War Memorial Loophole : Mount's Rugged Cross a Work of Inspiration

Times Staff Writer

"Awesome," murmured a 26-year-old Connecticut man as he gazed eastward across San Diego toward the distant Laguna Mountains. "Somewhere out there is a place for me."

He had found the city's highest park, a spot of green on the eastern slope of Mt. Soledad, dominated by a 43-foot cross--a memorial to the those who died in World Wars I and II.

From the park, the city and beyond spread out in neat patterns, bisected by busy freeways and accented by high-rise buildings. A thousand picture-postcard views of the surf, sand, bluffs, canyons and palm trees are there for those, usually tourists, who take the time to drive up the winding La Jolla streets to the top of the mountain. The Spaniards who had claimed California as their own christened the mountain Soledad, a word meaning "solitude" or "tranquility." The land for the park, officially named Soledad Natural Park, was acquired from the federal government by the city in 1874 and dedicated as parkland in perpetuity. Often, the name still fits the 170-acre park--it sits 822 feet above sea level, above the freeway noise and the brown pall of smog that often veils Rose Canyon, Mission Valley and the freeway below.

But, some people ask, what is a religious symbol doing in a city park? Isn't the cross a violation of the principle of separation of church and state?

The first small redwood cross was erected in the park in 1913 by citizens of the coastal communities of La Jolla and Pacific Beach. San Diego historians say it probably was erected for the annual Easter sunrise services held on the mountaintop. But vandals destroyed it 10 years later, in a manner not recorded in newspapers of the day.

Within months, La Jollans had donated money enough for a larger cross, built to last with wood, chicken wire and stucco. That cross, whitewashed each year for its role in Easter services, stood until a severe windstorm in March, 1952, toppled it.

Again, beach city residents passed the hat and collected more than $50,000 to build the present cross, a see-through concrete structure designed by the late La Jolla architect Don Campbell to withstand the worst of winds.

At the cross dedication in 1954, leaders of the restoration project knowingly or unknowingly made a wise decision. They dedicated the cross as a memorial to the military casualties of the World Wars and the Korean conflict.

Campbell and a handful of other La Jollans also formed an association that year--the Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn. Inc.--and assumed the role of private overseers of the city park and organizers of the Easter service. The sunrise celebration has grown each year, "with a few dips, because attendance comes and goes with the weather," said the Rev. Steve Asmuth of La Jolla Assembly of God Church.

Asmuth reported that about 1,300 attended in 1983 but attendance dropped to about 900 to 1,000 in 1984 because of chilly winds. One year, the minister said, "the rains came down on the final paragraph of the Easter message. We knew it was coming because we could see a rainbow signaling the storm out over the ocean."

One storm that has threatened over the years but has yet to break is the "ruckus" over the religious cross on city property.

"Oh, people have brought it up every once in a while," La Jollan Ruth Smith said. She took over the presidency of the Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn. from Campbell a few years ago and, despite her 70 years, leads the small but active group in its efforts to protect and promote the city park and its cross. The cross and the Easter services held in the city park are on "firm constitutional grounds," she said.

"That cross was dedicated as a memorial to the dead of World War I and II," Smith said. After serving as a Navy nurse, Smith retired to San Diego in 1946 and turned her energies to volunteer work.

About 1969 or 1970, the church-state question arose, Smith recalled. Former San Diego Councilwoman Helen Cobb took up the cause and researched the legal status of the cross. Cobb found that a similar case in Eugene, Ore., had gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that memorial markers, including crosses, could remain on government property.

However, just to be on the safe side and to blunt any possible legal challenges, recent Easter sunrise services have been advertised as Easter celebrations to avoid criticism about conducting religious services in a city park.

Stan Fye of the city Park and Recreation Department said that "the church-state issue has come up" but there "really is no problem" in holding the Easter services in the park as long as the event is interdenominational and open to the public. Both of those criteria are met, Smith said.

Offerings collected at the services are used by the Mt. Soledad Assn. as seed money to make improvements in the mountaintop park, Smith said. A new sign at the entrance is the latest project. Planning is under way to plant flower beds and several trees at the park entrance. A $50,000 project waiting in the wings would add a stand of Torrey pines and an irrigation system to sustain them.

Fye admits that the association's prodding and its partial funding have spurred improvements at Soledad that might have been delayed for years, but he warned that the collection of donations at the Easter service may be a violation of city policy stating that no solicitation or fund-raising may take place in city parks. Fye said city officials recently vetoed a plan to hold a fund-raiser in Martin Luther King Memorial Park for the legal defense of Sagon Penn, who is accused of murder in a police shooting. Penn's fund-raiser has since been relocated to a private residence.

Smith said the La Jolla group is well aware of the city regulations and abides by them.

"We operate with prayer, patience and persistence," she said. "We don't break rules."

Soledad's mountaintop has not always been a coveted spot, San Diego historians relate. As late as 40 years ago, it was inhabited by coyotes and an occasional herd of cattle. In the 1930s, when the city park was ignored except for Easter sunrise services, the mountain served as an illicit dump site.

In 1939, a San Diego Evening Tribune article praised the breathtaking view from the La Jolla landmark but added that the immediate vicinity of the cross was "a goat's paradise of rusty tin cans, broken auto tonneaus and other tossed-away sundries." The writer also complained that a city dump situated, apparently, on Torrey Pines Mesa--now a prestige address for high-tech industries--was smudging up the mountaintop views when it burned the city's refuse.

The La Jolla mountain has figured in more than one wartime alert, serving as a training site for military messenger dogs and harboring batteries of anti-aircraft guns during World War II.

In the Spanish-American War, before wireless telegraphy was available, Mt. Soledad was mobilized as the first heliograph station on a statewide network designed to flash military messages up the coast. State militiamen manned the mountain, ready to flash a mirror message to Catalina Island for relay to San Pedro Hill in the Los Angeles area. But the war passed Southern California by. No messages were ever sent.

But Soledad had its own war, of sorts. Letters to the editor in local papers decried the vandalism that carved up the earlier crosses and sometimes left unprintable messages on their whitewashed surfaces. The desecration of the cross intensified when the Mt. Soledad Memorial Assn. outlined the present cross with light bulbs in 1955. Vandals practiced their marksmanship on the attractive targets, leaving the base littered with shards of glass.

A high picket fence that came from around the city's first palm tree planted in Old Town was installed around the cross's base in 1958 but the vandalism continued. In 1962, after floodlights on the cross also were destroyed, association members voted to abandon further lighting of the monument.

Over the years, dirt roads to the mountaintop were paved, the cross was moved to a cone-shaped mound in the center of the park, and a circular drive and parking spaces were added.

The view to the west is blocked by the mountaintop's other squatters--commercial and government transmitters and antennas, plus a few homes of the seven-figure variety. The most recent construction is a covey of six large houses neighboring the park, each with its own pool, spa and million-dollar view--and price tags of $1,360,000 to $1,490,000.

Now the once-isolated site has lost some of its solitude and a bit of its charm as it hosts almost-hourly busloads of tourists. And, every once in a while, someone asks what a religious cross is doing in a city park.

Ruth Smith, who will head planning for the park's 65th Easter celebration next spring, has the answer: "It's doing very well, thank you."

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