Significance of ‘Foxhill’ ownership and architecture rejected in push for historic designation
The spacious La Jolla estate once belonging to local publishing magnates James and Helen Copley is not historic, despite a 5-1 vote by the San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) to designate the property as such during its Feb. 26 meeting (the HRB needed six votes for a historic designation).
Scott Moomjian, an attorney and historian hired by the David C. Copley Trust, argued that a historic designation would make the $25 property nearly impossible to sell at or near market value.
“The trust ... has a fiduciary duty to sell the property free-and-clear from all encumbrances, including a (historic) designation,” Moomjian told HRB members. “Designation of the property today will significantly lower the value of the property, limit the amount the trust can provide for charitable purposes — which is contrary to the Copley’s estate plan — and would prohibit or frustrate any future potential remodeling or development plans by a new owner.”
The Copleys owned The San Diego Union- Tribune, now called U-T San Diego. Their 8-acre estate was most recently owned by Helen’s son, its subsequent publisher and art patron, David Copley, who died in 2012 and had no heirs.
HRB staff had recommended the property be designated historic based on the significance of its French Eclectic style of architecture. However, Moomjian argued the estate, constructed more than a decade after the French Eclectic style had fallen out of fashion in the U.S., is not truly representative of that style, which was popular here after World War I (1915 to 1945). “This home was completed in 1956, which is considered to be a very late example of the style,” Moomjian said.
“There’s no question the property is a very pleasing, nice home. However it’s a marginal example of the French eclectic style, whereby the Copleys hand-picked French elements to create their nice home. One historic preservationist ... in response to the assertion that it’s French Eclectic, said, ‘No, it’s more akin to a ranch house on steroids.’ Not to be demeaning, but I think that is somewhat accurate.”
Several HRB members, including architect Tom Larimer, agreed with Moomjian’s assessment. Larimer said that although the work of Foxhill’s late architect, Roy Drew (a former business partner of La Jolla architect Robert Mosher), was significant, he was known more for modernism than French Eclectic.
“I was troubled by the massing of the building; it doesn’t feel like French Eclectic,” Larimer said. “Most troubling to me is the revision of the roof material (in which wood shingles were replaced with slate).”
Leslie Davis of the La Jolla Historical Society’s Preservation Committee noted that Foxhill was on the society’s first Secret Garden Tour.
“It’s made a mark in my community,” she said. However, Vicki Estrada, a landscape architect hired by the Copley trust, said Foxhill’s landscaping cannot be considered historic. The extent to which master landscape architect Harriett Wimmer was involved in the design of Foxhill’s grounds can not be proven, calling its historic significance into question, she said.
“I found no evidence of any drawings or documents that (show) she in fact was involved in some way in the design of the initial garden,” Estrada said, also noting “the design has changed quite a bit from what was there in 1956.”
HRB staff member and senior planner Kelley Stanco argued that the property could not be deemed historic based on the significance of owners James and Helen Copley because neither worked from home, and thus their business, civic and philanthropic achievements would be best be linked with the Copley Library and corporate offices at 7776 Ivanhoe Ave. in the Village. (At the time of James Copley’s death, the U-T’s Mission Valley office was just being completed.)
Similarly, Moomjian noted, the HRB ruled several years ago that Roger Revelle’s home on Vista Del Mar was not historic, because Revelle did the bulk of his professional work in his office at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
Regarding Helen Copley, Stanco said only time will tell if she is truly a historically significant figure. “Helen’s accomplishments appear to have occurred primarily after her husband’s passing in 1973,” Stanco said. “While highly admirable, staff believes these accomplishments are too recent to evaluate objectively within their historic context. Given more time and context Helen Copley may well be found to be an historically significant individual.”
David Copley, Moomjian said, is not considered historically significant and only lived at Foxhill as a small child and during the final months of his life.
However, HRB member and landscape architect Gail Garbini argued that Foxhill should be considered historic based on the significance of its owners, due to their position in the Republican Party and the parade of state, local and federal candidates the Copleys entertained and held fundraisers for at Foxhill.
In the end, board member Larimer made a motion to designate the property based on the significance of James S. Copley, from the period of 1956 to 1973. Although it received five votes, it was one less than needed for the historic designation, and the matter is considered closed.