Conjuring the Green Dragon: Developer addresses La Jolla’s most historic site

The La Jolla Bay Homes, built on the site of the historic Green Dragon Colony, will be ready to move into sometime in August, says owner/developer Don Allison.

As he ascends the untiled staircase, another floor of workers stiffens in his presence.

“Good morning, Mr. Allison!” each of the four men say, not expecting the unannounced tour guided by the multi-millionaire owner of their construction site and the land upon which it sits.

La Jollan Don Allison owns the most historically significant acre in The Village. The celebrated Green Dragon Colony was built here from 1895 to 1906. And when Allison’s new construction project is completed on the former artist colony’s last vacant land in August, the site will be occupied by residents for the first time in at least 45 years.

Since La Jolla was first developed, whatever sits on this steep hillside — cottages, offices, restaurants, vacant land — has served as gateway to The Cove for visitors entering via Cave Street. For the foreseeable future, that will be the La Jolla Bay Homes, three townhouses — ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of floor space — designed by Alcorn & Benton Architects and being brought to fruition by Turner Construction, the New York-based general contractor that’s also building the new $5 billion L.A. Rams Stadium.

“I can’t believe they said yes to my little project,” Allison says as he reaches a master bedroom.

The townhomes, built with new materials to reflect an older architectural style, range from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of floor space.

The new townhomes — approved by La Jolla’s community advisory groups in 2011, and then by the City Planning Commission in 2014 — are situated only 100 feet from the cliffs between Sunny Jim’s Cave and La Jolla Cove, offering perhaps the most breathtaking view in San Diego.

“I’ve toured seven or eight people so far,” Allison tells La Jolla Light, “and nobody looks at the houses. They all look out at the ocean.”

(The homes also offer perhaps the most breath-holding view as well, considering their prime exposure to the Cove stench — from sea-lion and bird excrement — that plagues The Cove every summer. Allison jokes his way around the controversial issue: “The what — the odor? I don’t agree with that, but when you’re older, your smeller goes.”)

Taming the Dragon

The Green Dragon Colony was developed by Anna Held, a former governess for the family of Ulysses St. Grant Jr., the 18th president’s son. A free spirit born in Berlin in 1849, Held came to La Jolla in 1894, the same year the railroad did. On the advice of a doctor friend, she purchased the undeveloped hillside from the previous landowners, Lila Hamilton and Lucetta French, for $165 ($5,030 today).

In 1895, Held hired an architect (legend says Irving Gill, but there is no proof) to design a cottage for herself around stones she gathered from the bluffs to build a fireplace. After its completion, she had guest cottages built to rent to friends. But these friends weren’t your ordinary variety.

“They were international elites — actresses, artists, musicians, writers and bohemian types,” said historian Molly McClain, who is authoring a book, tentatively titled “Ellen Browning Scripps and her Circle,” featuring a chapter on Held.

McClain said the development — at first named “Green Dragon Camp” by a frequent guest, British novelist Beatrice Harraden — was “an extraordinary art colony that people all around the world knew about, and it was the reason a lot of people first learned about La Jolla.” (Indeed, in December 1901, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “La Jolla is the Green Dragon Colony and the Green Dragon Colony is La Jolla.”)

One of the Green Dragon cottages circa 1900

By 1906, there were 12 cottages in all. Held dubbed the boat-shaped one with porthole windows The Ark. There was also the Jack O’ Lantern, East Cliff, the Gables and the Doll House — which housed her collection of 200 handmade dolls. Held built one just for her husband, composer Max Heinrich, too. They called it Wahnfried, which means “spirit of peace” in German, and was also the name of the villa owned by German composer Richard Wagner, Heinrich’s idol.

Allison stops at an Otis elevator. Each of the three new units has one — in addition to a garage that fits four-to-six cars.

“The garage is so big, if you have three or four couples over, they park down there, come up in the elevator and have cocktails,” he explains.

Allison says he paid $13 million to develop the new townhomes, not including the price of the land. That included $2 million just for a 40-foot retaining wall. He says he doesn’t have any buyers in mind, but the townhomes will be appraised and then priced at market value.

“This is my third or fourth try to develop this land, I forget how many times,” Allison says. “You could write a whole book about all the things that went on.”

