La Jolla’s beach cottages: An issue of integrity
By Pat ShermanPerhaps nowhere else in San Diego has the conflict between development and historic preservation been as pronounced as it has been in La Jolla during the past four decades — specifically, when it comes to protecting what remains of La Jolla’s original, beach bungalow architecture.
Built primarily between the 1880s and 1920s, these simply constructed, single-story “shacks” were characterized by low-pitched roofs, wood siding and open front porches, usually facing the ocean.
Today, La Jolla’s few remaining beach cottages sit in the shadow of dense residential and commercial development, spared from oblivion by sympathetic owners or via a nod from the National Register of Historic Places, the State Register of Historical Resources or San Diego’s Historical Resources Board, the latter of which has the ultimate say in whether a property receives historic designation (though property owners may appeal a ruling to the city council).
However, both developers and preservationists are growing increasingly perplexed as to how the city’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) and, specifically, its staff, determine which architecture is worthy of preserving.
According to Kelley Stanco, an HRB staff senior planner, the HRB staff will first determine if a historic resource exists, based on a site-specific historic report. The reports are required any time a property owner seeks a city permit to demolish or significantly alter a building that is 45 years old or older.
Based on the report, if staff determines that a property does not have sufficient historic merit, the issue will not be sent to the HRB for possible designation.
Linda Marrone, a historic real estate specialist and HRB member, said the historic reports can be crafted in such a way as to easily argue against designation.
“If someone really wants to tear down a house, it’s easy to make an argument (for that) in a lot of ways with these older homes because they’ve gone through (so many) changes over the years,” Marrone said.
One of the most glaring losses for local preservationists in recent history was the demolition of
Windemere, the earliest of famed architect Irving Gill’s La Jolla beach cottages. Built on Prospect Street in 1894, the cottage was moved to Virginia Way in the 1920s.
Though preservationists and historians argued that the Windemere should have qualified for designation under several of the HRB’s six determining criterion (only one is needed to justify designation), the structure was denied designation on the grounds that it suffered a “loss of integrity,” meaning too many of its original features had been altered through the years.
It is an argument that is frequently and easily employed by city staff, property owners or developers to justify demolition of potentially historic structures.
La Jollan Diane Kane, who conducted historical surveys for the city before her recent retirement, now serves as a trustee on the board of the California Preservation Foundation and is working to update an inventory of La Jolla’s historic structures, last comprised by Wayne Donaldson in 2003.
Kane said she feels in many instances HRB staff is overusing the integrity argument to deny designation.
“There’s been a big shift over there in the past 20 years,” she said. “From a staff perspective, they’ve really tightened up on the issue of integrity to the point where we are losing a huge amount (of historic structures) on the premise that they have lost their integrity. I would say they have become too strict in that regard.”
Kane cited last year’s demolition of a home at 6604 Muirlands Drive designed by architect
William Keslingin 1946. Kesling’s buildings represent some of the earliest examples of modernist architecture in La Jolla.
“He was doing some pretty spectacular stuff that no one in San Diego had seen,” Kane said. “This was a pivotal work. The La Jolla Historical Society argued that it was significant, not just for La Jolla, but for this architect’s career.”
What the owners argued to be changes resulting in a loss of integrity, Kane views as “routine maintenance,” which she said is inevitable when dealing with a property built more than 45 years ago, such as the replacement of cracked tiles or bricks.
“Properties wear over time,” she said. “The owners would just repair it. ... It wasn’t a perfect match, but it was the best they could do.”
Most of La Jolla’s beach cottages were built for seasonal occupation, and required later upgrades to make them “comfortable and functional” for year-round residence, Kane said.
“They’re not taking into account that these properties have been there for a very long time and are part of the fabric of who we are as a beach community,” she said. “They’re trying to compare them to what’s going on in other parts of the city.” (The city will say), ‘We’ve got A bunch of them in another part of the city; what do we need these for?’”
Kane said city staff is even more conservative when considering a structure’s integrity than what is outlined in state and federal preservation guidelines.
