Come What May: Owner of Cliff May home in La Jolla appeals ‘involuntary’ historic designation


By Pat Sherman

The owner of a home built by architect Cliff May (1909-1989) — considered the father of the California Ranch House — has appealed a historic designation placed on his property Jan. 23 by the city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB).

The property owner, David Mandelbaum, is calling it a case of “preservationists running amok.”

Manedelbaum said he apprised the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS) of his plan to apply for a historic designation on the home at 7727 Lookout Drive, when his neighbor, architectural historian Diane Kane (who formerly bid to purchase the property and serves on the LJHS’s preservation committee), filed her own application for a historic designation.

Mandelbaum said he only wished to designate one of four lots on the property (where the Cliff May home is situated) — a plan with which he said HRB staff initially agreed. Kane applied to have all four lots designated historic.

At the conclusion of the HRB proceeding, where Kane said the property’s lineage and lot line adjustments were a “major area of discussion and deliberation,” the HRB included two of the lots in the designation (including one directly west of the property).

The designation was granted based on the house’s style of construction and the significance of the architect.

“I never appealed the designation of the home — and I think it deserves a designation,” Mandelbaum maintained, “but to designate an adjoining parcel is, I think, overreaching.”

Kane said she requested designating the additional parcels (including one referred to as “Parcel 4” in Mandelbaum’s appeal to the San Diego City Council) to preserve May’s intended setting for the home, which she said includes Parcel 4, “a sloping site with expansive views toward La Jolla Cove and Torrey Pines State Park.”

“Setting is always an important part of architectural design,” Kane said, via e-mail. “The HRB did not designate the entire site as requested … but it did recognize the expansive setting as a significant feature of the Cliff May design and therefore designated a second lot to express that aspect of its historical significance.”

Kane said the only professional photograph of the property in the Cliff May archives at the University of California, Santa Barbara was taken from the living room, panning northward up the coast. However significant the home may be, Kane said, UCSB researchers could not find any indication that it was ever featured in architectural publications after it was built.

“May probably intended to publish the (photograph), using that feature as the most unique attraction of the design,” Kane said. “Clearly, the coast views were important to both him and the client (original inhabitants George and Marion Cottrell) or a professional photograph would not have been commissioned.”

However, Mandelbaum noted that the home is located within the La Jolla Shores Planned District Ordinance, which only calls for protecting ocean views from the public right-of-way (designated view corridors along streets and roadways), and not from private property.

Mandelbaum said it was his intention to preserve the view of the home from the public right-of-way (Lookout Drive).

He said he is also upset that his removal of what he considered a dying palm tree grove on the property — added more recently by the Yianilos family — was referred to by a neighbor during the HRB hearing as “disgusting.”

“Tell me what law I broke?” he asked. “If you want to change the law to protect landscaping, fine, but don’t call me disgusting.”

Mandelbaum said he has preserved an olive tree on the property, believed to be an original Cliff May planting (he said an arborist told him it had been severely neglected by previous owners).

He said he views Kane’s quest to designate all four parcels historic — and her pending application to have the property designated as a state historic landmark, which he said has prevented him from pulling permits to work on his property — as “vindictive,” given Kane’s failed bid to purchase the property herself in 2012.

Kane said that prior to placing her bid on the property, La Jolla architect Jim Alcorn created a pro-bono concept plan to preserve the entire site, which was approved by the neighborhood and HRB staff, and which was in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the treatment of historic properties, as well as the La Jolla Shores Planned District Ordinance, La Jolla Community Plan and city municipal code.

“I based my offer on the concept plan … originally associated with a neighborhood initiative to purchase the property to protect neighborhood character (and neighbors’ views),” Kane said, adding that after Mandelbaum’s bid was accepted, she notified him through his attorney, Scott Moomjian, that Alcorn’s concept was available for his use.

“Mr. Alcorn told me he was interviewed by Mr. Mandelbaum as a potential architect for the property and showed him the concept plan during the interview, but he was not chosen for the job.”

Mandelbaum said Alcorn’s plans did not include preserving the palm tree grove that Kane and other preservationists later criticized him for felling.