A 1996 plan — to develop four townhouses and a Prospect Street restaurant on the property — was approved by the City Planning Commission but the La Jolla Town Council threatened to appeal the decision due to inadequate restaurant parking.

“If I had been smart enough, I would have said, ‘Let’s bifurcate the project, take the restaurant out of the equation and just get the four townhouses,’ ” said Jim Alcorn, co-owner of Alcorn & Benton Architects.

But Allison says he and his business partner, Bill Zongker (who died in 2015), were having second thoughts about the project anyway. They intended to move into the townhomes, but their families found them too narrow for their liking.

“So we scaled them down to three,” Allison says. “You can always build less, you can’t build more.”

Held sold the Green Dragon property in September 1912 for $30,000 — one of the largest real-estate transactions at the time — to two Los Angeles businessmen who planned to strip it and turn it either into a hotel or apartments. The cottages were spared — at least for a while — when that plan sputtered and the land was sold in 1926 to Josephine Seaman. The La Jolla philanthropist converted all but four of the cottages into shops, but left them all in their original state.

“Josephine is sometimes one of the more overlooked figures in the history of La Jolla, having been part of the community from the early 1920s until her death in 1958,” said Carol Olten, historian with the La Jolla Historical Society. “Well-known for her philanthropy, it was once said that when an S.O.S. went out for charitable causes, it meant ‘Scripps or Seaman.’ ”

The Mosher years

In 1944, the land was purchased by the Moshers — a retired produce broker named Jack and his opera-singer wife, Alice — as an investment. But they found the property so beautiful, they lived in one of the residential cottages until both their deaths (in 1974 and 1976). Their son, Robert Mosher, was an artist turned architect who went on to design the Coronado Bridge. Among his earliest projects were remodels of the shop cottages into larger, more modern buildings.

Robert’s firm, Mosher Drew, opened an office in one of them (at 1264 Prospect St.) in 1948. Another cottage, Wahnfried, 1270 Prospect St., became part of the Chart House restaurant chain in the 1970s and, following a 1981 fire and more renovation and expansion, part of the Eddie V’s chain in 2011. (Allison, one of Mosher’s closest friends until Mosher’s death in 2015, named a public ocean overlook adjacent to Eddie V’s “Mosher Point,” and filled it with plaques celebrating the architect’s accomplishments.)

In 1986, the City designated the Green Dragon Colony historically significant, thwarting Mosher’s plans to raze the remaining four cottages and build a 41-unit hotel. Preservationists celebrated victory, but it was an empty one. The cottages sat unused, boarded up and dilapidated until July 10, 1991, when Mosher and the City agreed to invoke the Permit Streamlining Act and got a court order allowing him to demolish the cottages immediately.

“The process that was used to demolish the buildings was, in my opinion, unconscionable,” said former La Jolla architect Tony Ciani, the project’s leading opponent, who obtained a restraining order to stop the demolition within 32 hours. However, by then, the damage done to the cottages was beyond repair.

Marie Burke Lia, the attorney for both the Moshers and Allison, remembers it differently.

“One of the things we had to do was get an Environmental Impact Report,” she said. “And at that time, a City ordinance required that once an action (to demolish) was started, there was a one-year delay on that permit. And, during that year, the members of the community had time to find a solution — either to buy the building or relocate it. So that year was extended. But finally we finished the report and the City Council voted not to acquire the property, so the Moshers were entitled to their permit.”

Regardless, when California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a 1991 bill tightening controls on historical properties, he specifically cited the Green Dragon Colony demolition as an example of why tougher laws were needed.

Sometime in August, when the La Jolla Bay Homes go on the market, beautiful views like this will no longer be obstructed by cranes.

Allison, is your aim true?

Allison entered the picture in June 1992. He and Zongker purchased the Green Dragon land for a reported $5.5 million from a trust established by Mosher, after the remaining cottages were reduced to a few wooden platforms, stone foundations and dead roots behind a chain-link fence.

On the walls of Allison’s office inside Berkshire-Hathaway Home Services at 1299 Prospect St. — a building he and Zongker purchased in 2003 — turn-of-the-century photos of the Green Dragon Colony and neighboring Tyrolean Terrace suggest that he is someone who cares passionately about honoring history. Among the architects and historians the Light interviewed for this article — most of whom would only speak off-the-record — the consensus is that this is generally true.

