Happy 100th, La Jolla Rec Center! Community thanks Ellen Browning Scripps for her 1915 gift of a playground


Saturday, July 25 was truly a day to celebrate at La Jolla’s Recreation Center, when the “oldest Rec Center west of the Mississippi,” held its centennial commemoration and the Kiwanis Club held its annual pancake breakfast down at 615 Prospect St.

Sharing memories and a bit of history, San Diego dignitaries spoke about the gift from La Jolla benefactress Ellen Browning Scripps and explained how La Jolla’s “community house and playground,” as it was once referenced, remains a vital town resource in a number of ways.

Health Fox, La Jolla Historical Society director, told those gathered that the Rec Center was financed by Scripps and designed by famed architect Irving Gill. “It featured what were, for its time, state-of-the-art amenities for children’s play and an auditorium for public events and activities.” The center is located across the street from what was once Scripps’ house.

When the building was ready, Scripps stipulated that the facility “be open to all, young and old, rich and poor, and be a gathering place for everyone to enrich their lives through recreational, cultural and social programs.” She also specified it as a place “where everyone could express their views, something she would be very proud of looking back on the history and record of the building today,” Fox said.

A place for children

State Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins added, “The La Jolla Rec Center is a perfect example of history, community and legacy. ... Rec Centers hold a special place in the hearts of children; they can inspire, in some, the very sweetest memories, they certainly were for me. Many made their first friends here and colored pictures or made craft gifts for their parents. The extraordinary generosity of Ellen Browning Scripps and the dedication of generations of La Jollans who’ve been caretakers of her donation helped make today possible.”

San Diego City Council President Sherri Lightner said when her children, nieces and nephews were young, she would bring them to the La Jolla Rec Center. “We would stop at the (Riford) library for books and then play on this very playground before heading home,” she said.

“Programs like the ones offered here help build self-esteem, confidence, social harmony and self-discipline while improving the health of youth and adults. I remember the dance lessons I had in elementary school that were provided by the Rec Department.”

La Jolla Town Council president and La Jolla native Steve Haskins also shared his Rec Center memories. “On my first day of nursery school (at the Rec Center), I remember I cried and cried until I saw all the kids playing with blocks and I thought I would go inside.”

Years later, after the potluck dinners at the Rec Center, while the adults were socializing, Haskins said, “all of kids would go up on the stage and one of our favorite things to do was to have one kid hold one end of the (curtain) rope and another kid pull the curtains open, and the kid would go up into the rafters,” he said. “It brought a whole new meaning to the term ‘rec’ (wreck) center.”

A place for democracy

As many of the politicians who served on the local level were quick to note, civic meetings have long taken place at the Rec Center. Lightner noted that advisory groups such as La Jolla’s Town Council, Community Planning Association, La Jolla Shores Permit Review Committee, Planned District Ordinance committee, Development Permit Review committee, Parks & Beaches, and Traffic & Transportation all meet there.

“All of the action happens here and I’m proud to have such a historic asset in my district,” she said. Having served on many of the committees herself, Lightner laughed, “I have attended too many meetings to count. I think it’s in the thousands of hours for sure.”

Town Council president Haskins said, “This is where some of the great battles of La Jolla have been fought. I remember when I was on the Town Council as a student at La Jolla High School, we had battles over high-rises, over the destruction of historic houses and buildings, over giant development on Mount Soledad, and those were all fought out in that room there.”

Former City Manager Jack McGrory added debates ranging from installing parking meters in the Village to renaming the La Jolla Christmas Parade & Holiday Festival have taken place at the Rec Center.

A place for tennis

Two years after the Rec Center opened, the now-famous La Jolla Tennis Club was established there. Recalling his time on the courts, professional tennis player Chico Hagey said he spent a lot of time in La Jolla from 9 years old until age 18, when he went to play tennis for Stanford University.

“I always found it to be a very democratic place,” he said. “It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, there were three things that counted. One was whether you played good tennis. Another was whether you cheated; if you cheated, you didn’t get a good tennis game. The third thing was self-control and (not) throwing temper tantrums on the court. A great athletic center like this one does more than improve our tennis, it improves our character and I’m very grateful that the Rec Center has improved mine.”

A place to celebrate

From the speaker’s podium, Town Council trustee and Christmas parade organizer Ann Kerr Bache announced that the La Jolla Rec Center will serve as Grand Marshal in the 2015 La Jolla Christmas Parade & Holiday Festival, Dec. 6, with La Jolla Park & Recreation Inc. president Doug Fitzgerald, vice-president Cindy Greatrex and Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation executive director Doug Dawson as its representatives, riding in the parade.

To ring in the next 100 years, the historic plaque that faces the building was replaced and revealed.

The new plaque was one of many upgrades to the center, including replacing the floors and repainting the exterior in its original color.

City of San Diego Park & Recreation director Herman Parker said the Rec department “is honored to be here and honored for the part we’ve played in maintaining this wonderful facility.”

The Centennial celebration included a spectacular cake from Francois Goedhuys and staff at Girard Gourmet, cookies and refreshments, music, pony rides, and games and prizes.