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La Jolla’s Yamada House gets historic designation from San Diego board

An image shown to the San Diego Historical Resources Board shows the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House in La Jolla.
An image shown to the San Diego Historical Resources Board shows the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House at 1676 El Camino del Teatro in La Jolla.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The Muirlands home is named after landscape architect Joseph Yamada and his wife, civic activist Elizabeth Yamada, who lived there from 1973 until their deaths in 2020.

In exploring the possible criteria under which the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House in La Jolla could be designated historic, San Diego city planners and representatives of La Jolla’s IS Architecture did extensive research.

The more they learned, the more evidence for historic status they found.

And on Nov. 17, the San Diego Historical Resources Board opted to designate the property at 1676 El Camino del Teatro under four of the six HRB criteria. The house was up for the board’s review this week after a preliminary review in September.

San Diego city staff member Alvin Lin previously said the property in the Muirlands area is named for late San Diego landscape architect Joseph Yamada, who designed for institutions such as SeaWorld and UC San Diego, and Elizabeth Yamada, who worked in the landscape architecture firm Wimmer and Yamada and “led activism and education efforts for preservation of Japanese American history.”

The two lived in the house from 1973 until their deaths days apart in May 2020.

A report prepared about the property determined that the home is historically significant under Criterion B (indicating a property is identified with people or events significant in local, state or national history) and Criterion C (which states a property embodies distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period or method of construction or is a valuable example of the use of natural materials or craftsmanship).

Lin said city staff also found justification to nominate the property under Criterion D (indicating a property is representative of the notable work of a master builder, designer, architect, engineer, landscape architect, interior designer, artist or craftsman) for Yamada’s work as a landscape architect.

“The property includes a front yard designed in the Japanese strolling garden style and was designed by the first resident of the property, Joseph Yamada,” Lin said. “It includes a stepping stone walkway lined with boulders which continues at the front entry.”

He said city staff supported the inclusion of front yard landscaping and “all the other contributing landscaping features identified as significant” in the designation.

An image shows the landscaped frontage of the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House.
An image presented to the San Diego Historical Resources Board shows the landscaped frontage of the Joseph and Elizabeth Yamada House.
(Screenshot by Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Further, HRB trustee Ann Woods wanted the house designated under Criterion A, which indicates a property “exemplifies or reflects special elements of the city’s, a community’s or a neighborhood’s historical, archaeological, cultural, social, economic, political, aesthetic, engineering, landscaping or architectural development.”

She said the house was built during a time when “a gentlemen’s agreement still excluded Black, Jewish and Asian American families from owning property in the area. The Yamada House set a necessary societal precedence for La Jolla and broader areas of the city and is an important piece of Japanese American history in San Diego.”

She moved to support designation under Criteria A, B, C and D, which passed unanimously.

Current owner Troy Wu said “it means a tremendous amount to my wife [Insun] and I, as we love everything that’s been done to this property. Our wish when we purchased the home was to restore it but to learn about the influence, contributions and accomplishments that Joseph and Elizabeth had on San Diego. It is a pleasure to continue this heritage.”

Other HRB news

The board approved items associated with two other La Jolla houses on the consent agenda, meaning there were no presentations or discussion:

Dorothy and Harriet Cottages: The cottages in the 800 block of Coast Boulevard South were designated historic in 2020 and are being affected by a project to redevelop the block. The HRB was asked to ratify findings and mitigation measures associated with the project.

The plan calls for coastal development, site development and neighborhood development permits and a tentative map to consolidate two lots into one. It would demolish five structures at 813-821 Coast Blvd. South; remodel and add to a non-historic property at 811 Coast Blvd. South; remodel and add to the Harriet Cottage at 825 Coast Blvd. South; relocate, remodel and add to the Dorothy Cottage at 827 Coast Blvd. South; and build six new three-story townhouses over an underground garage. The project would total 23,591 square feet of development.

MacPherson and Theodora Hole Rental House: According to a report associated with a historic designation nomination for the house at 7109 Monte Vista Ave., the two-story single-family residence and detached garage were built in 1930 in the Monterey style.

Given there had been only one modification to the property since its construction — to remove a brick chimney — the house was designated under HRB Criterion C as an example of the Monterey Revival style.

Benefits

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; use of the historical conditional use permit, which allows flexibility of use; programs that vary depending on site conditions and the owner’s objectives; and flexibility in other regulatory requirements. However, houses cannot be modified significantly once they are designated historic.

The San Diego Historical Resources Board meets monthly. To learn more, visit sandiego.gov/development-services and click on “Public hearings, meetings and notices.” ◆