Mortar in the Court! La Jolla Historical Society rocks out with cobblestone restoration projects


By Carol Olten

One of the most significant building phenomena in La Jolla of the early 1900s was the construction of hundreds of linear feet of cobblestone walls in the heart of the Village. Mainly, they surrounded and wove serpentine-like through the oceanfront estate owned by Ellen Browning Scripps. (True to form, the wealthiest lady in La Jolla whose interests were in nature and simplicity, defined her house and gardens with the most unassuming of natural materials – rocks!)

Today, the cobblestone walls remain an important feature of the area familiarly referenced as the Scripps/Gill cultural complex – Gill referring to architect Irving Gill who designed Scripps’ home (present site of the Museum of Contemporary Art) and surrounding buildings including the La Jolla Recreation Center and La Jolla Woman’s Club. But after more than 100 years, the walls have reached a point of severe decay. Rocks – ever the rolling stones! – have fallen out of them as mortar disintegrates. Uneven patches appear as owners have attempted poorly researched repairs.

In some situations as with the mid-century building of the In Eden apartment complex at Prospect and Cuvier streets, they have been ripped up. Although a cobblestone wall once was one of the first erected in the Village by the La Jolla Recreation Center, it has long since been cemented over no longer keeping any of its original integrity. Still, the remaining cobblestone walls are a unique La Jolla feature – picturesque, quaint and an admirable remembrance of the workers who made and designed them – including the mastermind Mr. Gill.

“The cobblestone walls are an extremely important part of the original landscape fabric,” said Tom Grunow, president of the La Jolla Historical Society (LJHS). “Their maintenance and restoration is integral to our overall project.”

The majority of the remaining cobblestone walls today are part of the LJHS property – Wisteria Cottage, the Carriage House and 7846 Eads Ave. office building – fronting on Prospect Street and Eads Avenue. They will be part of the LJHS’ three-phased undertaking to restore and maintain the buildings and gardens at 780 Prospect St. and 7846 Eads Ave.

Originally, cobble walls wrapped the Scripps’ estate from Prospect (at Cuvier) to Eads Avenue toward the ocean to Coast Boulevard, going from Coast down to Cuvier and, then, back up the hill to Prospect. They also twined through the Scripps’ gardens defining paths and serving as retaining walls. Other cobble walls were built in the same time frame of the early 1900s on the site of what was to become the Recreation Center and the present-day St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. Early photographs show them framing a precise and pristine landscape, well-planned and executed.

Why in La Jolla’s early history this sudden and rather brief fascination with the building of rock walls?

Possibly, Ellen Browning Scripps had cobblestone walls in her blood. She was born in England and grew up in Rushville, Ill. – both places that used cobble walls as a way of defining property.

Secondly, Gill who received significant La Jolla commissions from Miss Scripps, experimented widely with cobblestones as a building material during a short-lived span from 1905-1908 after which his interests moved to more modern ideas and the use of tilt-up concrete.

Thirdly, cobblestones fit the natural aesthetic of the Craftsman, or bungalow, style of architecture popular in Southern California at the time.

Finally, rocks were essentially free – anyone could gather them at the beaches! (Miss Scripps, however, was known to belabor the cost of construction and gathering them. She noted in her diary in April 1908: “Men want two more loads of stone. None to be got. Divided cost of stone work, Jenny – half-sister Virginia Scripps who owned Wisteria Cottage – paying me her share $188.80.”)

At that time, Virginia needed a lot of rocks. Not only was she building garden walls around Wisteria, but architect Gill had designed an addition to her cottage with cobblestones as the major material. The cobblestone walls, according to architectural historian Diane Kane, “show up in his remodel drawings of the cottage dated December, 1907.”

Today, the cobblestone walls at the back of Wisteria form a fortress of rocks and mortar supporting the rear of the house while also enclosing the first floor or “basement.” As an architectural detail, they also tie the building to its Southern California Craftsman roots and the practice of cobble building in the San Gabriel foothills and the Arroyo Seco, Kane pointed out.

“We can appreciate the horizontal set of the cobbles and the way they are set in recessed mortar,” Grunow said. “All of this must be considered in undertaking the restoration and getting to the finished product.”

The tradition of cobble building in the greater San Diego area dates to 1850 when rocks were gathered to build the first prison in Old Town. Unfortunately, they were set without mortar and the first prisoner escaped immediately.

The tradition of cobblestone building in the United States itself, dates from 1825 to 1865 and the building of the Erie Canal when British stonemasons introduced the form. Ninety percent of the cobblestone buildings in America are found within a 75-mile radius of Rochester, N.Y. Many have been preserved through the efforts of the Cobblestone Society and Museum in upstate New York.

Where do cobblestone come from?

Formed from a glacial legacy of millions of years ago, cobblestones are formed from boulders washed to smoothness through eons of being tossed along mountain streams and rivers. Landing on the beach, they eventually become smaller pebbles and, finally, sand.

The cobbles in the La Jolla walls date to the Eocene, about 15 million years ago, said Edward Winterer, geologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They are composed of extremely hard minerals, such as quartz and feldspar, meaning they are virtually rocks of ages.

Today’s primary challenge is finding the right mortar and craftsmanship to hold them together – rocks, no roll.

— Carol Olten