State commission deems Walter Munk house, Seiche, eligible for National Register of Historic Places

The late Walter Munk’s landscaped house, Seiche, has been nominated for historic designation.

The La Jolla Shores home of late oceanographer Walter Munk is eligible for and will be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, according to a State Historical Resources Commission vote April 30.

The home, called Seiche (after a standing wave oscillating in a body of water), was built by Munk, known as the “Einstein of the Oceans” 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 nomination includes the main house, guest house, additions to the houses, landscaping and sculptures.

Historic designation would limit what the university could do with the property.

State historian Amy Crain said the house was one of the first properties in the Scripps Estates Associates and was completed in 1954, with additions in 1961, 1971 and 1985. It was designed by Judith Munk in the modern architectural style and “despite alterations, the property retains all aspects of integrity to convey its significance,” Crain said.

The house also is being considered for its connection to Walter Munk and his scientific achievements.

Crain said the house qualifies for historic designation under Criteria A and C.

For Criterion A, Crain said, the house qualifies “in the area of community planning and development for its association with residential development related to the Scripps Estates Associates residential neighborhood subdivision; and in the areas of science, education and social history for its association with … the work of Dr. Walter H. Munk and development of, and contribution to, the social history of Scripps, UCSD and the La Jolla community.”

For Criterion C, she continued, the house qualifies “in the area of architecture, landscape architecture and art. As an excellent example of the modern movement, the buildings exhibit distinctive characteristics associated with the organic geometric and post-and-beam subsets of the modern style. The property is the work of prominent artist and architectural designer Judith Munk, who designed the buildings, landscaped theater and associated works of art.”

La Jolla architect Ione Stiegler, presenting on behalf of the nomination, said “Seiche served as a gathering place that fostered relationships and conversations that led to the creation of both groundbreaking research in oceanography and led to the development of UCSD.”

She added that the property is “an important example of a midcentury resource designed by a woman, a category that has been severely underrepresented in the historic record. … Judith designed the landscaping throughout the entire lot using her eye for color and ornamental horticulture. She created several outdoor rooms for gathering spaces.”

Stiegler said UCSD hired a historic consultant in 2016 “which found Seiche individually eligible for the historic register. … Today’s nomination process has been a natural progression of the identification of significance for the property.”

The hour of public testimony included La Jolla Shores community members, San Diego historians, UCSD employees and family members.

UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla issued a letter objecting to the nomination, though he did not speak.

Opponents of the nomination have cited a statement Walter Munk made in 2006 that he did not want the property designated. They also have said the renovations made the home “not a historical structure.”

Kendall Munk, a daughter of Walter and Judith, wrote in a letter earlier this month to the California Office of Historic Preservation that her father “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.”

Kendall’s sister Edie Munk said “the kitchen, oceanfront pathways and landscaping were all radically altered by tear-down construction efforts before and after my dad died. … Perhaps most importantly, the nomination comes to you in direct opposition to the wishes of my parents, who were against [historic designation] in any form.”

Kendall said the sisters were not notified of the proposed historical designation and that the information submitted to the Historical Resources Commission was “flawed” and “inaccurate.”

Steve Gallagher, a former Scripps Oceanography vice chancellor, said: “I believe the petition [for historic designation] is contrary to Walter and Judith’s stated wishes, as well as the institution that Walter loved so much. … I’m very concerned the petition was not fully vetted with Walter’s family or the university. Walter valued collaboration and developing consensus.”

Oceanographer and La Jollan Walter Munk died in February 2019 at age 101.
Oceanographer and La Jollan Walter Munk died in February 2019 at age 101. His research at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography earned him the nickname “Einstein of the Oceans.”

Supporters of the nomination spoke about the Munks’ contributions to science and architecture and expressed concern about what the university would do with the property.

Coakley Munk said “Walter was not an ideologue, he was a scientist. He would change his thinking when the data and conditions merited it.”

Coakley Munk previously told the La Jolla Light 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.

Architectural historian and La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane said she agreed with the arguments for designation under Criteria A and C.

La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson, who also supported the nomination, said: “This iconic property is a central part of the history and culture of the unique La Jolla Shores area. … LJSA has long fought the university’s lack of concern for the impact of its development on local residential areas.”

Many commissioners called it “unfortunate” that the two sides could not reconcile and come to an agreement.

But, Commissioner Luis Hoyos said, “the responsibility of the commission is very clear and circumscribed: what is the resource, why is it historic and to vote yay or nay.”

On that, he said, “the record is very clear. The landscape and the intent behind the landscape and the architecture are profound. It is a remarkable piece of organic architecture by a woman. … We should have many more of these. The contributions of Dr. Munk to the war effort, to academic pursuits, to science, are remarkable. Because of all that, and the fact that it was unquestionably the site of many of his treatises and writings, this goes forward easily under Criterion A … and is a remarkable piece of design that qualifies under Criterion C. … People should know about Walter and Judy Munk.”

A motion finding the property eligible for the National Register of Historic Places passed unanimously.

The National Register will have 45 days to consider the nomination, according to Jay Correia of the state Office of Historic Preservation.

— La Jolla Light staff writer Elisabeth Frausto contributed to this report.