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La Jolla Then and Now: Girard Avenue and The Village, 1920s vs. 2020s

The White Rabbit Roof Garden on Girard Avenue at Prospect Street was one of La Jolla's early commercial enterprises.
The White Rabbit Roof Garden on Girard Avenue at Prospect Street was one of La Jolla’s early commercial enterprises.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society)

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.

When it comes to the use of La Jolla’s downtown center, a lot has happened in the past hundred years, but some things haven’t changed much. Girard Avenue — once known as Grand Avenue — was always the center of town, a hub for sophisticated socializing.

Though at one time early on, Girard was lined with houses, in the 1920s many of them gave way to commercial enterprises. Today, Girard is still known for its shopping, dining and cultural offerings.

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.

“Girard started as a residential street and the early businesses were located on ‘The Dip’ end, where it joins Prospect [Street],” said La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten. “There was a restaurant at that intersection called the White Rabbit Roof Garden and there was a store called Chase and Ludington that was a general store that sold all kinds of merchandise.”

As more and more people visited La Jolla, hotels started popping up. For example, the La Valencia Hotel was first opened as an apartment hotel in December 1926, designed to integrate the “finest elements of various styles of the Spanish school of architecture.”

“In the 1920s, there was an extreme amount of wealth that came in from various sources,” Olten said. “For example, the miners of Colorado came into town. La Jolla was becoming a high-end resort kind of place. There were hotels, subdivisions, we had a beach and yacht club (now the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club), and the electric trolley operations brought in an era of growth in terms of residential building.”

So what started largely as a community of beach cottages where tourists would stay for a few months was evolving into a place where people could both live and visit for a day.

Sprinkle in cultural institutions such as the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library and the La Jolla Woman’s Club, and La Jolla was establishing a bustling Village core.

According to the Athenaeum, in 1894, a small group of La Jolla women formed the La Jolla Reading Club. “In 1898, Florence Sawyer, a frequent visitor to La Jolla, constructed a reading room at the corner of Girard Avenue and Wall Street,” the website states. “In 1899, the group was incorporated as the Library Association of La Jolla, still our legal name today, and took over the functions of the reading room, fulfilling the responsibilities of a membership library. At that time, [La Jolla philanthropist] Ellen Browning Scripps was elected as the first president of the library’s board of trustees.”

A couple of decades later, the Athenaeum had outgrown its space and a new library building was designed by William Templeton Johnson and opened to the public in 1921.

The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library building opened in 1921.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

“La Jolla was becoming a sophisticated type of place,” Olten said. “The earliest institutions [like the Athenaeum] came because a new set of people came. A wealthier class of people started to see the advantages of the climate and the area and thought it reminded them of the French Riviera. Before that, people were more bohemian and rural.”

As the decades wore on, more and more upscale restaurants and shopping opportunities came to Girard, including I. Magnin and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“La Jolla was a shopping destination or to have a nice lunch. It was a whole-day event,” Olten said. “But then the style of buildings changed. We started getting the high-rises and the bigger buildings, then we got the big office buildings that took up entire blocks.”

Which brings us to today.

Girard Avenue is still “the primary retail and visitor-oriented commercial area in the core of La Jolla,” according to La Jolla’s Planned District Ordinance, or blueprint for development. “Standards for this zone are designed to maintain ... pedestrian scale and continuity and preserve and enhance the retail development pattern of department stores and small ... shops and restaurants,” it says.

One notable mainstay of those retail shops is Warwick’s bookstore, which has been at its current location at 7812
Girard since 1952. Alongside it have come clothing stores, home furnishings stores, restaurants, gyms, banks, flower shops, galleries, offices and more.

Warwick's bookstore has been at its current location on Girard Avenue since 1952.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

But the bigger-is-better model has had its pitfalls.

In recent years, Girard has seen several vacancies. In 2018, the 7300 to 7600 blocks alone had nine vacant storefronts, ranging from two large car showrooms opposite each other at Pearl Street to smaller brick-and-mortars up and down the street.

At the time, Realtor Mike Slattery told the La Jolla Light that there are various reasons a retail business may succeed or fail, and he pointed out that overall, the retail landscape has changed because of e-commerce and social media and fewer tenants expanding the way they used to.

The closures “are not a function of La Jolla; it’s always been a desirable location,” Slattery said. “But the type of retailers that are looking for locations here are changing. E-commerce has altered the way people now shop. When people go to a large store, they have their smartphone as they walk through and they can do comparative shopping online. ... And then you have landlords and potential tenants who are not realistic or flexible in their expectations,” with tenants wanting shorter leases and landlords wanting longer ones.”

“The other issue of vacancy is functionality,” he added. “Stores are getting smaller and the stores on Girard were built out in the 1970s for a different generation. Most of these buildings are considered functionally obsolete.”

So what is being done to change the face of Girard and The Village’s downtown atmosphere — to go from vacancies to vibrancy?

In recent years, more mixed-use facilities have been applied for or built.

The building that was once home to Burns Drugs at 7824 Girard, built in 1931, closed in May 2014. The renovated building there opened in 2019 and includes retail tenants on the ground floor and two residential units on the second story.

In late 2020, the Girard Avenue Lofts development was locally approved. The project includes three connecting two-story buildings at 7606 Girard, currently a vacant lot between Vons and the Tempur-Pedic mattress store. The plans include 1,960 square feet of ground-floor retail, 17 loft-type apartments over parking and one accessory dwelling unit on a pedestrian path at grade level. The apartments would range from 350 to 755 square feet.

Further, a group known as Vision La Jolla is meeting regularly to find ways to update regulations that apply to development in The Village and ways to improve it. The group, formed in December, works with the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance Committee, Enhance La Jolla and the La Jolla Village Merchants Association and is composed of La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane, architects Andy Fotsch, Brian Will and Trace Wilson, Realtors Patrick Ahern and John Shannon and engineer and historian Matt Mangano.

“We realized we needed to get these ideas linked up so everyone talks together and walks in the same direction,” Kane said when the group was formed. “We want to get more energy in The Village.” ◆