La Jolla Historical Society Executive Director Heath Fox to retire this fall

La Jolla Historical Society Executive Director Heath Fox is pictured with his wife, Terry.

After nine years, a full rehabilitation of Wisteria Cottage, an overhaul of programming and much more, Heath Fox will retire this fall as executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society and conclude a 25-year career as a museum director and an arts and culture professional.

“I think it’s time,” he said. “I think I’ve taken the organization, the facilities, programming, activities and services we provide to a good level, and it’s time to bring someone fresh in that can take that baton and run with it.”

Under Fox’s leadership, the Historical Society’s annual operating budget grew from $600,000 in 2012 to $1.25 million in 2020, led by donations, grants, membership fees and its two annual community events: the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance & Motor Car Classic and the Secret Garden Tour of La Jolla.

Fox also oversaw an exhibition program of original and innovative projects “with a philosophy based on exploring how history resonates through layers of time, informs the present and shapes the future,” according to a Historical Society statement.

Perhaps most importantly, Fox managed the renovation of the society’s facilities in 2014.

The La Jolla Historical Society's Wisteria Cottage gallery at 780 Prospect St.
The La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage gallery at 780 Prospect St. completed a renovation in 2014.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“That is something I am really proud of,” he said. “We rehabilitated Wisteria Cottage and preserved the exterior, made the interior museum quality exhibition space and added the Venturi Garden.”

As part of the renovation, about 40 paint samples were taken from exterior walls, trims and the roof and sent for microscopic analysis so the original color of Wisteria Cottage (“Essex Green” with “French Canvas” trim) and the adjacent Balmer Annex (“Rockwood Sash Green” with “Muslin” trim) could be replicated.

An entrance and a stairway on the left side of Wisteria Cottage that had been removed and walled over when the building served as a bookstore from 1960 to 2005 also was restored. Where wood from Wisteria couldn’t be salvaged, matching floor panels dating to the 1920s from a renovated Tudor Revival house were used.

The gallery space inside Wisteria was redone to meet standards established by the American Association of Museums, including the addition of a humidity-controlled air conditioning and heating system to better preserve artifacts on display, plus environmentally friendly LED spotlights. The building also includes new electronic security and fire protection systems, and shades that block 95 percent of ultraviolet light.

Expanding on the renovation, a pocket park was created in 2018 behind Wisteria Cottage surrounding a pergola the Historical Society acquired from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. When demolition began on MCASD’s Prospect Street campus ahead of a massive reconstruction project that is ongoing, the Robert Venturi-designed pergolas were to be removed. Instead, the one reading “Contemporary Art” was moved down the street to the Historical Society campus and a landscaped, shaded seating area was created for public use.

In addition to the renovation, Fox said he is proud of the exhibitions and educational programming the Historical Society has been able to provide.

“We have developed a progressive and innovative program of exhibitions that work with, for the most part, curators that live in the San Diego community,” he said. “We have provided programming that addresses issues such as cultural heritage, environmental issues, climate change, sustainable cities, health care research, women’s history and diversity awareness. I think the Historical Society is now positioned to continue to address those issues through exhibitions and education programs that are relevant to people today … and grow them stronger.”

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, exhibitions at the Historical Society centered on La Jolla’s pioneer women, “Devices and Wizardry in Early Cinema,” the work of Julius Shulman and more. The organization also provided workshops in the history of the California-style bungalow, participated in the What’s Out There Weekend San Diego tour, launched a PhotoFest contest to document historical landmarks that characterize the community today, and more.

Because of its diverse programming, the Historical Society “has multiple constituent groups” Fox said. “To them all, I would say it has been a pleasure getting to know them and how gratifying it is to have their encouragement. It’s a great organization because of that. That is the foundation on which the La Jolla Historical Society thrives.”

Suzanne Sette, La Jolla Historical Society board chairwoman, said: “Heath Fox’s visionary leadership has created a lasting legacy for the society, La Jolla and San Diego. We are incredibly grateful for his hard work and unwavering commitment. He leaves us well-positioned to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and successfully carry our mission into the future.”

La Jolla historian and Community Planning Association President Diane Kane called Fox “a force for the Historical Society and a positive and visible member of the community.”

She credited him with bringing “increased visibility to LJHS — not only in La Jolla but citywide and beyond” and said he is “an effective spokesperson for historic preservation, not only in La Jolla but elsewhere in San Diego. I will miss him as a colleague and a friend.”

Seonaid McArthur, chairwoman of the Historical Society Landmarks Committee, called Fox’s coming departure a “surprise and a loss.”

When she started volunteering with the society, “I was very impressed by the way he was bringing in a challenging approach toward Historical Society work,” she said. “He wanted to challenge La Jollans with new kinds of exhibitions, bring in new art and develop new audiences they wouldn’t have had normally. He took the Historical Society to new directions. … He brought a humanities interest to the Historical Society. It’s going to be very difficult to find someone with his imagination and breadth of experience.”

The board of directors has launched a nationwide search for Fox’s successor with the intent of having the new leader in place this summer and comfortable in the duties when Fox retires in the fall.

During retirement, Fox said, he would like to spend more time with family, taking care of his health and traveling when he feels it is safe to do so.

“My wife and I also keep a garden, and there is always something to do in the garden,” he said.

To learn more about the Historical Society and its programming, visit ◆