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History lives here

During its 103-year history, Wisteria Cottage has been a bookstore, a residence and is now being transformed into La Jolla Historical Society’s new headquarters.

It is likely to take considerable time and expense to rehabilitate the historic structure, with its broad green lawns on Prospect Street across from La Jolla Rec Center in the heart of the community’s cultural district.

Thanks to the Wisteria Cottage owners - the family of Roger Revelle, who played a key role in creating UCSD - a 10-year lease was signed in 2005 by the La Jolla Historical Society to take over the former John Cole’s Book Shop. Since then, the historical society has spent more than $12,000 to clean out the cottage, which has a basement and attic.

“Where we are now is dealing with the architect and planning, trying to determine how best to use the buildings, where we can start first,” said Pat Dahlberg, executive director of La Jolla Historical Society.

Retired La Jolla architect Robert Mosher said the community owes the Revelle family a debt of gratitude for their decision to lease the property to the historical society.

“Much to Ellen Revelle’s credit, she’s been very thoughtful and generous with that property, which is immensely valuable,” said Mosher. “I think it’s great what they’ve proposed for those buildings and I’m delighted they’re doing it.”

Dahlberg said the main reason the historical society acquired the cottage is that the nonprofit group has outgrown its current space at 780 Prospect St. behind the cottage.

“We have probably over 10,000 photos,” she said, “and we just don’t have room at all anymore.”

The historical society has retained the architectural firm of Zagrodnik & Thomas to aid them in mapping out how best to redevelop the historic property, the exterior of which cannot be changed because of its designation. In 1988, it was designated by the city as Historic Site 166, the Seaman-Scripps Wisteria Cottage.

There are three easements on the cottage site: a conservation easement, a facade easement and a scenic easement to preserve and protect the historic character of the building and its landscaping.

Linda Glaze of Zagrodnik & Thomas is helping with master planning and programming. She said nothing can be done to alter the historical character of the cottage’s exterior.

“Nothing can be done that is insensitive to the way the building looks,” she said.

“Changing windows, doors or siding, putting stucco in, those are some examples of what is not acceptable.”

Glaze said the interior can be changed substantially, even to the point of knocking down walls.

Next in line is exploring the zoning issues on the cottage property. The firm is working on a preliminary report on the structure’s existing situation and the historical elements. After that, a program document will identify what activities will be allowed and how they might be phased into reconstruction of the cottage.

“They’ve got some good plans,” said Glaze. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how that’s all going to work.”

Retired architect John Henderson, who was involved in historical preservation for 40 years, said there are financial incentives contained in the Mills Act for preserving historic buildings. Besides tax breaks, there are other advantages of historically designated structures.

“The state historic building code allows you to do some things the straight building code doesn’t,” Henderson said. “The state historic code is not a prescriptive code like normal building codes, whch are very prescriptive. Whereas building codes say you have to have certain kinds of studs so many inches apart, the state historic code allows you to prove equivalence. You may not have a stud every 16 inches. It allows you to do an alternative approach.”

Henderson doesn’t believe restoring Wisteria Cottage will be inordinately expensive.

“The expense comes about,” he said, “if you take an existing building and want to put an entirely different, very vigorous use into it, as opposed to the use it has always had.”

On a walk-through of Wisteria Cottage, Dahlberg pointed out the difficulty in rehabilitating the 1,800-square-foot, musty-smelling structure.

“This could be a workroom where people could come in an look at exhibits,” Dahlberg said. “We know we want to put in a little bookstore, Barbara Coles gift shop.”

The cottage’s basement includes an old fireplace and lots of room for storage. There’s even an artesian well.

Paying for the refit of the historic cottage is another matter.