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This Month in La Jolla History: Prolific philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps was born 184 years ago

Ellen Browning Scripps, pictured around 1930, founded or funded many La Jolla institutions.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

This Month in History is a recurring feature in the La Jolla Light highlighting local happenings from yesteryear. If you are aware of historical events from any year in La Jolla history that deserve recognition, email efrausto@lajollalight.com.

La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who founded or funded many local institutions, was born Oct. 18, 1836, in London. It would be 60 years before she made her home in La Jolla after a childhood in Rushville, Ill., and trailblazing as a journalist in America.

Scripps graduated from Knox College in Illinois in 1859 and became a schoolteacher but left for Detroit after the Civil War to publish The Detroit Evening News with her brother James. She invested most of her salary in the company and loaned money to her many siblings, according to Molly McClain in “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money & American Philanthropy.” She also began to amass the fortune that she would later become known for giving away.

Scripps founded several other publications with her brother E.W., creating a chain of highly profitable newspapers and “overcoming rigid class barriers, racism, sexism and hostility to ethnic groups,” McClain wrote.

In the 1890s, Scripps encouraged E.W. to move to San Diego, and the two established a ranch at Miramar and continued building their newspaper empire. In 1896, she decided to have a home built in La Jolla, which during the previous decade was “little more than a summer campground,” according to McClain.

The house, called South Molton Villa for the London street on which Scripps was born, was completed in 1897 when Scripps was 61. After the house was destroyed by fire in 1915, Scripps commissioned architect Irving Gill to build a new one. It is now the site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Prospect Street.

Scripps, whom McClain said “understood philanthropy as a form of social advocacy,” helped launch many La Jolla establishments, such as the Woman’s Club and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — first named the Marine Biological Association of San Diego.

Scripps also funded La Jolla staples such as The Bishop’s School, the Recreation Center, Scripps Memorial Hospital, Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and the Children’s Pool.

Scripps died in 1932 at age 95. The La Jolla Historical Society usually honors her birthday with a celebration at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club but will skip the festivities this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Other events:

The Green Dragon Colony cottages, pictured around 1920, were sold in October 1944 to Jack and Alice Mosher.
The Green Dragon Colony cottages, pictured around 1920, were sold in October 1944 to
Jack and Alice Mosher.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

Oct. 2, 1944: The Green Dragon Colony, a group of 12 cottages built by Anna Held in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were sold to Jack and Alice Mosher. The cottages had been owned by Josephine Seaman since 1926.

The Moshers retained only four of the original cottages, incorporating the others into larger buildings for shops, according to “This Day in San Diego History” by Linda Pequegnat.

The city designated the four original cottages as historical sites in May 1986. Today, Pequegnat wrote, none of the original Green Dragon cottages remains in its original state, having been absorbed into larger buildings.

Oct. 5, 1930: Episcopal church St. James by-the-Sea dedicated its present building, replacing the original building erected in 1907, Pequegnat wrote.

The land was originally donated by Virginia Scripps, with the first structure designed by Gill and damaged by fire in 1915.

“The congregation soon flourished,” according to the St. James website, “and it became apparent that a larger structure was necessary.”

The church’s website says Gill and his nephew, architect Louis Gill, designed the new church in the same Spanish Colonial style, with a sanctuary that accommodates 450 people. It was built when the congregation numbered about 250.

Oct. 11, 1899: The first telephone in La Jolla was installed, according to Pequegnat, in the home of Dr. Foster Post. The second La Jollans to receive a telephone were Anson Mills and his wife, Eleanor.

Oct. 19, 1900: Mills played golf for the first time on a new course in La Jolla and organized the La Jolla Golf Club a few months later, Pequegnat wrote. The course, originally at Prospect and Cave streets, was relocated to the present site of the La Jolla Country Club on the northwestern slope of Mount Soledad. ◆