St. James makes space for restrooms

Notoriously pragmatic Ellen Browning Scripps would be pleased, and amused, by a practical job completed recently at St. James by-the-sea Episcopal Church: two new restrooms that can now be accessed by disabled people in the church’s 1929 Bell Tower memorializing the La Jolla benefactress’s half-sister Virginia.

The original church on the site, built in 1907, was designed by renowned architect Irving Gill. In 1929, the tower and chapel, designed by Irving’s nephew Louis Gill, were built and the original church was moved to another location in town. The current church, also designed by Louis Gill, was built and dedicated in 1930.

For 78 years, the church had operated without restrooms accessible to children and the disabled attending services, concerts or public functions in the church’s main worship area. No longer.

The new restroom facilities might not only be described as extraordinary and historically accurate. They are, in fact, heavenly, boasting stained-glass windows.

“It’s probably the nicest restroom in the whole region,” joked project architect Bennett Lord. “It fits the history, the look, of the building. It was an enormous effort.” The enormity of the task was not lost on Tom Grunow, a La Jolla contractor, who headed the church’s Building Committee which took more than seven years to plan and construct the new restrooms.

Grunow said designing adequate restroom facilities serving up to 600 occupants in a space resembling a closet more than anything else was no small undertaking.

Design challenges

“It not only had to be accessible, but meet all the fire and safety requirements in a very tight layout - a turning radius for a wheelchair,” he said.

Admittedly, the project was less than a godsend for Melhorn Construction’s Steve Reden, the guy in charge of the 12-week job of constructing the facilities in a crawlspace in an old building not designed for them.

“It presented special problems,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “Picture it like an old dungeon down through an iron staircase in a concrete block tower. The sewer line had to be extended all the way from the front portico. We had to work through several layers of old slab floors and foundation.”

Wiring the system

And then there was the matter of working in and around the bell tower’s intricate wiring.

“We had to go into a conglomerate of 50 or 60 wires going through this thing that made the chimes go off and kept time,” he said. “We had to take all the wiring out of the dungeon and then relocate that into the upper chamber, then rehook it all up, which was unbelievably challenging.”

The finished product is something to behold - and practical too, said Garth Howe, St. James pastor for ministry development.

“We chose to stay within the 1929 period,” he said. “Besides the two stained-glass windows, there are gold-leaf ceilings, white-oak partitions and doors and the wainscoting is terraza tile. They are phenomenal. Our main intent was to provide a welcome environment for everybody.”