration.”

Referring to the deterioration, Ngai said Development Services staff told him to “leave everything as is” when he bought the property in 2013. “At any rate, I’ve been asked by DSD to leave the kiln alone even though it posts a safety hazard. We were told by them to check with the other City departments if we wished to develop the area,” Ngai said.

Recently, Ngai hired a contractor to look at the building possibilities on the property with the intention to construct “a small house, not like those up the hilltop eating away the slope.” He added that hiring a builder may have triggered the CNPO from the City.

LJHS and Ngai agree that constructing a replica of the kiln on the adjacent City Park, where it can stand closer to the sign and public view, would be a viable solution.

Initially, LJHS considered moving the kiln entirely, but that idea was disregarded due to the possibility that the kiln could be contaminated by lead, usually present in ceramics and pottery at the time, and the toxic metal could become airborne while transporting it. However, attorney Toni Ciani, a friend of potter Cornelio Rodriguez who learned how to make tiles from him, told the Light that Rodriguez never used lead in his creations.

Ngai said that when he bought the property, he wasn’t told that a historically designated object was included in the deal. “(We) felt that pertinent information from the seller was not forthcoming,” he said. “Now, why should I bear the cost for the kiln’s preservation? At any rate, I’m caught in a ‘Catch-22’ situation if my inaction has dire consequences. Also, boarding it up (to preserve the kiln) defeats the historical purpose if it is meant for public view.”