UC San Diego to sell La Jolla home of late oceanographer Walter Munk

The late Walter Munk’s landscaped house, Seiche, is in La Jolla Shores.

Shortly after the La Jolla Shores house that once was home to famed oceanographer Walter Munk was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, UC San Diego has announced its intent to sell it. A timeline for the sale was not announced.

The State Historical Resources Commission determined April 30 that the house, called Seiche, was eligible for and would be nominated to the National Register. It was listed there July 12.

For the record:

1:36 p.m. July 20, 2021This article was updated to correct when Mary Coakley Munk began the process to have Seiche designated as a historic site.

Munk’s daughters said they support UCSD’s decision to sell. His widow, Mary Coakley Munk, said that while she is “profoundly disappointed” with the choice, she hopes the right buyer will come along.

UCSD and Coakley Munk have disagreed on how to best honor Munk’s wishes since his death in February 2019 at age 101.

Seiche (named after a standing wave oscillating in a body of water) was completed in 1954 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.

Oceanographer Walter Munk donated his La Jolla home to UC San Diego upon his death in February 2019.
Oceanographer Walter Munk donated his La Jolla home to UC San Diego upon his death in February 2019. The university has decided to sell it.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Munk decided in 2014 to donate the home to UCSD, and it was given to the University of California regents as a “life estate.” “They held the title from that time on,” Coakley Munk said.

After Munk’s death, Coakley Munk was allowed to live in the house for two years, until February this year. She said she began the process to have the property designated as a historic site in March 2019.

On Feb. 8 this year, the university began a 120-day deliberation period “to decide the best future use of Seiche.”

The proposed historic designation was to be heard by the San Diego Historical Resources Board on April 22 but was not because of a “noticing issue.” It was heard and endorsed by the state commission April 30.

UCSD’s deliberation period included “a new evaluation of the home and potential uses,” according to university spokeswoman Lauren Fimbres Wood.

“The university concluded the mission of Scripps Institution of Oceanography is best served by selling the residence,” she said.

“Dr. Munk’s wishes were that his gift be used to the benefit of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. ... The costs of renovation and ongoing operation were found to be prohibitive, with potentially limited permitted uses as a public university facility within a residential neighborhood.”

The university and Walter and Judith Munk’s daughters, Kendall and Edie, opposed the property’s historic designation, citing a statement Walter Munk made in 2006 that he did not want it.

Kendall Munk wrote to the California Office of Historic Preservation in April 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.”

She and Edie Munk also argued at the time that renovations to the home made it “not a historical structure.”

Coakley Munk said “Walter had originally not wanted the home to be historic when it was part of his estate; it would have made a difference in the value of it.” However, she said, “as the years passed, Walter was warned by many of his close friends that it was unlikely that Seiche would be kept and used as he had hoped.”

She said Munk 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.

“We did all we could to carry out Walter’s dying wishes for Seiche and his personal historic property that he intended to be valued and retained by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to continue to inspire future generations of oceanographers, as it has for the past 65-plus years.”

Attorney Courtney Coyle, a member of the San Diego Historical Resources Board, told the La Jolla Light that “historic designation is largely honorific and recognizes the significant value of important persons and what they achieved in association with a property. Designation allows for changes to a property consistent with the Secretary of Interior’s Standards [for the Treatment of Historic Properties].”

Fimbres Wood said she did not have additional details about UCSD’s sale plans, including an asking price. Several major real estate websites describe the house at 9530 La Jolla Shores Drive as four bedrooms, three bathrooms and 3,478 square feet, with estimates of sale value in the $2.7 million to $3.1 million range.

Fimbres Wood said proceeds from a sale would be distributed equally among the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Foundation for Earth Sciences, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to support the work of professor Octavio Aburto and research related to the marine habitat and biodiversity of the Gulf of California, and the Kyoto/Munk Fund to encourage “daring ocean exploration and observation.”

In a statement provided by UCSD, Munk’s representative James Cairns said: “The [deliberation] committee members all enthusiastically shared the common goal of realizing Walter’s wishes to the fullest extent, including converting Seiche into a functional UC facility. We are sadly disappointed to find that when all factors were considered, it became clear that the conversion is not feasible. Walter wanted his generous gift to be used to benefit Scripps in the most effective way. Given that its use as a functional UC facility is not clearly viable, the best option is considered to be its sale, with the proceeds going to benefit SIO in the ways that Walter designated.”

Kendall Munk said: “My parents spent their lives creating a world that served and enriched the university, Scripps, the broader community, our friends and family. Dad was devoted to Scripps, and the gift of Seiche was his way of giving back to the institute that brought him so much joy. In the gift of Seiche, Dad spelled out his wishes clearly. These wishes included the option to sell the house. Dad knew he was better at predicting waves than the future, so he selected/entrusted a core committee to determine how the gift of Seiche would best serve UCSD/SIO.

“The decision to sell Seiche feels like the end of an era. It was a difficult choice, which brought no joy and should not be misunderstood and/or mischaracterized as the university heartlessly selling off a precious legacy. In fact, the university has been and remains committed to honoring Dad’s wishes for Seiche.”

Edie Munk said the decision “brings me peace.”

Coakley Munk said she “truly hopes that a buyer will emerge who ... embodies so much of the beauty of Walter and Judith Munk’s spirit. Seiche deserves a class second act. In a perfect world, we would hope to see a collaboration of ocean-minded entities pull together to purchase Seiche for use as an ocean think tank. ... We can only hope that the private market can achieve what UC [San Diego] has sadly chosen not to do.” ◆