When the Save Our Heritage (SOHO) 2019 Most List of Historic Resources comes out in mid-October, La Pottery Canyon kiln will be on it, according to attendees of the group’s Sept. 12 meeting at the House Museum, where the kiln was voted onto the list.
The 6-foot, circular wood-burning kiln — located on a private lot at 2725 Torrey Pines Road adjacent to Pottery Canyon Park — once belonged to Cornelio Rodriguez, who operated a pottery on the site from 1928 to the 1950s. It was one of two kilns in which Rodriguez baked pottery and roof and floor tiles for historic La Jolla buildings including Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church and the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.
La Jolla Canyon Clay Products Company (named after La Jolla Canyon Road, the former name of Torrey Pines Road) began when Rodriguez came to La Jolla from Jalisco, Mexico with his brothers, Abraham and Ubaldo. They selected what is now Pottery Canyon Park (named after their business) for its ideal clay composition (known as barro). Rodriguez — who is believed to have lived until the 1990s — is regarded as the last Southern California artisan to dig clay from his own land, hand-fashion it into pottery on a potter’s wheel as did his ancestors, and then bake the finished products himself.
“The significance of the kiln derives from Mr. Rodriguez himself,” said former La Historical Society (LJHS) committee member Don Schmidt, who spoke at the SOHO meeting in favor of including the kiln on the endangered list. “Make no mistake, the man was an artist. A painter has their easel and paints, a sculptor has their hammer and chisel, Mr. Rodriguez had his clay, various materials and his kiln.”
In 1976, Pottery Canyon Park — including all its structures on public and private land — was designated a historical site and became a City park. Yet, through a series of errors and bad luck, the kiln is the only structure that remains standing. And standing is probably overstating the case. The kiln was left to deteriorate in the elements for decades. Photos taken by the Light in 2014 show it literally crumbling back then. Since that time, the current owner (Chin Lai of Carmel Valley) has installed a wood-framed tarp around the site, blocking public visibility.
“We don’t know what’s happening there,” said Heath Fox, LJHS executive director, who filed a code-compliance violation complaint with the City on Aug. 22, alleging that the tarp suggests a demolition in progress. (Fox sent the Light the e-mail response he received from a City public-information clerk: “There is currently an active case for this address, CE-218377.”)
The reason the kiln is situated on land adjacent to Pottery Canyon Park is because the land Rodriguez thought was his was purchased through an attorney who misinterpreted its dimensions. So the land the plant was on was sold without his knowledge. In the 50s, the larger oil-fired kiln was demolished, along with most of the manufacturing equipment, and many in the large family moved out. But Cornelio and his wife, Matiana, continued living on the property, which they leased — making pots and decorative items on the smaller, wood-burning kiln — through at least the 1980s.
Historic preservation consultant Tony Ciani told the Light that preserving what’s left of the existing kiln is “essential” to convey the historical feeling and association of the site’s historical significance.
“The kiln structure’s historical methods and materials of construction are known and available, and it should be rehabilitated, restored or reconstructed in situ,” Ciani wrote in an e-mail to the Light.
In 2016, City staff told the Light that the responsibility for maintaining the kiln lies with the owner of the property.The problem with restoring the kiln is that the pottery made there was glazed with lead oxide, which has probably contaminated both the kiln and the surrounding soil.
“I think the existing kiln should be carefully dismantled, with the dismantling photographed during each step of the process as documentation, and all hazardous materials disposed of,” Fox said. “Then I think a reproduction kiln, with new materials fabricated as close as possible to the original, should be constructed on the City part of Pottery Canyon Park, with appropriate signage to document and commemorate the history.”
The Light attempts to reach the owner of the property, and the City investigator in charge of the active case, were unsuccessful. SOHO would not confirm any structures on its endangered list until it makes its official announcement in October.