Building a Posthumous Name: Forgotten La Jolla architect finally gets some respect

The so-called Piano Building, 5680 La Jolla Blvd., was built by architect William Kesling.

Something’s up with the Piano Building in Bird Rock. Leases are not being renewed and surveyors are appearing outside.

The 5,320 square-foot retail and office building at 5680 La Jolla Blvd. is down to only two tenants. The spaces once housing The Sign Factory marketing agency, Hayley Moon Studios and the office of developer Mark Scialdone are vacant and not being advertised for lease. A Better Deal Tuxedo & Suits’ lease expires Aug. 31 and Mimi & Red Boutique’s Dec. 31.

The Piano Building was sold last year for $2.9 million by the Lock Wang Family Trust to a company owned by developer Fred Kleinbub, who would not return the Light’s voicemails seeking comment.

However, a source close to the project, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said that a renovation is in the works. The building’s exterior will be completely preserved and not built upward — pending City approval, of course. (Permit applications have yet to be filed.)

While the renovation of a beloved building is never good news for its current tenants, for preservationists fearing demolition, it’s a huge relief.

Current Bird Rock residents know the Piano Building for housing the Schroeder Piano Company — whose “PIANOS” sign was never removed — from 1995 until its owner, Peter Schroeder, vacated in 2015. (Schroeder pleaded guilty to four counts of theft from an elder in connection with pianos placed on consignment at the store by people who were not fully paid for their sales.)

However, that’s not the most historical thing about the structure with the wavy roof. Turns out, it’s a Kesling.

William Kesling was one of a handful of Southern California architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright, R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra — who defined the shape of modernist design in the mid 20th century.

“He was an important building designer at an important time in Southern California’s growth — in both architectural style as well as building methods and techniques,” said Keith York, owner of the architecture-appreciation website.

But if you know something about architecture, yet nothing of Kesling’s work, that’s understandable. Kesling was almost completely overlooked during his lifetime, and completely forgotten after his retirement.

“When an architect is working during their own lifetime, most of them are overlooked,” York said. “They’re not football stars or politicians.”

Born in 1899 in Brenham, Texas, Kesling — originally “Kessling” before he dropped an “s” because he thought it looked better — established himself in Los Angeles, where he worked his way up from carpenter’s helper to contracting. With no formal architecture training, he opened his own office, Kesling Modern Structures, in 1934, designing houses for the well-to-do. Kesling adopted what was known as the Streamline Moderne style, characterized by horizontal lines, flat-to-very-low sloping roofs and huge glass openings that bring the outside in.

By the end of the Great Depression, Kesling ran into legal trouble. He was sued for his inability to complete some houses at their contracted price. Charging more than you contracted for was a common practice at the time — one that Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for — but it was felt that an example had to be made. Kesling pleaded guilty before a grand jury to one count of stealing $24. The judge sentenced him to San Quentin, but commuted that to two years’ probation, during which Kesling could not design or build anything.

Wrote Patrick Pascal in his 2006 book, “Kesling Modern Structures”: “Kesling’s scandal allowed the architectural establishment to look down at this uneducated interloper and hold him up as an example of the dangers of not hiring professional architects with proper credentials. Despite leaving his wide and distinctive mark on the modern design landscape of Los Angeles, it was as if William Kesling never existed.”

After his probation ended in 1939, Kesling moved to La Jolla, both for a fresh start and to join his extended family, who had moved to town years earlier. He reopened his firm at 7522 Girard Ave. but changed the way it did business. Most of the houses he designed and built were priced between $3,500 and $5,000 — an amount that many people of average means could afford, even during the Depression.

The best-known La Jolla residence designed and built by William Kesling still looks out over La Jolla Shores at 1890 Spindrift Drive.

Kesling said he designed 3,000 San Diego homes, a claim which has never been substantiated. However, there were at least a few hundred, probably many more. (You can still stand at the corner of Kesling Street and Kesling Court in a subdivision of a few dozen he built in Clairemont Mesa.)

La Jolla boasted its own dozen or so confirmable Keslings, as well as several commercial structures such as the original Summer House Hotel (demolished to build the current Hotel La Jolla structure in the early ’70s).

Because he was not employed by San Diego’s elite, however — and also because he worked as his own contractor, which was considered beneath noteworthy architects — Kesling was never regarded as a master. And he continued to be as bad at business as he was good at designing. A second tango with financial trouble and/or the law — the nature of which remains undisclosed because the court records were sealed — forced Kesling to sell his business and assets in 1962.

Kesling reportedly worked handyman jobs until his death of Alzheimer’s disease in October 1983. Afterward, his wife Ehrma destroyed all his drawings and records, assuming that no one would ever want them. (This is why the architect’s claim to have designed 3,000 San Diego homes can’t be substantiated.)

It wasn’t until 2000 that the extent, and aesthetic worth, of Kesling’s La Jolla work was rediscovered and properly assessed. Preservationist architect Wayne Donaldson led the charge, identifying 12 detached dwellings — nicknamed “Kesling’s Kozy Kowsheds” by the Los Angeles Times architecture critic — that he built along Dowling Drive.

“Years after their death, others can see a body of work collected,” York said. “People in history are too close to it. They’re not aware of a grander body of work.”

Kesling’s best-known La Jolla home is the stunning cliffside residence he built for retired airline pilot J. Walton MacConnell in 1947. The home at 1890 Spindrift Drive was featured in a Life magazine photo spread that year. (The Light knocked on the front door and was graciously invited inside by MacConnell’s 98-year-old widow, Josephine “Jo Bobbie” MacConnell, who unfortunately had no recollection of Kesling because she married her husband after the house was built.)

This view of 1890 Spindrift Drive was featured in a 1947 'Life' magazine photo spread.

Most La Jolla Keslings have been demolished or renovated beyond recognition. (Even the MacConnell residence had an addition built in 1955.) However, some Keslings, including the Piano Building, survive intact.

“The reason I didn’t buy it was because I didn’t want to hurt a historical building,” said former Piano Building tenant Scialdone, who hired the historian who discovered its Kesling pedigree. Scialdone explained that knocking the building down was the only way he personally could profit from it.

“I felt it wasn’t ethically correct to destroy it, so I passed,” he said. “I feel it’s one of the landmark buildings of La Jolla and I’m glad they’re not tearing it down.”