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Munk Laboratory at Scripps Oceanography is recommended for National Register of Historic Places

Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Munk Laboratory
A photo presented to the San Diego Historical Resources Board shows the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Munk Laboratory.
(City of San Diego)

The facility, where late oceanographer Walter Munk once worked, may join his La Jolla home on the list.

Ten days after the former home of late La Jolla oceanographer Walter Munk was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the San Diego Historical Resources Board lent its support to the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Judith and Walter Munk Laboratory joining it on the list.

The board voted July 22 to send a recommendation for the La Jolla lab to be included on the National Register for its significance under three criteria: Criterion A in the areas of education and science (associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history); Criterion B for the association with Walter Munk (associated with the lives of people significant in the past); and Criterion C in the areas of architecture, landscape architecture and art (“embodies distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period or method of construction or represents the work of a master or possesses high artistic values”).

According to a staff report, the nomination includes the lab itself, designed by San Diego master architect Lloyd Ruocco in the post-and-beam subtype of the Modern architecture style; the landscape architecture of Joseph Yamada; and the “Spring Stirring” sculpture by Donal Hord.

The lab, dedicated in 1964, is where Walter Munk, known as the “Einstein of the Oceans,” held office hours and worked onsite until 2000. Munk, who was IGPP director from 1962 to 1982, died in 2019 at age 101.

Given that the property is part of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, it is considered outside the city’s jurisdiction and not eligible for the San Diego historic register.

When the state issued its budget for the coming year, it contained more than $61 million for projects and programs at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

The nomination was originated by UCSD. The State Historical Resources Commission is scheduled to hear and vote on it during its meeting Friday, July 30.

Although the San Diego board was quick to support the nomination, it also was moved by testimony from Munk’s widow, Mary Coakley Munk, who said the nomination should “properly recognize” the role of Judith Munk, an architect and Walter’s second wife, in the lab’s “siting, development and design, as well as her other contributions to UCSD campus design.” Coakley Munk noted that the lab is named for both Walter and Judith.

Coakley Munk also encouraged Scripps Oceanography and UCSD to “perform any further research or comparative studies that may be necessary” to have Walter Munk’s achievements nationally recognized, and suggested that the interior elements be considered for designation.

She said she wanted to ensure there was sufficient analysis in the nomination to conclude that “IGPP is the best representation of Walter’s productive life.”

“No meaningful comparative analysis was offered among his offices at IGPP, his other offices on the Scripps campus or his home office at Seiche [his La Jolla residence], which he used for collaborative writing and drafting of his research papers, which number over 275 published works,” she said. “The length of his career, the breadth of his work and the way in which Seiche was used as both a personal think tank and a salon further contribute to this significance.”

Seiche was listed in the National Register on July 12. Soon after, UC San Diego, to which Munk had gifted the house, announced its intention to sell it. A timeline for the sale was not announced.

The announcement comes shortly after the property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The San Diego HRB voted unanimously to support the recommendation that the IGPP Munk Lab be listed on the National Register but asked that Coakley Munk’s testimony be included in the state’s review.

Last year, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla wrote to the California Office of Historic Preservation to support the nomination.

Cammie Ingram, director of capital planning and space management at Scripps Oceanography, said in a statement that SIO and its Heritage Committee were “extremely pleased” with the HRB’s backing of the historic listing for the Munk Lab.

“The Munk Laboratory embodies multiple unique design features that stand out from other scientific buildings of the time and help inspire design in new buildings,” Ingram said. “The primary concept of the building was to encourage collaboration between the faculty, scientific staff and graduate students. To accomplish this, offices, assembly laboratories, conference rooms and other meeting areas are strategically placed. The circulation patterns encourage chance meetings, and there is an overall feeling of openness that takes advantage of the stunning site. ... The Munk Laboratory is an outstanding example of successful functional design using the midcentury vocabulary.”

Other HRB news

Two other La Jolla properties were designated historic on the Historical Resources Board’s consent agenda, without discussion.

One is the Robert and Rebecca Liebner/William Ivans House at 807 La Jolla Rancho Road in La Jolla Hermosa. It was designated as a historical resource with a period of significance of 1962 to 1989 under Criterion B and a period of significance of 1961 to 1970 under Criterion C.

Ivans owned and lived in the house during the 1962-89 period, “which marks a productive period of his career as an internationally renowned glider pilot,” according to a staff report associated with the nomination.

“The resource is a rare example of a unique method of construction as evidenced through its structural support system and retains a good level of integrity from its 1961-1970 period of significance,” the report added.

The other property designated is the Prospect Center building at 1020 Prospect St. in The Village, with a period of significance of 1966 under Criterion C.

“The resource embodies the distinctive characteristics through the retention of character-defining features of the International style with Brutalist influences and retains a good level of architectural integrity from its period of significance,” according to a staff report.

The four-story mixed-use building — commercial use on the first floor and condominiums on the second through fourth floors, all over a three-story subterranean garage — was presented for designation at the owner’s request.

Benefits of historic designation include 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.

The San Diego Historical Resources Board meets monthly. Learn more at sandiego.gov/development-services and click on the “Public hearings, meetings and notices” tab. ◆