Architecture, environment come together above the Cove


A house sitting atop La Jolla Cove should orient its architecture to the environment. And a house perched atop a 120-foot cliff, amid Torrey pines, must have had a tough road to construction. So it was with the Cliff House.

The brain-child of owner Jim Allen and architect Robert Thiele - at 1327 Cave St. - has been more than a decade in the making.

“My opinion is that a lot of things people think they’re going to build they can’t,” Allen said of the construction challenges encountered over the years.

Procuring materials from far corners of the globe were the least of the challenges that made the building of the house such a long journey.

Bill Walsh, the project’s developer, said 14 posts were taken from a submerged forest in a Canadian reservoir to provide the house’s superstructure. The richly colored wood floors are made of ipe, also called Brazilian walnut, which contrasts nicely with the green Argentine soapstone thresholds.

Mixing nature, living

But the signature of the Cliff House is where the fine building materials from abroad mix with the natural beauty of La Jolla itself. This happens in the great room, where 9-foot-high window walls made in Italy can be retracted, opening the room to the ocean and the pines.

The view of Shores, pelicans and Goldfish Point is cinematic.

The natural setting of the Cliff House makes it beautiful. It also made the construction difficult.

The first obstacle was determining how far the house had to be set back from the cliff, which involved a symposium of local and Coastal Commission officials. They had to distinguish the cliff edge from the bluff edge and assess the stability of the bluff.

“This whole issue of bluff edge setback has been going on in La Jolla for many, many years,” explained Louis Beacham, the project’s general contractor.

In short, houses must be set back 40 feet from the bluff edge unless the ground is proven by a geologist to be very stable. The Cliff House is set back 25 feet.

Answering the questions

Allen got his permit to start building in 1994 and broke ground the next year. But then the ground broke back when an excavator hit sandstone, cracking the heavy-duty machinery, he said.

This is the same sandstone that workers dug through for two years in the beginning of the last century to get to the back of Sunny Jim Cave. The Cave Store, and cave entrance, which Jim Allen also owns, is beside the Cliff House.

In addition, construction always had to tiptoe around the protected Torrey pines, he said. As the rarest pine in the United States they are endangered, and anytime digging was done near them an arborist had to be on site to supervise.

Special, indeed

So after more than 14 years, finishing touches are being put on the Cliff House, which is now on the market for $13.5 million.

Allen calls it a special house, and it is indeed spectacular in both its location and its owner’s vision.

The property defies architectural classification. Though it has elements of the Craftsman style, its post supports and serpentine deck give it Asian and modern touches as well.

The Cliff House follows the shape of its linear lot with a three-pod design, and its red cedar siding is only slightly darker than the pine needles that blanket the ground.

Says Allen: “It’s not a building imposed on the site. It started with the site and grew in and around it.”