‘An easy decision’: ‘Progress of California’ mural to remain after La Jolla Rec Center renovation

"Progress of California" is on view in the La Jolla Recreation Center auditorium at 615 Prospect St.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

As plans to renovate the La Jolla Recreation Center progress, organizers said the “Progress of California” mural that has been onsite for almost 50 years will be kept at the center but put in another spot in the auditorium.

Architect and urbanist Trace Wilson, a member of the Visioning Committee under the La Jolla Community Recreation Group — the advisory board for the Rec Center — said the intent is to move the mural across the auditorium to behind the stage “so we can still enjoy it, but as more the backdrop of the auditorium.”

“Progress of California” was painted by Hugo Ballin and depicts “a [Native American], a padre and a conquistador … a Gold Rush-era assay office … a pioneer family in a Conestoga wagon and some of the buildings in Balboa Park,” according to a report on file at the La Jolla Historical Society.

It was first erected at First National Bank, which opened in La Jolla in 1930 on the corner of Silverado Street and Girard Avenue. The mural was placed on the wall above the vault door.

When the bank was demolished, the La Jolla Historical Society and First National Bank presented the mural to the city of San Diego. It was installed at the La Jolla Recreation Center and rededicated on Oct. 3, 1975, according to the Historical Society.

The demolition of First National Bank
The demolition of First National Bank in La Jolla led to its “Progress of California” mural being installed at the La Jolla Recreation Center.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Historical Society )

“Historical preservationists were upset because [the bank] was a landmark building,” said Historical Society historian Carol Olten. “The thought was, if they could not save the bank, they wanted to save the mural.”

“The Rec Center was the obvious choice” to provide the most opportunity for public viewing, she said.

Ballin, the artist, was born in New York in 1879 and died in Santa Monica in 1956. Having studied in New York and internationally, his work received many awards, including several from the National Academy of Design, according to the Historical Society.

“In 1921, he moved to Los Angeles and became involved in the movie industry, both as a producer and a set designer,” according to the Historical Society. “He continued his work as a mural painter, executing a 320-foot frieze depicting Hebrew history for [a temple] in Los Angeles. Perhaps his most famous mural project is the series of murals on the ‘Advancement of Science’ for the Griffith Park Observatory.”

The “Progress of California” mural was renovated in 2000, led by then-La Jolla Town Council President Courtney Coyle, who joked that “I ran the meetings from the stage side of the room so spent quite a bit of time looking toward the mural end of the room.”

She solicited donations from residents, civic organizations and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and worked with the Balboa Art Conservation Center to carry out repairs.

“Clearly, La Jolla’s pride in public art, particularly its murals, has not been greater in recent memory,” Coyle wrote at the time. “[‘Progress of California’] is enjoyed by all users of the Recreation Center — community and service groups, children and seniors, recreation groups and attendees of special forums.”

Today, she said she still feels “it is important to retain the story, not just of the ‘Progress of California’ but ... of the progress of La Jolla — how we can modernize while retaining at least some of our history, adding depth to our community experience. Ballin as an artist, of course, is important, too. While his works may be more represented in L.A., it is good to have examples of his skill here in San Diego.”

Coyle added that having the mural at the Recreation Center creates opportunities for accessible public art. “At the Rec Center [the mural] reaches all ages and across all socioeconomic levels,” she said.

As the weather heats up and schools have let out for summer, the sport courts at the La Jolla Recreation Center are heating up as well with issues of playtime etiquette.

Keeping the mural onsite as part of the Rec Center renovation was “an easy decision,” Wilson said. “We don’t have any [other] public venue or city hall to showcase it.”

“We got a sense from the community that ... it should remain … that it is an important part of La Jolla’s history,” he said.

The Rec Center, at 615 Prospect St., opened in 1915 and was originally commissioned by La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps and designed by famed architect Irving Gill. As the Visioning Committee was looking at how other Gill-designed buildings had been modernized, Wilson said members went to the nearby La Jolla Woman’s Club and noticed how it has a mural at the back of its stage.

“We want to feed in art and artwork throughout the building and on the grounds,” Wilson said. “We know the La Jolla Rec Center is across from a very important art amenity, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. So we wanted to include an artistic approach to everything we do and provide a historical context as well.”

“We got a sense from the community that ... it should remain … that it is an important part of La Jolla’s history.”

— Trace Wilson

Renovation plans for the Rec Center include upgrading the main building, creating a rooftop deck, opening the south side of the property to create what Wilson calls “the La Jolla pavilion,” adding a coastline-themed playground along Draper Avenue, pushing the basketball courts closer to the tennis courts at the next-door La Jolla Tennis Club, creating a mural wall, rebuilding a historical trellis to provide shade, creating a splash pad similar to the wading pool that was once on the grounds, renovating the front lawn, adding new courts for various sports and more.

He said a little-used basement would be converted to a gym, and a loft would be converted to a meeting room “that looks down into the auditorium.” An elevator would connect all three levels. ◆


9:40 p.m. June 27, 2022: This article was updated with Carol Olten’s comments.