Village by the Sea: The story of La Jolla unfolds in new Historical Society exhibit

By Linda Hutchison

Just how did the town of La Jolla get its start? Who were the first La Jollans and what brought them here approximately 125 years ago?

To find out, visit “Home of Your Dreams: Early La Jolla from 1887 through the 1920s,” a new exhibit at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage. The show tells the story of La Jolla’s early days and gradual development into a cohesive, distinct community.

Artfully laid out and illustrated with approximately 100 photographs from the society’s extensive archives, the exhibit also includes artifacts and written descriptions and flows easily from one area of La Jolla’s colorful history to another. These include Early Pioneers, The Scripps Legacy, Transportation, Art & Performance, Civic Community, Houses & Architecture, The Sporting Scene, and The Enchanting Sea.

The exhibit has been very popular since opening in mid-November, with 40 or more visitors walking through each day, according to Carol Olten, society historian and author of “Images of America: La Jolla,” the basis for much of the exhibit. Olten provided the research for the exhibit, which was designed by Michael Mishler, society archivist and curator.

“Even those who live here are interested in La Jolla’s general history,” said Olten. “Our previous exhibits on early surfing and beach days and life during World War II were well-received.”

La Jolla’s story includes a unique combination of commerce, community, culture, creative spirit and natural beauty. All these elements came together at the right time as the Southern California land boom took off in the late 1800s and attracted ocean and beach lovers who decided to stay for more than a day and call La Jolla home.

La Jolla’s founding father was a New York City stockbroker named Frank Terrell Botsford who bought 400 acres of La Jolla Park, as the area along the ocean was called. He paid $5.50 an acre and held his first public auction to sell off parcels in April of 1887. He often camped, fished and hunted in the area and envisioned the future La Jolla, with houses built into the beachside cliffs and hills.

Early street names such as Wall, Park and Exchange reflect Botsford’s financial-world ties. Botsford formed a partnership with another early pioneer from the East, George Webster Heald, who built the first house in La Jolla in 1887, a Victorian-style farmhouse at the corner of Silverado and Exchange. Because he loved horses, he actually built his barn first and lived in it until his house was completed.

Many of La Jolla’s early residents were already sold on the area and had been traveling to the coast from other parts of San Diego to explore the tide pools and relax by the ocean.

The railway tracks laid in 1885 made it easy to travel from downtown San Diego to La Jolla in just 30 minutes and for only 75-cents round trip.

Within La Jolla, people rode horses — or horses and buggies — to get around. A popular donkey named Rags wandered the dirt streets with a cart and carried children to the beach. Cows from a nearby dairy farm often congregated on what is now La Jolla Shores Beach. The first car in La Jolla was driven by a visiting British Lord in 1902. It was steered by a lever and once tipped over on Prospect Street when the gent stopped to pick up a female passenger and she fell on the lever.

By 1900, the new town of La Jolla had about 200 residents and within the next 15 years added several businesses and services, including a general store, a bakery, builders, realtors, banks, a physician (a woman), post office, fire station, police force, schools, and a library.

Three early pioneers who profoundly shaped the character of La Jolla were Ellen Browning Scripps, her half-sister Eliza Virginia Scripps, and Anna Held. The Scripps were the wealthy heirs to a newspaper fortune and enjoyed philanthropic pursuits. Ellen Scripps’ lasting legacy of contributions includes Torrey Pines State Park (1908), Scripps Institute of Oceanography (1909), the La Jolla Woman’s Club (1914), the La Jolla Rec Center (1919), Scripps Memorial Hospital and Clinic (1924), and the breakwater and Children’s Pool (1931).

Virginia Scripps’ contributions helped build St. James By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in 1907. In 1896, Ellen built her first house, South Moulton Villa, on the site of the current Museum of Contemporary Art. It burned down in 1915 (a fired gardener was the suspect) and she rebuilt with the help of architect Irving Gill. Her sister purchased nearby Wisteria Cottage, currently occupied by the La Jolla Historical Society.

Anna Held was a German teacher, nanny, and theatrical assistant who brought her love of art and performance to La Jolla in 1897, where she founded the Green Dragon Colony overlooking La Jolla Cove. The colony grew to include 12 bungalows and a variety of creative spirits, including actors, writers and artists.

Sports were popular with early residents too, including golf (played on dirt before the first golf course was laid out), tennis, basketball, hunting, fishing and swimming.

The first Rough Water Swim was held in 1916. Every Fourth of July a daredevil named Horace Poole dove from the cliffs above the caves into the ocean. His most daring feat was covering himself with kerosene and setting himself on fire before plunging into the ocean in 1898. He survived and lived another 45 years.

The 1920s were prosperous years for La Jolla, with a building boom and lively tourist economy. Creative architects such as Irving Gill, Rudolf Schindler and Thomas Shepherd were challenged by La Jolla’s unique topography and developed the mixture of architectural styles we enjoy here today. These include California beach bungalows, California craftsman, Mission, Spanish Colonial Revival, English Tudor and Modern. (Even though La Jolla’s first house was Victorian, it was not a popular style.)

Several major hotels were built in the 1920s, including The Cabrillo Hotel (1909), later annexed to La Valencia (1926), and Casa Manana (first built as a resort in 1924). By this time, the streets were paved and included several businesses (gas station, repair shops) catering to the growing number of automobiles. The number of residents who now called La Jolla home was approximately 4,000.

The exhibit also includes several artifacts, such as diaries of early pioneers, hotel registers, and a man’s bathing suit most likely rented at the Bathhouse, built in 1894 and by 1924 considered a noisy nuisance and closed down.

If you go


“Home of Your Dreams: Early La Jolla 1887 through the 1920s”


Noon to 4 p.m., Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through March 31, 2013


La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St.




or (858) 459-5335