Historic home demolished? Questions arise about extent of changes to Cliff Robertson’s former La Jolla estate


Casa de la Paz/ The Dunes house

■ Owner (1922-1937):

Philip Barber, developer of La Jolla’s Barber Tract neighborhood

■ Original design by:

Architect J.H. Nicholson; the city’s Historical Resources Board stated in a 2002 report, ‘It cannot be established that (Nicholson) was a master architect.’

■ Owner (1963-2005):

Actor and native La Jollan Cliff Robertson

■ Robertson’s lost additions by:

Master architect Thomas Shepherd

By Pat Sherman

Preservationists driving by the estate home once owned by the late Academy Award-winning actor Cliff Robertson say they are alarmed by how much of the home has been demolished as part of an ongoing renovation. Only concrete and terracotta block walls of the historic home (sans roof) remained last week.

Historic real estate specialist Linda Marrone said she contacted the city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) recently, believing the property owner may have had too much of the home demolished. The HRB granted a local historic designation for the property in 2002, per Robertson’s request.

“At first I assured neighbors that everything was going to be OK, because the house was designated, and of course the HRB staff would be looking at it and critiquing the plans,” Marrone said. “Then when I saw the façade being held up, basically by a couple of boards and beams, I thought, what’s going on here?”

Philip Barber, who developed La Jolla’s coastal Barber Tract neighborhood, built the Spanish eclectic-style home and guest quarters/gatehouse in 1922 (it was designed with Barber’s guidance by architect J.H. Nicholson). It went through several changes of ownership before Robertson purchased it in 1963, residing there on a part-time basis until he sold it in 2005.

Questioned about the ongoing development, project architect Tony Crisafi (of Island Architects) said the home’s historic designation is based only on the era when Philip Barber owned it, and that it is being restored to how it appeared in the 1920s. Windows have been removed temporarily for restoration, he said.

“There were a lot of things that were added onto the façade — lighting and a number of different types of tiles and small decorative items that were not original to the house, so those are being removed,” Crisafi said. “We’re un-decorating it, if you will, and bringing it back to the original condition.”

Vonn Marie May, a former HRB member who Robertson hired to write and submit the nomination papers for the designation, said those elements added by Robertson and master architect Thomas Shepherd in the early 1970s were included in her nomination paperwork as part of the property’s historicity, and should have been preserved (including a master bedroom designed by Shepherd, which was removed as part of the ongoing renovation).

May contends that Robertson’s legacy was crucial to the history of the home. In a 2002 Final Resolution deeming the project historic, the HRB refers to the property by both the titles given it by Barber and Robertson, while in a staff recommendation to designate the home historic, the HRB refers to the Robertson’s modifications as “sensitive to the original character.”

“Cliff actually saved it,” May said, noting that before Robertson purchased and renovated the home, the Realtor was marketing it as a “tear-down,” on which a buyer could rebuild a more modern home.

“He grew up in La Jolla; he used to play in that house with the (Barber) kids,” May added. “He knew that house and when he finally got money, he went back and bought it.”

Robertson occupied the home longer than Barber, noted May, who interviewed Philip Barber’s now deceased daughter Barbara Barber Stockton (1914-2009) as part of the nomination process.

“Barber had to sell it during the Depression (after) the stock market crash and they moved the whole family into the WindanSea Hotel,” she said.

“I think whoever the (HRB) staff and board members were at that time probably didn’t (handle the designation) right.”

The HRB staff recommendation said that, following Robertson’s restoration, the buildings were in “excellent condition and retain their historic fabric and integrity of design.” However, Crisafi said when he started work on it this year, much of the home was deteriorating and not salvageable, particularly Robertson’s additions, such as the master bedroom and ornamental tile from Mexico.

A majority of the time and cost of the renovation has gone into stabilizing the front walls, Crisafi said. “It’s an old structure,” he added. “It needed to come up to current structural codes.”

Crisafi said some trees on the property (planted by either Robertson or by Harriet Howe when she owned it from 1937 to 1946 and designated as part of the historical resource) have been preserved, including a giant ficus and several Norfolk Island pines.

The guesthouse, relocated years ago from its original location on the property, has already been restored to its original condition, he said.

In response to preservationists’ concerns about the ongoing work, Crisafi was scheduled to meet this week with members of the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS).

“When I called to set this up, it was pretty clear to me that Tony (Crisafi) and the owners are being as sensitive to the historicity of the building as they can,” said LJHS Executive Director Heath Fox.

“I feel very confident of that, and I think that we will know a lot more, in a lot more detail, after Tony briefs our committee and everyone has a chance to ask questions and to interact with him on what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it the way they are.”