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90 years of service

These three historic figures, who played instrumental roles in the creation and development of La Jolla Rec Center, loom large as the institution at 615 Prospect St. celebrates its 90th anniversary.

The celebration of the 90-year history of the center, built and dedicated in 1915 by La Jolla matriarch Ellen Browning Scripps, comes at a watershed time for the Jewel’s popular recreation center. The city’s budget crisis and near-certain funding cuts and continuing lean times are forcing local communities to dig ever deeper into their own pockets and cast ever further for volunteers in order to keep community centers financially afloat.

“Just a few years ago, the rec centers used to be open seven days and 72 hours a week including Sunday,” said Eileen Lohner-Turk, city parks area manager for La Jolla and Pacific Beach. “Citywide, those hours were cut to 60 hours, then to 48. We’re now down to 40 hours, and the Recreation Council has been chipping in to keep the facility open six days a week.”

The city’s budget crisis is so acute that community centers like La Jolla’s are being forced to scrimp on even the most basic necessities.

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“We have to get approval from the deputy director of parks for ordering something as simple as toilet paper or paper towels,” said Lohner-Turk. “It’s pretty awful that we’re down to dire straits like that. It’s really affected us at all levels.”

Scripps, La Jolla’s foremost benefactor, donated the recreation center and its popular playgrounds to the children of La Jolla. She had even considered turning her residence, now the Musueum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, into a home for motherless children. Instead, she decided to beautify an area where children could romp and play across the street.

La Jolla Playground officially opened July 3, 1915. The grand opening ceremony was held a day later on Independence Day. A major civic event at the time, a newspaper headline touting the occasion proclaimed: “La Jolla fairyland for tots dedicated.”

La Jolla Rec Center soon became the cultural and recreational hub of the coastal community. It was the USO of its time during World War I and II, with military and townspeople alike gathering for Saturday night dances held on the center’s tennis courts.

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Famed early 20th century San Diego architect Irving Gill designed the recreation center in a similar fashion to other structures he did in the vicinity, including La Jolla Woman’s Club. Gill’s architectural design was a modified California mission style.

“The architecture used the strength and rhythm of arches to enhance the passive feeling of the Rec Center,” wrote La Jolla historical author Pat Schaelchin.

Agnes and Archie Talboy, La Jolla Rec Center’s de facto mom and dad, moved to La Jolla shortly after the playground was built. A devout tennis disciple, Archie had been on the university team at Stanford. After moving to La Jolla in 1919, he became the recreation center’s director, a position he held for more than three decades.

The Talboys initiated lots of public events - including a spring festival, Halloween costume bonfire parties and even insect collecting contests - many of which continue today. The ceremonial lighting of a huge Christmas tree at the center playground marks La Jolla’s annual December holiday parade.

But Archie Talboy is best known as La Jolla’s patron saint of tennis, as he initiated the La Jolla Tennis Champions competition, which ultimately earned him the title La Jolla’s Mr. Tennis. He cultivated a wide variety of recreational youth groups at the center, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. He inspired and coached tennis and baseball players alike.

The couple used all of their background knowledge on science, sports, art, games, dancing and scouting to create a rich environment for all children. Agnes Talboy was a renowned storyteller, weaving her own tales, which she repeated year after year to her youth classes. She also staged yearly May festivals, hosting doll buggy parades and conducting craft classes.

“There is probably not an adult in the community today, if they were here as a child, whose life had not been influenced by Archie and Mrs. Talboy,” wrote La Jolla Journal columnist Marie Breder in a 1963 article.

Archie Talboy played tennis until age 85. He died in 1978 at age 92. Agnes died a few years earlier.

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During the Talboy administration, the La Jolla Rec Center, also known as the Community House, became a home away from home for youngsters. One of them, Walt Hall, spent a lot of his childhood playing at the center. Many years later, Hall became a director on the center’s board, as well as its most prominent volunteer fund-raiser.

“We hung out at the Rec Center,” recalls Hall. “It was either the Rec Center or the beaches. It was just a gathering place for people. There was nowhere else to go in those days.”

Under the tutelage and sponsorship of the Talboys, Hall recounts there were always softball or tennis tournaments going on.

“There used to be pillars that ran all the way through the Rec Center,” said Hall. “The goal in softball was to hit a home run over the pillars.”