However, it was Allison and Zongker who bulldozed the Tyrolean Terrace — and just as architectural analysts were about to consider it for potential historic designation in 1976. (The land, but not the buildings, were already registered historic by the City.) By then used for apartments and retail space including the Gatekeeper natural-food restaurant and the original La Jolla location of the Pannikin Coffee & Tea, Tyrolean Terrace was built in 1910 as a collection of Craftsman cottages with carports.

“This was a historical site with a marvelous collection of historic structures,” said Ciani, who moved his architectural firm to Pacific Grove in 2012. “The historical significance of the structures was supported by architectural historians throughout the country — including David Gephard of UC Santa Barbara — and there was a reasonable beneficial use of that property, including an offer to buy the property for one dollar more than was being offered to the owners to tear them down.” (That offer came from a joint partnership Ciani established with Pannikin founder Bob Sinclair.)

“Not only were we fighting to save the buildings, we were willing to acquire them,” Ciani said.

Allison claims the cottages weren’t historic, however.

“It wasn’t even known as (Tyrolean Terrace) until (Ciani) wanted to oppose the redevelopment of the property and resurrected the name,” he says. “It was alleged at the time that that was the first motel in America by the opponent of my redevelopment. I thought, ‘Well, that’s interesting, because cars weren’t invented until 1910 and this was 2,500 miles from Detroit. You’d think that motels would have been invented closer to Detroit.’ ”

Allison and Zongker replaced the cottages with the shopping complex known as Coast Walk, which today houses Crab Catcher restaurant.

“To the credit of Don and his architect, there were two large openings from Prospect Street for the public to view the sea,” Ciani said. “And the shingle character of the buildings is Craftsman — characteristic of what the Tyrolean Terrace was like, and I think they did a good job with that.”

Likewise, the La Jolla Bay Homes honor the Green Dragon cottages. They’re named after three of them: the Jack O’ Lantern, the Gables and the East Cliff. A plaque on the sidewalk in front of one explains the historical significance of the property. And the buildings appear markedly un-modern. However, this last homage was actually a condition of the California Coastal Commission (CCC) permit issued to the Mosher Trust to demolish the last Green Dragon cottages in 1991.

“The Coastal Commission required what was rebuilt on this site to follow certain design criteria,” Allison explains. “That’s why these things look old and kind of echo what was here before.”

The permit required consulting with the State Historical Building Safety Board to determine the design elements of the former cottages that were historically and/or architecturally significant and worthy of potential incorporation. For the La Jolla Bay Homes, those 33 elements included board-and-batten siding, river-bottom stonework on exposed foundations, bungalow-style windows, covered decks and porches, and wainscoting. A stairwell also had to run through the project, joining Coast Boulevard with Prospect Street as a public right-of-way.

“As the architect for the project, I think the townhomes were done to what was required and I think they went beyond the intent of the Coastal Act and are a good mix and fit into the community,” Alcorn said.

Dragon heart

All that’s left today of the original Green Dragon Colony is the fireplace from Wahnfried Cottage, preserved in the exact spot Held had it built, which now corresponds to Eddie V’s main dining room. The fireplace still boasts its original German inscription, in Held’s own handwriting. It translates to: “Sacred to me is my hearth; sacred to me is my home.”

This fireplace, located in Eddie V’s dining room, is the only intact architectural element left of the Green Dragon Colony today.
This fireplace, located in Eddie V’s dining room, is the only intact architectural element left of the Green Dragon Colony today.

When asked if he thought Held would have approved — if the new project honors the sanctity of her former home — Alcorn replied: “Well, I’m an architect, not Anna Held. What was there before was a temporary kind of vacation living, not permanent living. They’re really two different things. But I think she would see that they fit into the community and, yes, I think she would have approved.”

Olten, a more objective voice, called the new project “an acceptable compromise” of old and new, of historical and commercial. “It’s a nod to the historic architecture that was originally on the site and a practical solution in today’s housing market,” she said. “It’s also is in keeping with older buildings that do remain in the neighborhood such as the Cave Store.”

Olten’s main criticism? “I think it is a slight bit too big,” she said, “but I know if you’re selling (townhomes), you need to sell square footage.”