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Architect Wants to Raze Historic Cottages : La Jollans Come to Dragon’s Defense

Times Staff Writer

If someone were to compile a list of civic leaders who played a key role in shaping this palm-studded seaside town, there is little doubt that Robert Mosher would be among those honored.

A noted architect and resident here since 1943, Mosher was a founder of the town’s two community planning groups--which wield considerable influence over local affairs--and has designed several prominent buildings in the bustling village. On the social front, Mosher makes frequent appearances on La Jolla’s upscale party circuit, where acquaintances describe him as outgoing, even charming.

These days, however, Bob Mosher and La Jolla are not getting along.

The architect’s plan to demolish a cluster of famous turn-of-the-century cottages in the heart of downtown and replace them with a luxury hotel and retail center has triggered a community backlash that has stunned Mosher and threatens to tarnish his hard-earned reputation.

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“People keep stopping me and asking, ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you ruining our town?’ ” said Mosher, 66. “The truth is they should come to me and say thank you . . . I’ve worked hard for La Jolla, and I’m tired of having people ignore all that and attack me. It isn’t fair.”

Fair or not, a growing band of La Jollans are alarmed by Mosher’s 41-unit hotel proposal. Generating the lion’s share of the fuss are residents angered by his plan to raze the historic cottages to make way for his development.

The board-and-batten cottages--known collectively as the Green Dragon Colony--were once an internationally famous retreat for the artists who pioneered La Jolla as a mecca for creative souls. Built between 1895 and 1905, the rustic green dwellings are sprinkled on a wooded, one-acre lot that slopes steeply from busy Prospect Street down to Coast Boulevard just north of La Jolla Cove.

Opponents of Mosher’s plans maintain that the cottages, one of which was designed by Irving Gill, represent the last remaining fragment of La Jolla’s architectural and historical roots. If the town loses the Green Dragon, they say, nearly all physical trace of its beginnings as a renowned artists’ village will be gone.

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“It would be a terrible tragedy to lose these cottages, because they are excellent examples of original, indigenous La Jolla architecture,” said Tony Ciani, an architect and town native who is spearheading the fight to save the colony.

“The Green Dragon, and the talented people who came there to write poetry, paint, compose music and live in a truly Arcadian atmosphere, were La Jolla, and you can still feel that when you look at those cottages. We can’t just throw that history away.”

Mosher, however, scoffs at the suggestion that “those old run-down things” retain even a whisper of historical value today.

“Ha! I just laugh when I hear that. They’re old, no one denies that. But saying they have some historical significance as architectural works is simply ridiculous,” Mosher said.

The architect, whose parents purchased the colony for $53,000 in 1943, says the remodeling that he conducted on the cottages in decades past has eroded and obscured their architectural authenticity, rendering them downright ordinary.

But the City of San Diego’s Historical Site Board, a 15-member advisory panel that provides guidance to the City Council on historic preservation, disagrees. In May, board members voted to designate four of the colony’s eight remaining buildings as historically and architecturally significant.

On Tuesday, in what representatives on both sides of the dispute view as a key hearing, the City Council will hear Mosher’s appeal of that decision, which he asserts was made illegally. If the board’s designation of the cottages stands, Mosher is likely to face delays in obtaining project approvals.

“The Historical Site Board doesn’t have much authority, so it’s unlikely that this designation will block the project,” said Ronald Buckley, board secretary. “But we can advise the City Council that, because of the site’s historic value, the hotel is a major impact and should be mitigated or denied.”

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Buckley said the only specific action the board may take is to delay the issuance of a demolition permit for as long as a year--with the City Council’s concurrence. The delay is designed to permit the relocation of historic buildings, which Buckley said would be virtually impossible in this case given the cottages’ precarious hillside perch.

In addition to the historical questions, there is another issue clouding the hotel project, a joint effort between Mosher and developers Don Allison and Bill Zongker. It concerns the number of rooms the trio intend to construct.

Under La Jolla’s special zoning conditions, only 41 additional hotel rooms may be built in the downtown village area. The venerable La Valencia Hotel is seeking approval of a 30-room expansion, leaving only 11 for Mosher under existing regulations, according to city planners.

On a related point, a joint committee of the La Jolla Town Council and La Jollans Inc. that reviews all projects to determine whether they meet stipulations of the town’s Planned District Ordinance (PDO), has determined that Mosher’s hotel does not pass muster as currently designed.

Larry Keller, a member of the PDO committee, said the project violates the height limit on Coast Boulevard and also fails to meet a requirement that a certain percentage of street frontage be devoted to retail use. Mosher says modifications are under way.

But of greater concern, Keller said, is the number of rooms. Mosher describes the project as a 41-room hotel, but Keller and others maintain there are actually 74 rooms--far in excess of the permissible number.

The dispute hinges on Mosher’s use of suites that have two separate bedrooms, each with its own bath.

“Our contention is that 33 of his suites actually contain two separate rooms, easily rentable to two separate parties,” Keller said. “The guest rooms have access to a common hallway, and the zoning code states that in such a case, they will be counted as separate rooms.”

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In addition, Mosher has proposed building 202 parking spaces for his development, when only 100 are required.

“I am surprised and frankly disappointed that Mr. Mosher would attempt to do something that violates the intent of the PDO and the wishes of the community,” said Sue Oxley, a local activist. “Mr. Mosher has been here forever and is very respected. He’s an outstanding architect and has contributed some excellent buildings. So it’s surprising he would do this.”

Mosher is miffed by the suggestion that he would attempt to skirt zoning regulations by building two rooms and masking them as one. He insists he is building suites designed to accommodate families.

