Late oceanographer Walter Munk’s former home damaged by fallen tree; its future is uncertain

A downed tree and its raised roots caused damage at Seiche, famed oceanographer Walter Munk's former home in La Jolla Shores.
A downed tree and its raised roots caused damage at Seiche, famed oceanographer Walter Munk’s former home in La Jolla Shores.

Seiche, the lush and landscaped La Jolla Shores property once home to famed oceanographer Walter Munk, was damaged last week when a tree fell over during a storm. The tree’s roots raised the ground about eight feet, damaging the guest house roof, compromising its foundation and breaking some underground lines Jan. 26.

Munk died in February 2019 at age 101, but his widow, Mary Coakley Munk, has been living in the main house.

She said she wasn’t in the guest house when the tree toppled and didn’t know anything was amiss until she couldn’t turn on the water around 6:15 a.m.

Coakley Munk learned the cause was an Aleppo pine tree that had fallen, uplifting gas, water and electricity lines. Soon after, emergency crews cut off the lines to prevent any accidents or flooding. Coakley Munk said the damage wasn’t repaired until about 7 that night.

“It also damaged the roof and caused there to be a bit of space where water seeped in,” she said. “The tree took some of the facia with it and lifted some of the roof, so it’s just on the northeast corner mostly, but there was damage … from branches that went over the house.”

A second Aleppo pine also fell and a third on the site was removed as a precaution because it was “about to go,” Coakley Munk said. She said the trees “started as 5-gallon trees about 70 years ago. … It’s very sad.”

A tree is toppled on the grounds of Seiche, oceanographer Walter Munk's former La Jolla home, after a storm Jan. 26.
A tree is toppled on the grounds of Seiche, oceanographer Walter Munk’s former La Jolla home, after a storm Jan. 26.

The house is known as Seiche (a standing wave oscillating in a body of water), appropriate for the man nicknamed the “Einstein of the Oceans,” who was an oceanographer and geophysicist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The house was designed and built by Munk and his then-wife, Judith, an artist and architect who died in 2006, as part of the creation of the university.

Ahead of his 100th birthday, Munk spoke to the La Jolla Light about the house. He said that in the late 1940s, 19 Scripps Oceanography colleagues got together and bought 42 acres of Scripps Estates for $42,000. They designated the canyon a common area and subdivided the rest.

“Judy was in charge and I did all the plumbing and electrical work,” Munk said of Seiche. “And Judy wasn’t just an architect; she knew how to mix cement. We had no money, so we went to the Bank of La Jolla and asked for a $5,000 loan. The bank manager was ready to turn us down because we had no contractor, but when he came out and saw what we were doing, he gave us the loan. … There was nothing here then, no trees, no bushes. We planted every one.”

Munk’s obituary, authored by SIO, stated that “Munk’s home, known as Seiche after a variety of the waves he studied, became an incubator of ideas for the new campus. … Walter and Judith Munk would become entrenched in the social life of Scripps with their La Jolla home serving as a salon at which students, visiting intellectuals, artists and scientists would gather to discuss ideas.”

Coakley Munk said the house would host everything from graduations to concerts in the early days, along with politicians from both parties looking to raise funds, and the JASONs, a select group of scientists who advised the Pentagon.

“Something was always going on here,” Coakley Munk said. “Thinking about all the things that took place while I was here is mind-boggling, and to think of the 55 years before that … you can only imagine the people that were here.”

The house also was featured twice on the La Jolla Historical Society’s Secret Garden Tour.

As part of Munk’s estate, Coakley Munk was allowed to live in the house for two years following her husband’s death, after which it will be deeded to UC San Diego. When the tree toppled, Coakley Munk was in the middle of preparing to move.

“The timing is a little crazy and certainly doesn’t help with the packing,” she said. “But it’s also a positive thing because we need to make sure the property is in good shape to turn it over to the university. With the repairs, we want the building to be rehabilitated as close to its original state as possible.”

What’s next?

Seiche was under review for historic designation when the storm occurred, and it must be returned to its original integrity for consideration.

The landscaped house known as Seiche was designed and built by Walter Munk and his then-wife, Judith.
The landscaped house known as Seiche was designed and built by Walter Munk and his then-wife, Judith.

San Diego Historical Resources Board member and attorney Courtney Coyle will argue for Seiche’s historicity when it is considered by the State Historical Resources Commission, likely in April.

“We hope the damage won’t affect the process,” Coyle said. “If the repairs are made in kind, using the same material, so that could be consistent with secretary of interior standards … it can be heard and hopefully approved. That would be the goal.”

The state has recommended that the designation include several features of the property, including the landscaping and the guest house.

Coyle said the guest house, which sustained the most damage, was the original structure on the parcel.

“That’s where Walter and Judy lived while they built the big house,” Coyle said. “So [Coakley Munk] would need to plant replacement pine trees in place of the ones that were toppled and repair the guest house” to maintain the integrity.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla has objected to the historical nomination.

“It makes us concerned for what UCSD might have in mind for the property,” Coyle said. “We just don’t know. … They haven’t shared anything about the future of the property.”

Scripps Oceanography spokeswoman Lauren Fimbres Wood said “plans for use of Seiche have not yet been decided.” She added that this month, the University of California regents will begin a 120-day deliberation period to decide the best use of it.

The deliberation will involve Khosla, SIO Director Margaret Leinen and Munk’s trustee, James Cairns, and will conclude June 8, she said.

While Coakley Munk asserts Munk wished to have the house designated historic, SIO is claiming otherwise.

“In 2006, Walter Munk signed a notarized letter attesting that he did not wish for his home to be considered or designated a historical site,” Fimbres Wood said. “Last fall, Chancellor Khosla wrote to the California Office of Historic Preservation to support the nomination and historic designation of the Munk Laboratory at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at UC San Diego. IGPP was founded in 1959 by Munk and was where he conducted the majority of his work when he was not in the field. If granted, the historic designation of IGPP would honor Walter’s legacy and his many contributions.” ◆