La Jolla Historical Society celebrates 60th anniversary of making the old new
The commemoration will kick off with a reception Feb. 25 to share the ‘different aspects of our identity and our mission.’
Much like the architectural and cultural landscape of the community it chronicles, the La Jolla Historical Society has undergone a lot of changes since its founding. This year, the Historical Society is celebrating its 60th anniversary with a slate of special programming.
The festivities will start with a reception at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, that will include tours of the current exhibition, “Rare Trees, Sacred Canyons: Torrey Pines — San Diego’s Symbol of Preservation,” plus objects from the archive and a talk by Deputy Director Dana Hicks about the research the organization is doing.
“A lot of folks know us for one aspect we do — they know our fabulous exhibition program, but they don’t know that we have the archive, or they appreciate the advocacy work we do through our preservation, but they don’t know we have walking tours of La Jolla. There are so many ways to be involved with our organization,” said Executive Director Lauren Lockhart. “The kickoff event is to share all those different aspects of our identity and our mission.”
That identity and mission have changed quite a bit in the past 60 years.
Historical Society historian Carol Olten said the organization was founded because of changes happening in the area that turned La Jolla from a “quiet little beach town where people went for lunch or bought property” to a community with a university and direct freeway access.
“La Jolla was rolling in a number of different directions in the 1960s,” Olten said “[UC San Diego] was going up, which was a big change for the community because it made La Jolla less isolated, and the access to La Jolla was improved when what is now La Jolla Parkway — then it was known as Ardath Road — was cut through, which gave people more access. There was a different feeling.”
There also was a change in building styles during that decade, when the high-rises at 939 Coast Blvd. and the Seville building on Girard Avenue were built, “which were really big buildings for La Jolla,” Olten said. “There was a concern the area was going to turn into Miami Beach.”
The Historical Society was established in July 1963 to look at how La Jolla’s past could be integrated into its present and future. However, in the early days, the organization was just as focused on socializing and planning events.
It would be another decade before the attention started shifting to preservation efforts, when buildings such as the ones that house the La Jolla Woman’s Club and the Red Roost and Red Rest cottages were designated on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1970s.
In the 1980s, the community of La Jolla celebrated its centennial and history was again at the front of people’s minds.
“It created a new feeling about the history of La Jolla,” Olten said. “People started being interested in the town and preservation of its buildings, and that was part and parcel to the growth of the [La Jolla Historical Society].”
While it operated in more of a freeform, nebulous fashion for its first few decades — meeting where board members could at various venues — in 2008, the 1904-era Wisteria Cottage and the surrounding grounds at 780 Prospect St. were donated to the Historical Society by Ellen Revelle and her daughter Mary Revelle Paci.
“We started thinking about programs we could do in the community, and [with] Wisteria Cottage, we had a home and a place to hold events and provide programs,” Olten said. “The fact that we owned a building in La Jolla added to the prestige of the organization.”
The Historical Society also operates a 1909 cottage as an office and public research space and a 1916 carriage house retrofitted for state-of-the-art storage of the group’s archival collection, which includes historic photographs, public records, private documents and past newspaper issues.
Once the Historical Society took over the campus, change went into overdrive.
John Bolthouse, the organization’s first professional executive director, began efforts to renovate Wisteria Cottage.
Heath Fox — who retired as executive director in 2021 — “really got things going,” Olten said.
Fox managed the renovation of the society’s facilities in 2014.
As part of that, about 40 paint samples were taken from exterior walls, trims and the roof and sent for microscopic analysis so the original color of Wisteria Cottage (“Essex Green” with “French Canvas” trim) and the adjacent Balmer Annex (“Rockwood Sash Green” with “Muslin” trim) could be replicated.
An entrance and a stairway on the left side of Wisteria Cottage that had been removed and walled over when the building served as a bookstore from 1960 to 2005 were restored. Where wood from Wisteria couldn’t be salvaged, matching floor panels dating to the 1920s from a renovated Tudor Revival house were used.
The gallery space inside Wisteria was redone to meet standards established by the American Association of Museums, including the addition of a humidity-controlled cooling and heating system to better preserve artifacts on display, plus environmentally friendly LED spotlights. The building also includes new electronic security and fire protection systems, and shades that block 95 percent of ultraviolet light.
Expanding on the renovation, a pocket park was created in 2018 behind Wisteria Cottage surrounding a pergola the Historical Society acquired from the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. When demolition began on MCASD’s Prospect Street campus ahead of a massive reconstruction project, the Robert Venturi-designed pergolas were to be removed. Instead, the one reading “Contemporary Art” was moved down the street to the Historical Society campus and a landscaped, shaded seating area was created for public use.
The Historical Society’s annual operating budget grew from $600,000 in 2012 to $1.25 million in 2020, led by donations, grants, membership fees and its two annual community events, the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance and the Secret Garden Tour of La Jolla.
Lockhart also credited Fox with creating an exhibition program that expanded the society’s reach to a broader audience.
“We’re poised to bring in a new generation of supporters and collaborators to understand the power of preserving and documenting their stories,” she said.
The exhibitions, she added, “take a kernel or seeds of aspects of our region’s history and interpret that so it is relevant to a broader audience and finds ways to show the influence and impact of those moments of our history.”
Looking to the future of the organization, Lockhart said it will be centered on growing the Historical Society’s outreach, programs and education work.
“That is vital for us to bring the next generation into the work we do and give back to the community,” she said. “We have this incredible archive on our property, and I want us to find as many ways as possible to bring in young people and families … and understand the value of preserving history, as well as get them excited about preserving their own individual stories and history.”
For example, the Historical Society is starting what it is calling an All Ears Oral History program, through which Historical Society volunteers will interview people in the community and record their stories for the archive, as well as do outreach to educate young people on how to conduct an oral history. The Historical Society has been working with a curriculum writer with the San Diego Unified School District to guide people through the process and is looking for school partners to execute the program.
“We’re poised to bring in a new generation of supporters and collaborators to understand the power of preserving and documenting their stories.”
— Lauren Lockhart, executive director of La Jolla Historical Society
Lockhart said she sees the Feb. 25 kickoff party as a way to welcome longtime and first-time visitors.
“We see this event as a great chance to have a sort of open house for the community, so whether you have been a member for many years or if you are just learning about who we are, we hope this is an opportunity to experience the breadth of work and programs and ways we engage the community,” she said.
Down the line, a more formal event for members will likely be held, and throughout the year there will be members-only tours and events, opportunities to document oral histories, and special family programs and late hours once a month.
Lockhart said she is “incredibly honored” to be at the helm of the Historical Society as it celebrates 60 years. “I’m grateful to have come into an organization that has such a long and respected history in La Jolla.”
Learn more about the La Jolla Historical Society at lajollahistory.org. ◆
5:17 p.m. Feb. 13, 2023: This article was updated with additional information.
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