There has been a changing of the guard at La Jolla Rec Center, as Hall has retired from the board.

“Currently, we don’t have a fund-raiser,” said board president Hobe Schroeder, “and that’s one of the reasons why we’re having this open house, to raise our profile in the community.”

Schroeder said now is an especially important time for the center to reach out, as they are presently engaged in a needs survey, prioritizing what can and should be done to modernize and improve the 90-year-old community center.

Schroeder said it’s time for change, time for the composition of the board to become more representative of the community at large, getting a wider cross-section of the community involved.

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“Currently, we have no parents, no mothers and fathers, on the rec center board,” he said. “Those are the people who really use the facility. We’re trying to get young parents involved. It would be nice to have one or two on our board who use our park to give us ideas on how we can improve the recreation center.”

The average age of La Jolla Rec Center board members is now more than 70, and many of the stalwart, longtime members are stepping down because of health reasons. Once totaling as many as 30 members, the board is now down to eight or 10 members.

Julie Scarpella, president of La Jolla Tennis Club, will be stepping in to help fill the fund-raising and inspirational void left by Hall’s departure. She’s looking forward to the challenge.

With children who’ve grown up using the rec center’s facilities, Scarpella is personally committed to getting involved.

“We used that park all the time,” she said, “and we just took it for granted that it was going to stay clean and the bathrooms were going to stay open and it was going to be adequately staffed and equipped.”

Having done fund-raising and public relations as president of the Tennis Club board, Scarpella believes she can transition smoothly into performing a similar function at La Jolla Rec Center.

“There’s not a brick wall between the two,” she said. “What I’ve been doing is sponsorship and fund-raising. I was able to get Mercedes-Benz as a tennis tour sponsor for our 89th year”.

According to Lohner-Turk, the La Jolla Rec Center serves between 700 and 1,000 people on a daily basis.

“They might be here five minutes or a couple of hours,” she said. “The building is 90 years old. It does need some improvements, and the city will be doing only emergency repairs.”

The center hosts many public meetings, including the monthly meetings of the La Jolla Town Council and all its subcommittees, as well as the the La Jolla Community Planning Association, the planning group that makes recommendations to the City Council on land-use issues in La Jolla.

La Jolla Rec Center director Dianne Brittingham said the mission of the institution is to continue its legacy as La Jolla’s social and recreational hub.

“A lot of people, like actor Cliff Robertson, have told me they grew up here at this recreation center,” said Brittingham. “The center reaches all community groups, all ages from babies up to adults and seniors.”

La Jolla Rec Center offers a plethora of educational and financially affordable recreational activities including language instruction, weight training and gymnastics in an exercise room, child care during a Parents Night Out and special events like a recent Cinco de Mayo seniors dance.

With the city’s budget crisis, a staff hiring freeze and departmental cutbacks across the board, Brittingham’s job is becoming increasingly complex.

“I’m trying to do everything with less budget,” she said. “We need donations from the community to keep the level of services we provide the public. We need an additional $50,000 a year to keep our staffing and our hours.”

In the future, the budget crunch could cause community centers to seek out corporate sponsorship and naming rights.

“Probably in the near future,” said Brittingham, “we might have to do something like that to support ourselves. Right now, we have a skeleton crew. We do what we can.”

A community open house is set for Saturday, May 14, from 2 to 4 p.m. Festive family-oriented activities, both inside and outside the building, will feature refreshments, a birthday cake cutting, live entertainment, plenty of fun and a host of other attractions for people of all ages, including a free astrojump for kids.

“We’re going to have some vintage vehicles on display during that time period starting with 1915,” said La Jolla Rec Center Board president Hobe Schroeder. “We’re celebrating the birthday, showcasing some of our programs, and also kind of having a little membership drive for La Jolla Park and Recreation Inc.”

There will be an extensive display of historic photos of old La Jolla furnished by the La Jolla Historical Society in the auditorium. Also performing at the open house will be the San Diego Parasol Strutters, a group of volunteer men and women dressed in period garb from the roaring 1920s. Sequined and bejeweled parasol ladies wearing flapper and fringe dresses alongside men wearing fancy vests and top hats will set the tone for the special occasion.

The senior group is well known for entertaining in convalescent homes, parks, fairs and parties.