State commission recommends Munk Lab for national historic register after debate over equitable recognition

A screenshot of the State Historical Resources Commission online meeting
An image from the State Historical Resources Commission’s online meeting July 30 shows (clockwise from top left), an aerial view of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics Judith and Walter Munk Laboratory, Judith and Walter Munk, and lab architect Lloyd Ruocco.
(Courtesy of Heritage Architecture & Planning)

Some speakers believe the roles of Judith Munk and Ilse Hammon Ruocco in the lab’s design were not adequately represented.


Though there was little doubt among members of the State Historical Resources Commission that the Judith and Walter Munk Laboratory at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography belongs on the National Register of Historic Places, the completeness of the report associated with the nomination was up for some debate.

The La Jolla lab, dedicated in 1964 at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, 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.

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 is considered 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 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”).

During the Historical Resources Commission’s online meeting July 30, there was discussion of the roles of Munk’s wife, Judith Munk, and Ruocco’s wife, Ilse Hammon Ruocco, in the design of the lab and how they should be recognized.

An image of the Munk Laboratory is presented to the State Historical Resources Commission during its July 30 meeting.
(Courtesy of Heritage Architecture & Planning)

A report on the property was prepared by San Diego-based Heritage Architecture & Planning. Architectural historian Eileen Magno said the lab “honors and celebrates the work of many scientists who have contributed to the scientific and academic advancements in the fields of ... ocean sciences and geophysics” and called IGPP the “most direct” representation of Walter Munk’s work because that is where he drafted several works that would go on to be published and completed experiments related to tides and ocean currents.

She said the lab’s design “best represents” Lloyd Ruocco’s signature use of glass and redwood.

In considering whether to list Judith Munk — herself an architectural designer and artist — as a significant person associated with the lab’s design, given that Lloyd Ruocco worked on it with both Walter and Judith, Magno said: “As women in the architectural field … we sympathize with and support the goal of acknowledging female architects and designers appropriately. Judith Munk’s contributions to this property were evaluated and are represented in the nomination submittal.”

She said Judith’s role in Ruocco’s selection was “well-documented and cited” and that her role in “planning and envisioning a collaborative setting was also addressed.”

With recent developments regarding historic designation for late oceanographer Walter Munk’s house in La Jolla Shores and the Munk Laboratory at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the name of Walter Munk (known as the “Einstein of the Oceans”) has returned to the spotlight.

Magno indicated that listing Judith as a significant person associated with the lab might not be appropriate, as the lab is not considered the best representation of her work.

Rather, Magno said, it may be appropriate that she be listed as a significant person for the house that she and Walter shared in La Jolla Shores, known as Seiche. The home was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, and the designation report would have to be amended to include Judith’s contributions.

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

The nomination of the Munk Laboratory was originated by UC San Diego. In speaking for the designation, Cammie Ingram, director of capital planning and space management at Scripps Oceanography, said the lab inspired the design of some subsequent buildings.

However, some speakers argued that the report did not adequately address the contributions of Judith Munk and Ilse Hammon Ruocco.

Courtney Coyle, a La Jolla resident and member of the San Diego Historical Resources Board — which voted July 22 to recommend the lab for the National Register — said the two were “not appropriately included in this nomination” and said they “played a much larger role in the design and the interiors [than what is in the report].”

State Historical Resources Commission member Janet Hansen also questioned whether Judith’s involvement and “the role of women in the role of architecture” was “fully considered.” Hansen said it is time to “think about these things in different ways.” She said cases of husband-and-wife teams in which only the husband is identified deserve special attention.

She questioned whether Judith and Ilse’s contributions were not properly documented because at the time the lab was created, “we were only writing about what men were doing.”

How to proceed was an entirely different question.

“I’m generally puzzled by this; I don’t know what to do,” said Commissioner Alan Hess. He said he wanted to show that the board is “looking at things in a new way” and recognizes the need to more thoroughly document the role of women in properties such as this.

There was much debate about whether to move the item forward as is, ask for a revised nomination including Judith and Ilse, or move the nomination forward with a request that it be amended later.

“I think we all agree this an excellent example of a lab building and certainly has the association of Dr. Munk and the development of that field,” Commissioner Luis Hoyos said.

Noting that the commission’s role is to make sure a property meets the minimum requirements to be on the register, Chairman Lee Adams said he was worried that the standards were being raised beyond what is needed and that “a tool is becoming a weapon.”

Still, Hansen said “there are parts of this that I think should be examined to a deeper level. … The existing story needs to be completely and accurately told.”

However, she added that she could support the nomination as presented because it does meet the criteria for designation.

With a reminder that a report associated with a historically designated property can be amended after the designation, a motion finding that the property is eligible for the National Register as presented passed the commission unanimously.

After the decision, Mary Coakley Munk — Walter Munk’s widow, whom he married after Judith’s death — said the lab “should, without question, be listed in the National Register, along with Walter and Judith Munk’s home, Seiche. It is, however, extremely concerning that UC San Diego, who prides themselves as being a premier public research institution that continually seeks global prominence, would settle for submitting a nomination that just meets the minimum standards for historic designation.”

Ingram of Scripps Oceanography said in a statement that “the nomination submitted unequivocally acknowledges Judith Munk as an ‘instrumental’ figure in the development of IGPP. Throughout the nomination, she is highlighted for her contributions: the hiring of architect Lloyd Ruocco to design the building because of his design vocabulary; the close collaboration between Ruocco, Judith and Walter throughout the design process; her hand in developing custom furniture; and procuring the Donal Hord “Spring Stirring” sculpture as a gift from Cecil Green. They were excellent clients, providing the architect of their choice the direction and freedom he needed to design the masterpiece that is IGPP Munk Laboratory.”

The National Register will have 45 days to consider the nomination. ◆