La Jolla Historical Society completes Wisteria Cottage renovation


If you go:

Wisteria Cottage and the “Climate Change” exhibit reopens to the public with extended hours, noon to 4 p.m., May 4-11, at 7846 Eads Ave. (858) 459-5335.

By Pat Sherman

Like a gift that keeps on giving — one layer at a time — the La Jolla Historical Society’s (LJHS) recently completed renovation of Wisteria Cottage (where its exhibits are held) revealed some interesting things about the 1904 Craftsman-style cottage and its previous inhabitants.

During a recent visit to the campus at Eads Avenue and Prospect Street, LJHS Executive Director Heath Fox noted that about 40 paint samples were taken from exterior walls, trims and the roof, and then sent to Virginia-based art conservator Susan Buck for microscopic

analysis, allowing the LJHS and its architect, Ione Stiegler (of La Jolla-based IS Architecture), to replicate the original color of Wisteria Cottage (“Essex Green” with “French Canvas” trim) and the adjacent Balmer Annex (“Rockwood Sash Green” with “Muslin” trim).

“It turns out there were nine layers of paint on Wisteria and four layers of paint on Balmer,” Fox said. “We restored Wisteria to the period of significance when Virginia Scripps owned it and Irving Gill remodeled it (1907) and Balmer Annex to the late 1940s when it was built as a classroom for what at the time was the Balmer School.”

By accessing the attic, it was determined that the original roof was comprised of cedar shingles. It was also restored. (City code, which otherwise prohibits the use of highly flammable cedar shingles on homes, allows for their use on some historic structures with fire protection systems.)

Old drawings and photographs revealed an entrance and stairway on the left side of Wisteria Cottage that was removed and walled over when the building served as a bookstore (1960-2005), which was also restored. That side entrance adjoined a sidewalk that once connected Virginia Scripps’ Wisteria Cottage with half-sister and leading La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps’ South Moulton Villa (where the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is now located) — an important historic aspect of the property, Fox said.

LJHS Preservation Committee member Diane Kane wrote a historical structures report for the project, documenting features of Wisteria Cottage relative to the people who lived there and events that occurred there.

Poring through archives at UC Santa Barbara, Kane was able to locate master architect Irving Gill’s original drawing for the remodel of Wisteria Cottage, which served as a better guide for the project than the blurry, faded copy in the LJHS archives, used as a reference for the building’s 1982 historic designation.

Kane said she and Stiegler discovered that Gill added Wisteria’s lower level, as well as cobblestone walls lining the perimeter of the property and cobblestone supporting terraces.

Though they were never able to identify Wisteria’s original architect (it was built for Edith Seaman and husband, George, in 1904), they learned that Wisteria was once situated to the North, where Balmer Annex now is, and repositioned onto the lower level after the site was re-graded.

Kane said the Seamans only lived in Wisteria several months before they mysteriously vanished and it was acquired by Virginia Scripps, who Edith Seaman met through Ellen and Virginia’s half-sister, Annie, at an Alameda sanatorium.

In a “real-life Monopoly” scenario, Kane said, land speculators, including the Scripps sisters, were trading parcels on Prospect back and forth via some strange transactions that ultimately resulted in Virginia renting, then owning Wisteria Cottage (today the oldest structure in what is considered the Scripps/Gill Cultural District).

Kane said she also learned that, to better connect their properties (Moulton Villa and Wisteria Cottage), the Scripps sisters obtained a street called Daisy Row (once located between their two properties) from the city, in exchange for two parcels they owned to the north of Wisteria, which the city used to add the replacement street, Eads Avenue.

Further renovations

The exterior space between Wisteria Cottage and Balmer Annex was upgraded to make it more functional as a gathering area (since the buildings have no internal passageway), Fox said. La Jolla Garden Club added a bench and planters to spruce up this space.

Despite his initial worry that the renovation might uncover mold, dry rot or other defects, Fox said the buildings were in pretty decent shape. Where wood from Wisteria couldn’t be salvaged, matching floor panels dating to the 1920s and recently removed from a Tudor-Revival house on Virginia Way (part of an ongoing rehabilitation designed by La Jolla Historical Society board member and architect Laura DuCharme Conboy) were used.

“On the underside of any new wood that we had to put in the date is written — 2013 or 2014 — so that if some future historian pulls it up they’ll know that that wood went in at that time,” Fox said, noting that mortar in new stone walls adjacent to Balmer Annex were also sprinkled with 2013 pennies to let future historians know they are not part of the original features.

Also on the inside of Wisteria, drywall was removed from the ceiling to reveal bead-board and joists, which were restored. “We decided to take advantage of it,” Fox said. “It really raises the space and helps with the sound and acoustics.”

The conference room in Balmer Annex, built for the school in the late 1940s, was restored to that period for meetings, workshops, educational programs and community activities.

Improvements to the LJHS’s office and research center, a rear 1909 cottage re-located to the property in the 1980s, will provide a more conducive setting for the public to access LJHS archives.

Upgrades to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act include bathrooms and an elevator, so physically challenged visitors can access a meeting room on the lower level for research purposes.

The gallery space inside Wisteria was redone to meet museum standards (established by the American Association of Museums), including the addition of a humidity controlled air conditioning and heating system to better preserve artifacts on display, and environmentally friendly LED spotlights. The building also includes new electronic security and fire protection systems, and shades that block 95 percent of UV light, Fox said.

Climate change

While the first air conditioning and heating system in Wisteria’s 110-year existence is employed, the LJHS highlights another kind of atmospheric change pivotal to La Jolla’s growth, via its reopening exhibition, “Climate Change: Midcentury Modern La Jolla” (through Sept. 7).

LJHS is ripe for such an exhibit, as La Jolla was on the cusp of the Midcentury Modern aesthetic — a period of bold transition in architectural, furnishing, product and graphic design spanning 1940 to 1965, Fox said.

The exhibit, curated by Dave Hampton, focuses on three La Jollans of particular significance to the period, including architect

Russell Forester (1920-2002)

, involved in designing the first Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, as well as the Los Angeles International Airport and projects for clients such as Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Giesel; photographer

Lynn Fayman (1904-1968)

, known for his light paintings and use of Eastman-Kodak’s 1949 Flexichrome process, by which black and white negatives could be brushed with colored dyes, resulting in a confluence of painting and photography; and architect

Robert Mosher (b. 1920)

, known for his redevelopment of the former Green Dragon artist colony at the northern end of Prospect Street, and his role as a design consultant on the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge.