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La Jolla’s building blocks: the humble beach cottages

By Carol Olten

Historian, La Jolla

Historical Society

Although mansions decorate the hillsides and huge estates ramble up and down the coastline, when push comes to shove, La Jolla’s true architectural heritage remains the humble beach cottage.

Hundreds of such cottages once were spread up and down the coastal hillsides connected by dirt paths and dusty roadways. They were known mostly by romantic names — Honey Bug, Morning Glory, Blue Haven, Breezey Nest, Butterfly — and occasionally unromantic ones such as Barnacle, Squeeze Inn, Water Witch, Waterloo. With the earliest dating to the 1880s when building materials were simple and sometimes scarce, beach cottage architecture was basic bare bones: a single story, a low-pitched roof, wood siding and — with luck — a small front porch upon which to sit and enjoy the ocean view.

Ironically, the views led to the demise of the majority of La Jolla’s beach cottages as new owners built anew on choice sites with little regard for the past’s “shacks.” The vernacular architecture dwindled ... and dwindled ... and dwindled. Today, only a handful of historic beach cottages remain in La Jolla and, because the numbers are few, they seem all the more precious.

While most of the remaining beach cottages are tucked away behind overgrown landscape or occupy forsaken spots in lanes or alleys, a group of eight early cottages remain clustered together in the immediate Village area, longtime survivors of condo building booms and the expansion of the commercial core.

For years they have been part of the corporate ownership of the Copley Newspapers and operated as rental properties. They occupy the 7700 Ivanhoe Avenue block between the former Copley Executive Office and Copley Library — each surrounded by small well-kept gardens and quaint details ranging from the proverbial picket fence to Cecil Breuner climbing roses. The entire group is for sale for $8.5 million with at least one escrow currently said to be pending.

Preservationists to attention! Beach cottage architecture — La Jolla’s only truly original architecture — is once again threatened with more disappearance. And eight cottages, dating from possibly the 1890s through the 1920s, are a big chunk to be sitting on a time bomb waiting, quite possibly, for a higher-density situation of sardine-packed condos without open space.

Beach cottages once were the way of life in La Jolla. How many more will vanish into history and we’re left touting the words of that Joni Mitchell song: “You don’t know what you got, ‘til it’s gone, gone, gone; they’ve paved paradise and put up a parking (prop).”