Many of the landmarks of La Jolla’s past hang around, masquerading as undistinguished markers of everyday life.
Yes, Ellen Browning Scripps’ former house is still part of the soon-to-reopen Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Burns Drugs is now Brooks Bros. and Scripps Hospital La Jolla is now the condos at 464 Prospect St.
For this story, however, we searched for the least-known, most surprising examples of adaptive reuse we could find.
Stella Maris Academy administrative offices
Where: 7654 Herschel Ave.
Used to be WHAT? La Jolla Mortuary
Getting called to the principal’s office is scary enough without having to enter a building where the recently deceased were once prepared for burial and cremation. From 1924 until 1978, the building that now houses the administration offices for Stella Maris, and the Star Center for school assemblies, was a funeral home.
“Personal service always, serving all faiths, full veterans benefits,” read an advertisement that the La Jolla Mortuary placed in the May 1962 issue of the Navy’s Seabee magazine.
La Jolla architect Joe Dameron was hired to re-purpose the closed building for its current use. For an assembly hall, for example, there would be no need to change the existing floors, which sloped downward toward the front of the room to facilitate viewing of a body from the rear.
Dameron gave his son, Daniel, the job of measuring the space to help construct a new floor plan.
“I got all the measurements of all the rooms except what they called the processing room,” Daniel said. “I was creeped out. My dad came in and noticed some measurements were missing. I confessed I had the willies and was frightened by all the bodies that had been in there. He scoffed at me and grabbed his pad of paper and tape measure.”
Julie Hollis has been Stella Maris’s business manager for 20 years.
“As far as I know,” she told the Light, “I’ve never experienced any haunting events.”
Nevertheless, Daniel said he and his father ended up having to deduce the measurements of the “processing” room, “because he was creeped out, too.”
Grand Prix Classics, Kitchen Expo, California Bicycle
Where: 7456-7462 La Jolla Blvd.
Used to be WHAT? The Unicorn Theatre/Mithras Books
La Jolla’s only independent art-house movie theater opened in December 1964 in a large commercial space on La Jolla Boulevard by Pearl Street. In early 1966, it was joined by Mithras Books.
“We had the very clever idea of making people wait in the bookstore as they waited for a film,” said Sandra Darling, now a resident of Seattle, who co-founded the theater/bookstore along with her late husband, Harold, and their business partner, Harold Leigh.
With fewer than 100 seats, the Unicorn screened films that couldn’t be seen anywhere else in San Diego: avant-garde, foreign, silent, forgotten classics. (Remember, this was the era before VHS!) Thus, La Jolla became the de-facto location of the American premiere of the 1972 Soviet sci-fi film, “Solaris.”
“There was no theater around doing anything like that,” Darling said. “It was a remarkably programmed theater, thanks to my husband. UC San Diego had just opened and we got a lot of students looking for an interesting place.”
The Unicorn closed on March 21, 1982 with the same two movies it opened with: Adolfas Mekas’ “Hallelujah the Hills” and Francois Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player.” Mithras Books closed the following day.
“It never made a lot of money,” Darling said. “It was always more or less a labor of love.”
Darling said she’s seen photos of Grand Prix Classics, which occupies the same space as the theater once did. (According to Christopher Canole, one of the Mithras’ last clerks, the bookstore is located where Kitchen Expo and California Bicycle are now.)
“I’m sure they’re making a lot more money than we ever did,” Darling said.
Girard Village Mews
Where: 7469-7475 Girard Ave.
Used to be WHAT? Scripps Little Green Laboratory at the Cove (possibly)
The entire Scripps Institution of Oceanography once measured only 60 by 20 feet. In 1903, a laboratory for the Marine Biological Association of San Diego (MBASD) opened in Coronado. Two years later, it relocated to a new lab built near Alligator Head Point — not far from where the La Jolla Cove Bridge Club would be built in 1939.
The Little Green Laboratory at La Jolla Cove housed three labs of equal size, a small library and still smaller regent room, and an immensely popular aquarium-museum that drew members of the the public from all over San Diego and the world.
A year after the station was built by Acton and Company for $992, La Jolla benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps told the MBASD’s directors that she was placing $50,000 at their disposal to replace it. Space was already too cramped for its scientific purposes, and questions had also arisen regarding the station’s location next to a gigantic pipe that had been approved to belch raw sewage nearby. (The San Diego City Council eventually defeated that proposal, but the momentum to relocate had already gained strength.)
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography would open its first doors in La Jolla Shores in 1907. However, Carol Olten, historian at the La Jolla Historical Society, believes the Little Green Laboratory never closed its doors, and is currently part of the Girard Village Mews development, 7469-7475 Girard Ave., behind the Pannikin Coffee & Tea.
The building in question is about 45 feet long instead of 60, but is similar in design and construction.
“I think they moved part of the structure,” Olten said.
Although its current tenant knew nothing of the building’s history, Olten said a previous resident told her the story of the Little Green Laboratory being hauled south along Girard.
“My theory is that somebody — whenever they decided to get rid of this building from The Cove — they probably said, ‘If we move that part of it, we can maybe have a thing to rent out to somebody.’ ”
Olten joked that the Light will now probably receive “six letters to the editor saying, ‘That Carol Olten, she doesn’t know anything!’”
— If you know any surprising La Jolla adaptive-reuse stories, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll investigate!