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THE PRICE OF HISTORY: a move is afoot to preserve the architectural heritage of La Jolla by establishing a historical district

Nonetheless, it’s a quest worthy of undertaking, according to Pat Dahlberg, executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society.

“A historical district has been sought after in this area for a long time, this is nothing new,” Dahlberg said. “What we’re doing is just opening a dialogue. We don’t know if it’s practical, impractical or what.”

Dahlberg offers insights as she walks several blocks surrounding the Historical Society’s headquarters at 7846 Eads Ave., a home relocated inside La Jolla’s well-known cultural complex. She can point out the considerable number of historic or potentially historic structures that a historic district might serve to protect and enhance.

There are presently 42 buildings designated as historic sites within the cultural zone. There are at least as many potentially historic structures within the same area worthy of a second look at historical designation.

A few high-profile structures in the zone already on the historical list include: Brockton Villa, now a restaurant above the Cove; Red Rest and Red Roost beach bungalows; La Valencia Hotel; Colonial Inn; John Coles Bookstore; La Jolla Rec Center; Casa de Manana retirement center, an early 20th-century hotel; several buildings on The Bishop’s School campus; the Cave Store with its underground tunnel leading to Sunny Jim Cave; Darlington House; and Scripps House and Gardens, now part of the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.

“This was moved here in 1981 from down there on Prospect,” said Dahlberg of the Historical Society’s stone home. “It’s got a lot of integrity. This one could qualify as historic.”

The Historical Society home’s walls are lined with black-and-white photos testifying to the coastal community’s growth, progress and development over the years.

One could begin a historical walking tour of old La Jolla from the Historical Society building, down Eads Avenue to Coast Boulevard.

The trail is easy to find, just follow the rock-embedded concrete wall down to Prospect, then turn left. A stone’s throw from the Historical Society headquarters, a black gate topped by a gaslamp leads to a green home in the rear built in 1923 by the Ulysses Grant family, part of La Jolla’s Green Dragon art colony.

“This whole block was Ellen Browning Scripps’ estate,” said Dahlberg, turning the corner on Coast Boulevard heading east. “Up until four or five years ago, her chauffeur’s house was here. The underground garage he utilized to fix cars was here. It was declared historical but has been torn down.”

It’s a familiar lament of Dahlberg’s, old historic dwellings being swallowed up by impersonal new development, lost forever.

Historic districts like the one La Jolla is considering forming are the domain of city planner Diane Kane. The first step toward creating one, she said, is to exhaustively inventory everything historic or potentially historic within the boundaries of a prescribed area.

“The survey documents all the properties that are more than 45 years old,” she said. “What this gives you is a database.

From there, you see if there is a place you could form a district where there’s a concentration of historic structures that share some commonality.”

Kane explained how La Jolla would go about creating a geographic historical district.

“You draw your boundaries around the area you want to designate,” she said, “and then you do an in-depth study of every property that sits in that area. You figure out which buildings contribute to the history of the district, and which ones do not because they’re not historical, or have been heavily modified. For a geographic district, you need a fairly high concentration of properties determined to be historical.”

Old La Jolla and its cultural zone, dotted with historic and potentially historic structures, is waiting to be sewn together by residents, historians and community planners.

Continuing along the route, Dahlberg points to the Dr. Martha Dunn Corey residence, once home to one of the first female surgeons. Dunn raised 11 children there.

La Jolla isn’t the only community within San Diego looking to preserve its historical and archaeological heritage through historic designation. Alan Hazard and wife Janet O’Dea are in the process of doing exactly the same thing in Mission Hills.

“We put together a 75-home district,” Hazard said. “It took two years.”

Hazard had advice for La Jolla: Don’t get discouraged. Funding and lack of support from an understaffed city are just treacherous shoals that are difficult but not impossible to navigate.

“We went to the city and said, ‘We think you should do a historic district here,’ ” Hazard said. “They said, ‘We don’t have any money.’ So we said, ‘OK, we’ll raise the funds.’ Our feeling is you have to do your own districts now because if you wait for the city, it could take years.”

Hazard and others wrote a context statement and hired a researcher. They went door to door selling the idea to their neighbors and asking for donations.

“We told people about the benefits of preservation,” he said, “keeping homes in older neighborhoods from being demolished and about the Mills Act, which provides property tax reductions for historical properties.”

The Hazards completed laying the preliminary groundwork for creating a historic district in Mission Hills in September 2004. They are awaiting a scheduled hearing before the city’s Historic Resources Board. Similar historic district formation efforts are under way in South Park, Kensington and North Park.