“Motels build single rooms. Any good hotel in a destination resort builds suites these days, because it’s what people want,” Mosher said. “It’s ridiculous and ignorant to characterize mine as double rooms, but people gather up anything they can to fight me.”

While some locals say their opposition to Mosher’s plans stems from the hotel room disagreement, the most impassioned protests have come from old-timers and history buffs anxious to shield the Green Dragon Colony from destruction.

Originally known as the Green Dragon Camp, the colony was launched by a German-born teacher named Anna Held, who moved to La Jolla in 1894 and bought the first sliver of land near the cove for $165.

The first of the cottages, built around a fireplace Held crafted from stones she gathered on the bluffs, was designed by her friend, Irving Gill, for the sum of $15. One can still make out Gill’s trademark, the upward curve at the corners of the eaves.

Held, who spent years as a secretary to the British stage star Ellen Terry, soon became a magnet for her numerous international artist companions, who descended upon La Jolla to paint, compose and enjoy the serenity of the striking coastal setting.

To accommodate her visitors, Held expanded her own home, and then constructed additional guest cottages--each with its own personality. There was the Ark, a boat-shaped structure with portholes and a prow pointing seaward; the Jack O’ Lantern; the Doll’s House, built to house Held’s collection of 200 dolls; the Oriole’s Nest; the Gables--11 dwellings in all.

Perhaps the most intriguing cottage was Wahnfried, which Held built for her husband, singer and composer Max Heinrich. The original cottage and a newer addition now serve as the Chart House Restaurant on Prospect. Still visible over the dining room fireplace is Held’s inscription, in German: “Sacred to me is my hearth; sacred to me is my home.”

Eucalyptus trees were planted on the site by Held’s friend Kate Sessions, the famous horticulturalist. Today, the mature trees join with majestic Torrey pines to form a lush canopy over the colony, named the Green Dragon by novelist Beatrice Harraden, a frequent guest.

Ultimately, the Green Dragon became a famous bohemian retreat for some of the best-known artists and writers of the early 20th Century, and a key element of the Arts and Crafts Movement thriving in those years. A 1901 story in the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the import of the retreat during that era:

“Whoever has been to La Jolla and has not seen this Green Dragon colony has missed much, for La Jolla is the Green Dragon and the Green Dragon is La Jolla.”

Over the years, the land changed hands and the vitality of the colony waned. But the artists’ influence remained, with studios and galleries occupying many of the cottages.

In 1943, the Mosher family bought the property. Bob Mosher, whose office was on the site for 38 years, renovated and remodeled some of the cottages. Some of the new buildings--which house art galleries, jewelry stores and the Chart House--carefully incorporate the walls, foundations and fireplaces of the historic cottages.

Others, however, were changed little and are rented as homes and a music studio. Indeed, the hillside colony, with its curving paths, vegetation and cluster of odd little cottages nestled like boulders into the earth, are a dramatic contrast to the tourist swirl on the streets that surround them.

According to architect Ciani, Mosher’s improvements were “expertly done and dovetailed beautifully with the original style of the cottages.”

Consequently, “the historic sense of the Green Dragon has been retained,” Ciani said, and the entire colony is suitable for designation as historically and architecturally significant.

In 1973, the Historical Site Board made just such a ruling. At the time, Mosher collaborated on a research report in support of the historic designation.

But soon after, Mosher wrote the board that he had not understood the purpose of that report: “Much to my surprise, I discovered that this little report I wrote on the history of the colony for the Historical Society was being used for those purposes,” Mosher said recently. “That was not my intention.”

So, on those grounds, Mosher requested a rehearing, and the board subsequently voted to designate the site of the colony but not its cottages.

That was that until earlier this year, when some locals learned of Mosher’s plans. Word spread, and concern that the cottages could be lost grew.

“The Green Dragon, the wonderful feel of the place and its history, is what makes La Jolla, it’s why I moved here and not to Florida or Orange County,” said resident Norma Wolff. “To see it lost to the sickening greed of developers would be tragic. It would be the beginning of the end.”

Bob Barrymore, president of the La Jolla Historical Society, said his group has not taken a position on the hotel project because “we’re a nonpolitical body.” But he added that “my personal preference would be to see whatever vestiges of old La Jolla remain, so we can continue to attract talented people who like the artistic ambiance of our town.”

Two groups that have taken a position opposing Mosher are La Jolla Fine Arts and the La Jolla Art Assn., which represent local artists. John Hooper, 75, is a member of both groups.

“La Jolla was a picturesque little artist colony with early playwrights, musicians and a library, and it’s all turning commercial now,” Hooper said. “Can’t we save one little piece? Can’t we save the Green Dragon?”

In April, Ciani requested that the Historical Site Board designate the Green Dragon cottages as historically significant. He noted that new information on the buildings’ architectural value had emerged, including a survey performed by the State Office of Historic Preservation that found the cottages “still retain much of their original architectural integrity.”

The Board convened in May and voted to designate four cottages still in their original condition--the Gables, the Jack O’ Lantern, the East Cliff and the Dolly Varden.

Mosher maintains that the board had no authority to consider the matter because “we’ve been over and over this in the past and nothing new (in support of designation) was brought up.”

Mosher says that ultimately, he is confident that neither the board’s action nor any other obstacle will prevent him from building his hotel. Rather, he said, he is hurt that fellow La Jollans have not recognized the merits of his project and given him their blessing.

“I feel poorly about it,” he said. “If I were some kind of fast-talking developer who was new in town, I could be suspect. But I’m not. I’ve been on the La Jolla Town Council and La Jollans Inc. year-in, year-out. I have a sensitive project here and who can say the next guy would be so sensitive.

“I just wish people would recognize that and stop attacking me.”


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