Council Vacates Stay of Execution : 'Villa Surf' Doomed to Die Friday

Times Staff Writer

The house has vaulted ceilings, a 20-by-40-foot living room and a clifftop view of the ocean from its many windows that is magnificent.

But "Villa Surf," as this Sunset Cliffs house is known, is doomed.

It is scheduled for demolition Friday to make way for a city park.

The house received a brief stay of execution Monday when a university professor who used to picnic at the site and grew to love it persuaded the San Diego City Council to suspend demolition plans for a day. But Tuesday, after brief debate, the council reinstated the demolition order.

Swayed by the city manager's estimates that it would cost $175,000 to repair the 1950 cinder-block house and an additional $350,000 to $450,000 to shore up the eroded cliffs below it, the council voted 6-1 to "note and file" San Diego State University Prof. Mary Duncan's plea and go ahead with demolition.

The alternative of knocking down the house, adding parking spaces, planting native vegetation and creating a "passive" park, without any structure on it, was still a good idea--and a cheaper one, the council decided. (The demolition contract will cost $52,450; the rest of the pakr is expected to cost about $85,000.)

Unless Duncan obtains an injunction--and she said Tuesday that she would seek one--bulldozers and a wrecking crew from the firm of Brown, Pardee, Haney are expected to move onto the 48 acres surrounding Villa Surf and raze the house Friday.

For all the emotion over Villa Surf (Duncan said the house offered "the most beautiful scenery in all of San Diego"), city officials and some council members were stirred more deeply by the financial realities.

At one point council members appeared sympathetic to putting off demolition for 30 days so Duncan could raise money to rehabilitate the house. But then it became clear the council did not wish to spend up to $450,000 to build a seawall and reinforce the cliffs under the house.

"We're raising false expectations if we refer it to committee," Councilman Mike Gotch said, arguing against any more delay. Besides, "I think most of us thought it had been torn down several years ago. This is not the Klauber House."

Gotch was recalling a historic 73-year-old San Diego mansion, built by turn-of-the century architect Irving Gill, which was torn down over vehement community protest in 1979.

Villa Surf was built in 1950 for San Diegan Dan Dixon by La Jolla architect Judith Horton Munk. Once the house played host to black-tie dinners and parties for up to 250 prominent San Diegans. It was sold to California Western University in 1962 to be used for meetings, then purchased by the city in 1973 as part of the its open space acquisitions.

For some time, city officials and Sunset Cliffs residents had discussed what to do with the house. Beginning in 1980, the city had assembled a community task force and held public hearings to decide whether to tear the house down or rehabilitate it. In July, 1982, citing the high costs of renovation, the City Council voted to demolish it.

It has not been slated for demolition until now, Assistant City Manager Sue Williams' report stated, because the city needed time to secure the necessary coastal permits, complete working drawings for the site, and advertise for bids.

While council members said they were impressed with Duncan's 11th-hour efforts to save Villa Surf, they noted that the issue had been studied and re-studied. "We'd be overturning at the last minute the decision of a lot of people," argued Councilman Dick Murphy, who chaired the Park and Recreation Board five years ago when it considered what to do with the house. The council then voted 6-1 for demolition. Councilwoman Gloria McColl dissented; Councilman Bill Mitchell abstained and Mayor Roger Hedgecock was absent.

After the hearing, the disappointed Duncan said she planned a legal fight to save the house. It might not be an Irving Gill restoration, she conceded, but "this building is magnificent compared to the normal, sterile rec centers we usually build. It has style and class."

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