La Jolla Then and Now: Architecture of 1920s vs. 2020s

The now historically designated property at 1802 Amalfi St. in La Jolla was designed in the Spanish Revival style.

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and ventures into this century’s decade of the ‘20s, the La Jolla Light takes a look back at what the ‘20s looked like the last time around in La Jolla and what they look like now.

For La Jolla, the 1920s were a time of emergence and expansion.

The Muirlands, Hermosa and La Jolla Shores neighborhoods were taking shape as developers bought large amounts of land, putting in amenities and dividing the land into lots to sell.

“It was a prosperous time,” said La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten. That is, until the stock market crash of 1929.

It also was hot on the heels of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which “popularized a lot of revival architectural styles” and reintroduced several European styles, Olten said. When it came to building houses in the new neighborhoods in La Jolla, “Spanish Revival was the thing,” she said.

Spanish Revival houses are characterized by red tile roofs, stucco walls, decorative details, towers within the house, multi-pane windows and outdoor spaces, according to IS Architecture, which has offices in Bird Rock and is helmed by Ione Stiegler.

A “Style 101” entry on the firm’s website reads: “The Spanish style of the [Panama-California] exposition’s architecture was deliberately selected to be in contrast to previous expositions in the eastern United States and in Europe. The display was so successful that Spanish Colonial Revival architecture became perhaps the dominant architectural style of San Diego in the 1920s (with Craftsman in a solid second place).”

Along with the exposition, master architect Richard Requa was credited with garnering excitement for the “new” style. Having recently returned from a tour of Spain and the Mediterranean, images of the architecture were circulated to be re-created locally.

Other elements also were at play, according to Seonaid McArthur, chairwoman of the La Jolla Historical Society Landmarks Committee. She said Portland Cement Co. paid for that tour of Spain so the architect would “photograph and sketch the architecture.” Upon his return, the company published two books, one with photos and one with his sketches, and gave them away to architects. “All to promote their company and the sale of cement!” McArthur said.

Spanish Revival buildings emerged in neighborhoods across La Jolla. Many still stand, including residential properties and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, and will remain in their current condition because they were designated historic.

The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library building is in the Spanish Revival style popular in 1920s La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

According to the city of San Diego, benefits of historic designation include the availability of the Mills Act program for reduced property tax for owners to help maintain, restore and rehabilitate historic properties; use of the more flexible Historical Building Code; flexibility in other regulatory requirements; use of the historical conditional use permit, which allows flexibility of use; and other programs that vary depending on site conditions and the owner’s objectives. However, houses cannot be significantly modified once they are designated historic.

About 50 La Jolla properties from the 1920s are designated historic on the San Diego register, but not all are in the Spanish Revival or similar styles.

As to how we got from stucco walls and decorative details to the modern, open-air California coastal designs we see line the beachfront properties today, architects Brian Will and Tim Golba weighed in.

Golba, who often completes residential projects in La Jolla, said there’s an adage in architecture that “form follows function.”

In La Jolla, he said, “form follows function and setting.” With valuable properties with coastal views and palatable weather, many of his clients want an inside/outside living space.

“The interiors have evolved over the last decade or two, where everything has gotten bigger and more open. The compartmentalized living room, dining room, kitchen has been thrown out,” he said. “We started to see that big push toward opening things up. ... We figured out you could eat outside 300 days a year in La Jolla, so we started to see this … transition to inside/outside. You also have views in La Jolla, so having a big open space inside lets you connect to the outside.”

Coastal home
An open, inside/outside style has become common in coastal areas like La Jolla.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With increasing property values, those who purchase a plot in La Jolla want to “take advantage,” Golba said. “If you buy a property with a view of the ocean, you aren’t going to build a tiny little Craftsman-style house. I’ve had clients tell me the windows make them feel like they are in jail. So they want these big open doors and spaces, which is not conducive to a Mediterranean-style house.”

However, some in La Jolla still want that older feel.

“The clients that gravitate to our firm are often interested in styles that are sensitive to the neighborhood,” said Will, who has an office in La Jolla. “While we’re not building a lot of small beach cottages, I would say a third of our clients are looking still for that older Spanish style, a third are looking for modern and edgier, and the rest are looking for the East Coast beach style, Hamptons Cape Cod, Craftsman and a California coastal style.”

But, he said, “every new house is bigger than the one that came before. That is, more than anything, just a function of economics and the cost of purchasing land. My clients feel like if they don’t build enough house, they have spent more than they can sell it for. Some people build a forever home, but they also want to make sure it’s a decent investment.” ◆