La Jollan Jim Ahern has been a member of the city’s Historic Resources Board, comprised of 15 members appointed by the City Council. The Historic Resources Board assesses and grants or denies applications for historical status granted to individual dwellings or entire districts. Ahern explained the historic board’s role is to facilitate, not participate, in forming historic districts.

“We don’t create them,” Ahern said. “We don’t start the process.”

Ahern said an application was recently processed by the board to create a historic district with almost 90 homes in Ocean Beach.

“It took them five years before we could finally work with them,” Ahern said, “and tell them, ‘OK, now you’ve got a district.’ ”

Ahern said the city’s Historic Resources Board observes strict rules in assessing the viability of potential historic districts brought to them, which are more stringent than state or federal guidelines for registering historic places.

“Our criteria,” he said, “includes archaeological sites, cultural landscape, community history. That’s one of six categories.”

The historic walking tour of Old La Jolla wends its way to Redwood Hollow Cottages, a handful of storybook rental beach cottages in a lush jungle of greenery at 256 Prospect St. Redwood Hollow cottages are a registered San Diego historic site first developed in 1915.

Owner Martin Lizerbram conducts a guided tour of the historic cottage site billed as the American Riviera in La Jolla. April is the slow season, according to Lizerbram, between when snowbirds depart after winter and the beginning of the busy summer tourist season.

Much of the groundwork for creating a historic district in Old La Jolla has already been laid. An architecture firm, David Marshal Heritage Architecture, completed work on a survey of historical properties in La Jolla’s town center, updating an earlier survey from the 1970s.

“Our work was complete on the survey,” said firm principal David Marshal, “but it hasn’t been fully executed yet with the final planning documents.”

Marshal said the La Jolla survey was visual and did not involve a lot of research.

“We looked at the exterior, what’s visible to the general public, facades for architectural merits,” he said. “What we found is there’s been a great loss of homes that had some significant or potentially significant history. La Jolla, maybe more so than any other area of the city, is undergoing this dramatic change, sometimes not only replacing one home, but replacing two or three other adjacent homes as well by building one much larger home.”

Dahlberg said it’s a misconception that the La Jolla Historical Society has the ability to prevent developers from demolishing homes.

“We’re only involved in tracking historic older homes being demolished,” she said. “We just try to get things documented first, so people can know if they are historic. Then if they are historic, we’ll go to bat to try to save them, like we did with the Reading Room, which has been relocated to The Bishop’s School campus.”

Old La Jolla’s historic walking tour continues on to The Bishop’s School campus, sort of a historic district within an historic district, with a stately central courtyard and numerous signature arches, a favored stylistic flourish by famous early La Jolla architect Irving Gill.

Many of the original buildings on the Bishop’s campus were designed by Gill, who also left his personal stamp on the La Jolla Woman’s Club at 715 Silverado St. with its gardens, water fountain and long, covered archway.

Gill was one of Ellen Browning Scripps’ favorite architects. He designed many projects Scripps sponsored, including the La Jolla Recreation Center and La Jolla Woman’s Club. Together with The Bishop’s School, her house formed a Scripps enclave. That enclave would be the cornerstone of the new, proposed La Jolla Historic District.

Ione Stiegler, a La Jolla architect with the firm IS Architecture in Bird Rock, is president of the California Preservation Foundation, a statewide, nonprofit group promoting historic preservation in the state. She has been advising La Jolla Historical Society in its drive to formulate a bonafide historic district.

Stiegler believes a La Jolla historic district could make a great marketing tool and tourist draw.

“It has been proven that tourists who come for history stay a third longer and spend twice as much as any other form of tourism,” she said. “So, getting people to stay longer by preserving your history promotes high-quality tourists who are there to spend more money.”

“I’m showing you what La Jolla has left,” said Dahlberg, concluding her walk at the colorful and now vacant John Cole’s Book Shop, formerly Wisteria Cottage at 780 Prospect St. Wisteria Cottage belonged to Ellen Browning Scripps’ sister Virginia.

City planner Mike Tudury said historic and potentially historic structures are found throughout La Jolla.

“We’re certainly in favor of a La Jolla historic district,” said Tudury. “La Jolla certainly is an appropriate area to consider for a historical district.”

Tudury offered a caveat. “Staff and budget constraints don’t allow us to go forward with those at this point.”

Concluding her pitch for a historic district, Dahlberg said it’s better to be active than reactive. And what La Jolla stands to lose, if it fails to press preservation efforts, is the heart and soul of its heritage.

“There’s so much of it left,” said Dahlberg. “But, it’s going so fast. There’s still a lot available that could be saved.”