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‘Complete surprise’: Walter Munk’s daughter contradicts widow over proposal to designate his home as historic

Walter Munk's house, Seiche, has been nominated for historic designation, which took his daughter Kendall by surprise.
Walter Munk’s house, Seiche, has been nominated for historic designation, which took his daughter Kendall by surprise.
(Courtesy)

The proposed historic designation of the La Jolla Shores home of late oceanographer Walter Munk has raised objections from his daughter Kendall, who says he did not want such a designation and that renovations have made the home “not a historical structure.”

The home, called Seiche (a standing wave oscillating in a body of water), was built by Munk, renowned for his research at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and his second wife, Judith, who died in 2006.

Munk decided in 2014 to donate the home to UCSD. His third wife and widow, Mary Coakley Munk, lived there until February as part of a two-year tenancy that began after Walter Munk’s death in 2019.

The proposed historic designation for Seiche will be heard by the San Diego Historical Resources Board on Thursday, April 22, and the State Historical Resources Commission on Friday, April 30.

The Shores Association board also is looking for the outdoor dining program on Avenida de la Playa to be made permanent.

Upon learning the proposal would be going to the state commission, Kendall Munk wrote a letter to the California Office of Historic Preservation explaining her concerns.

The proposal “came as a complete surprise,” she wrote.

She told the La Jolla Light she didn’t know about the city’s hearing.

Kendall Munk, daughter of Walter and Judith, said asking for Seiche to be named historic goes against her parents’ wishes, and she attached a 2006 letter from Walter that stated “it is my wish that [Seiche] not be considered or designated a historical site. I discussed this topic with my wife, Judith, before she passed away on May 20, 2006. She was also opposed to the site being considered or designated historical.”

Kendall’s sister, Edie Munk, said in an email to the Light that she is “in 100 percent agreement with my sister.”

But Coakley Munk said last month that Walter changed his mind after “some of his friends made it clear to him that because he had to donate [Seiche to UCSD] as an endowment, there was some concern that the university would either sell it … or that they would change it significantly.”

She said Walter then asked her to pursue historic designation for the house. “He wanted it to remain as much as possible as it was to keep the spirit,” she said.

Coakley Munk told the Light that she proposed the designation through the Walter Munk Foundation for the Oceans. Kelsey Kaline, a historic preservation specialist with IS Architecture, said the firm completed the nomination.

Coakley Munk said Walter never put his change of mind in writing. “It was something that he actually agonized over for the last year or so” in “frequent discussions. … I assured him I would honor his wishes.”

But Kendall told the Light that Walter changing his mind about the house “is hard to imagine.”

In her letter, she said: “Dad (and Mary) knew that a historical designation could tie the hands of UC/SIO by limiting their options for re-envisioning Seiche, perhaps even forcing them to sell. This would likely drop the value of the house, thus diminishing the monetary support for the specific areas Dad carefully and thoughtfully chose as beneficiaries.”

Her father “did not want to place any financial hardships on the very institution he was so devoted to,” she wrote.

Coakley Munk, who has read Kendall’s letter to the commission, said “the effort has not been taken lightly and honors Seiche and Walter and Judith’s extensive contributions to the La Jolla community, SIO and UCSD, as well as globally.”

“Walter wanted to convey the place he loved, Seiche, to another place he loved, SIO,” Coakley Munk said. “Historic designation is the best way to ensure that the spirit of Seiche lives on to inspire generations of future scientists and global citizens.”

Coakley Munk said in March that UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla has opposed Seiche’s nomination for historic designation.

Representatives of UCSD have not commented on Khosla’s position but did confirm that the university is in a 120-day period that began Feb. 8 “to decide the best future use of Seiche.”

Scripps Oceanography’s director of strategic communication, Lauren Fimbres Wood, said last month that Walter signed a notarized letter in 2006 attesting that he did not want his home to be considered for or given historical designation.

Kendall told the Light that she believes “the university is deeply committed to following Dad’s requests. … They have been following his directives to the letter.”

Her letter to the state argues that there are “inaccuracies” to deeming Seiche historic. “The Seiche property is not a historical structure,” she wrote.

She said several features have changed over time, such as extensive renovations to the kitchen and the Rousseau Room, and that “the current interior of the guest house is unrecognizable from the 1953 original.”

Coakley Munk said the renovations do not affect the property’s historicity. “We didn’t touch anything that was special,” she said.

Attorney Courtney Ann Coyle, a San Diego Historical Resources Board member not commenting in that capacity, said “the renovations in each of the locations do not impact the character-defining exterior or interior features of the property.”

The HRB hearing is scheduled for 4 p.m. April 22. Learn more by visiting sandiego.gov/development-services and clicking on “Public hearings, meetings and notices.”

The Historical Resources Commission will decide April 30 whether to forward the nomination to the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places, a National Park Service official, according to Jay Correia of the Office of Historic Preservation. The keeper, Joy Beasley, then would have 45 days to consider the nomination.

Letters for or against Seiche’s nomination can be emailed to amy.crain@parks.ca.gov anytime up to that 45-day mark, Correia said, though letters received by Friday, April 16, will have a better chance of being read by the state commission.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.