“I think what triggered a lot of that change was the local discussion over the Mills Act,” she said, noting the state program that offers a tax break to the owners of historic properties for restoring and main- taining the structure’s historicity.
“The program was wildly successful,” Kane said. “Then there was a concern that all these rich people in La Jolla don’t need this tax break.”
WindanSea historicity deniedIn late 2010, HRB staff determined that adjoining WindanSea properties built in the early 1900s on Playa del Sur also suffered a loss of integrity, and approved the owner’s request to demolish the structures and re- build a duplex.
Though a notice of the owner’s intent to demolish was posted on the property in June, for now it remains unscathed while the owner seeks a required coastal development permit.
According to Stanco, the property owner commissioned the required historical report from local attorney and historian Scott Moomjian. HRB staff agreed with the report’s findings, that too many of the original features had been altered, including replacement of 11 of 18 windows and most of the shingle siding. Also cited in the report was the “possible addition of a cobble veneer over the chimney.”
Dubious designation?Carol Olten, a historian with the La Jolla Historical Society, cited two adjacent cottages on Eads Avenue and Bishops Lane (built in 1913 and 1915), which the HRB determined to be historically significant at its July meet- ing. However, Olten said she feels these were far less worthy of designation than the properties on Playa Del Sur or Windemere.
They’re “two little falling-apart, munchkin-like cottages,” with no record of their architect and no discernible architecture of note, Olten said. “I don’t see the great significance that these cottages have ... despite being old. There’s been a great deal of inconsistency in how the city designates cottages.”
Matthew Welsh, a La Jolla-based artist and designer with experience in historic restora- tion, concurred. “They’re representative of that time, but again you can find those all up and down the coast of California,” he said. “They’re nothing special.”
According to Stanco, the Eads Avenue and Bishops Lane cottages received designation under “criterion A,” for their age and association with early beach cottage development in La Jolla (despite arguments from the developer and architects that the architecture was insignificant and the structures did not face the ocean).
The HRB unanimously approved its staff’s recommendation for designation, noting what it believed to be the cottages’ high level of integrity. The designation has since been appealed to the city council. A hearing date will be determined once the applicant is ready to proceed, Stanco said.
Asked for information about the cottages’ historicity by Deborah Marengo of Marengo Morten Architects (which was hired to design a planned replacement triplex on the site), the La Jolla Historical Society had trouble finding information on the cottages, and told Marengo it would probably not take a stance on them.
However, during the HRB’s July meeting, historical society board member Connie Branscomb said the cottages were on the society’s historic walking tour and that the historical society strongly supported their designation.
“We just knew that these buildings were old and significant,” Branscomb told the HRB. Architect Claude-Anthony Marengo and attorney Scott Moomjian said they were “a little shocked” that the historical society had taken a stance, given the lack of information on the properties’ provenance and the society’s seeming “disinterest” in them prior to the meeting.
“Us being opposed to this is really, in essence, not just for the development, but for the continuity of knowing the process for the historical resources board, working together to make development and historical preservation work seamlessly,” Marengo said.
Moving forward, Kane and Marrone said they hope to see the HRB and its staff place more emphasis on the age of a structure and the significance of its architecture to the area when making decisions on whether to confer a historic designation.
About San Diego Resources Board•An 11-member city advisory board, HRB members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council to administer the city’s historic preservation program.
•Though the city requires that the HRB include professionals with expertise in architecture, history, architectural history, archaeology and landscape architecture, it may also include attorneys, real estate agents, engineers, general contractors or financiers.
On the Web•
San Diego Historical Resources Board:
sandiego.gov/planning/programs/historicalLa Jolla’s bygone beach cottages
•Waterloo, 7703 Prospect Place
•Humpty Dumpty, 1220 Roslyn Lane
•Tinkerville, 7713 Herschel Ave.
•Linger Longer, 7809 Ivanhoe Ave.
•Water Witch, 358 Prospect St.
•Periwinkle, 810 Prospect St.
•Jack O’ Lantern, 1200 Coast Blvd.
•Dragonfly, Firefly, Bumblebee, and Butterfly (all on Exchange Place)