How this La Jolla high-rise got built: 18-story 939 Coast Blvd. building leads to coastal-height limit

The 18-story condo complex at 939 Coast Blvd. in La Jolla opened in 1964 as the Huntley Building.

It was here before they were, so most La Jollans have learned how to ignore 939 Coast Blvd. But its brazen height and heft still begs the same question every day — and not just from guests who check into the Grande Colonial Hotel to find their ocean views partially blocked by the 18-story building, or from guests of the Pantai Inn, whose sunlight it eclipses for more than an hour every sunny day.

How in the world did 939 Coast Blvd. get built?

The project began in 1964, when developer Orville P. Huntley and a group of Texas investors began buying up a square of cottages along Coast Boulevard and Coast Boulevard South. Nobody guessed what would happen next until it did, since developers back then weren’t required to hold public hearings about their plans.

Developer Orville Huntley surveys his newly opened Huntley Building in 1964.
Developer Orville Huntley surveys his newly opened Huntley Building in 1965.

“Like most La Jollans, I did not learn about it as we would today — through a public notice of a pending environmental review or coastal permit,” said former La Jolla architect Anthony Ciani. “I was a lifeguard at the Children’s Pool at the time and a friend of residents in the surrounding cottages who were evicted to allow for the demolitions.”

La Jollans had no clue how large 939 Coast Blvd. would be until they saw the excavation site in 1964.

Protests to progress

As what was originally called the Huntley Building began to rise, diminishing the ocean views (and property values) of the remaining cottages along Coast Boulevard South, the local outcry was loud, furious and occasionally physical.

One Friday afternoon after workers knocked off for the weekend, Ciani said, neighbors surrounded the garage excavation with garden hoses and ran water at full force into the hole.

“This created a remarkable pool of water that slowed the project down for several weeks while geologists searched for the source and finally drilled into a large aquifer they had to plug up,” he said. On another occasion, steeled by the contractor’s attempt to dump excavation soil into the ocean at Shell Beach, nearby residents stood on the sidewalk to block construction trucks.

Of course, none of these stunts — characterized by Ciani as “naive reactions to fight the work” — were enough to stop so-called progress in the long run.

The Huntley Building advertises for wealthy tenants while still under construction in 1964.

In 1964, 170 luxury apartments — each featuring marble baths, air-conditioning and sound-proofing — were unveiled at between $33,000 and $95,000 each (with an additional monthly maintenance fee). Huntley advertised them with enticements to “live elegantly ... where your front yard is America’s Riviera, La Jolla.”

Ronald Reagan attended the grand-opening soiree, held on the roof, where Huntley had his Ford Thunderbird hoisted as a publicity stunt.

More national attention was drawn, however, by a scathing commentary from Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Britten, who likened the Huntley Building to “Gulliver (deciding) to build among the Mildendoans.”

“We all hated it,” said Joanne Crosby, a La Jolla resident since 1950. “I still hate it. When you come down the hill past Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the view is fabulous and then that thing sticks out like a sore thumb.”

The condominium complex at 939 Coast Blvd. is 219 feet tall.

Social scene changes

But blocked views and aesthetics weren’t the only issues. According to Ciani, the perception was that the building forever changed not only La Jolla’s skyline, but its social fabric.

“It began in the late 1950s,” he said, “and (the social club) Mac Meda Destruction Co. was a by-product of the feeling and anger that grew out of the loss of (being) replaced by wealthier people than those in La Jolla. By the time the lot was cleared and excavation had started, we all knew the magnitude of 939. It was visceral and sad (and) there was an exodus of young people — including many of my friends who consciously fled to Northern California, the Sierra, Oregon and Colorado.”

Huntley died in 1979. But the Light contacted his daughter, Cherisse Huntley, to represent his side of the story.

“I’ve read a lot of articles where people weren’t happy with it being built and saying it’s a monstrosity,” she said, “but to keep on with all the negative comments is an insult to all the wonderful people who make 939 Coast Blvd. their home. It brought a lot of wealthy people to La Jolla — a lot of really great people, and they, in turn, donated a lot of money to charities and the arts.”

Cherisse also pointed out that the building drew praise from Andrew Andeck, the president of La Jolla Town Council at the time. (According to the July 23, 1964 San Diego Union, Andeck “congratulated the builders for their fine concept of this plan, which shows appropriate blending in with the wishes of the community in regard to landscaping and style.”)

In the end, the answer to how 939 Coast Blvd. got built is a simple one: Nothing at the time was in place to prevent it.

“La Jollans were living in the belief that no one would want to destroy the simple humble lifestyle of their seaside village,” Ciani said. “They were wrong and it happened pretty quickly.”

Some of today’s La Jollans choose not to ignore 939 Coast Blvd., but to see it as a monument to the triumph of neighbors over commerce.

The owners of 927 Coast Blvd South could not have happy campers in 1964. The house is now owned by the nearby Grande Colonial Hotel.

Building code changes

Anger over the building led to the birth of the La Jolla Height Limitation Committee of Citizens Coordinate a year later. The work of this lobbying group led the City Council to shut down several proposed towers — including a 17-story apartment building proposed at 1040 Coast Blvd. South and one that would have rotated atop Mt. Soledad.

By 1966, coastal construction was limited to 50 feet, which Proposition D shortened to 30 feet in 1972.

Preventing tall buildings was also the mandate of a second organization. Formed by the late Karl Zobell, F. Seth Brown and others, it was originally called La Jolla Inc., but changed its name to the La Jolla Community Planning Association in 1987.

The condos at 939 Coast Blvd. continue to be highly in demand today, with three-bedrooms selling for as much as $6 million. But, due to the voices of La Jolla’s residents and community groups, its success has gone without an encore.

At least so far.