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While Classic La Jolla War Rages, a Bit of History Fades

Times Staff Writer

Something’s wrong with this picture.

On a prime tract overlooking La Jolla Cove, at the foot of a steep hillside that represents some of the most valuable coastal real estate in California, two small, dilapidated red cottages bake in the sun, their paint faded and peeling, sheets of plywood covering doors and windows.

Although deemed historically significant, the 94-year-old structures--known as the Red Rest and Red Roost--have been left to rot by their owner, who was rebuffed by bureaucrats more than a decade ago when he tried to develop a waterfront apartment complex on the land.

Classic Struggle

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It is the classic La Jolla struggle, the tug of war between old and new. Now local preservationists are gearing up for a renewed attempt to save the two cottages from current neglect--or from a date with the wrecker’s ball.

La Jolla activists are talking about tendering an offer to Jack Heimburge, the low-profile boot shop magnate whose substantial La Jolla land holdings include the Red Rest and Red Roost, to either sell the structures or take part in their rehabilitation.

“I’m optimistic that these buildings can be restored for very little money and in a way that will provide the owners with a good return on their investment,” said Tony Ciani, an architect and La Jolla native who is spearheading the fight to save the cottages. “It would be a money maker for them.”

Ideas being bandied about include developing the rustic cottages commercially, one serving as a bed-and-breakfast inn and the other as a small, alfresco restaurant. Other proposals include development of a public garden on the property, colonizing the site with other compatible cottages and establishing a small heritage museum for visitors or a shop to sell art of the region.

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Few Clues Offered

The key to the success or failure of the venture, of course, lies with Heimburge, and the publicity-shy landowner and merchant will offer few clues as to his mood of the moment.

“After 15 years of trying to develop a piece of property, that’s enough,” Heimburge said in a truncated telephone interview recently. “How would you like to have a piece of property and not be able to do anything with it?

Heimburge declined to talk about his plans for the cottages, which sit on one-third an acre along Coast Boulevard, or discuss the possibility of participating in a renovation of the Red Rest and Red Roost.

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Many preservationists, however, figure the chances are slim that Heimburge will embrace any plan that will keep the two bungalows standing on the site. Some have even raised the specter of San Diego city officials acquiring the land through condemnation.

“Mr. Heimburge is very frustrated with the bureaucracy,” said Ronald Buckley, secretary of the city’s Historical Site Board, a 15-member panel that advises the City Council on historic preservation. “He believes he should have the right to just demolish those properties and build whatever he would like there. I hope it doesn’t come to that. It would be a grave loss.”

On National Register

The two cottages have been listed since 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places. They are among the best existing examples of the early bungalow-style structure that influenced a generation of 20th-Century architects, including such notables as Frank Lloyd Wright and Irving Gill.

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Ironically, the Red Roost and Red Rest were not designed by architects, but hammered together by skilled carpenters who made great use of wide windows and expansive verandas to better link the interior with the sunny Pacific climate.

Vincent Scully, a Yale University professor and eminent architectural historian, has called the cottages “monuments of American architecture . . . . Small as they may be, they constitute our fundamental American heritage. I hope that La Jolla will be able to preserve them to posterity.”

An important ingredient of that preservation effort, according to people like Ciani, is retention of the structures on the original site, which some insiders say is worth up to $2 million. Much of the architectural and cultural significance of the cottages is derived from their setting in the natural surroundings by the Pacific that contributed to their design.

Location Is Key

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“The importance of those buildings has a lot to do with the environmental setting they’re in,” said Ciani, noting that a key criterion for placement on the National Register of Historic Places is that structures be on their original sites. “You can’t just put those cottages in Clairemont and expect them to have the same meaning.”

Like other homes of the day in La Jolla, then a rural outpost well removed from downtown San Diego, the Red Rest and Red Roost were given names to help facilitate the delivery of mail, since there were no street addresses, historians say.

The Red Rest was erected in 1894 for George J. Leovy, a New Orleans native and railroad man who used the cottage as a summer house for his family of eight children. Later, the site was transferred to Florence Sawyer, best known as the woman who donated La Jolla’s first library, the Reading Room.

Originally called the Neptune, the Red Roost was built the same year for pioneer banker John E. Fishburn and was later purchased by the daughters of George Chase, said to have been La Jolla’s first merchant.

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Jack Heimburge, whose father opened the downtown San Diego bootery in 1913 that became a chain of 10 Universal Boot Shops, bought the property more than two decades ago. In the early 1970s, Heimburge decided to develop the site, which sits in the shadow of his sprawling Cove Motel, as a 17-unit apartment complex.

Demolition Permit

Despite community opposition, the City Council issued a demolition permit for the cottages. But the effort to raze the buildings was derailed in 1976 by the California Coastal Commission, which noted their historical significance.

Thus began the present era of neglect for the Red Rest and Red Roost. In 1977, Heimburge evicted tenants from the cottages after a prolonged court battle, but not before the renters could slap on a fresh coat of red paint as a sort of back-handed parting gesture.

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The two buildings were then given the ignoble task of serving as storage sheds, first for construction materials, later for mattresses and other flotsam from the adjacent motel.

Today, all the windows, doors and the verandas have been covered by plywood sheets to keep out vandals, giving the buildings the look of fortresses battened down for battle. The asphalt shingle roofs are peeling and, in some spots, have caved in. Signs rise from the weeds warning visitors to keep off.

It is a dismal scene. As Ciani sees it, the sad squalor that is now the Red Roost and Red Rest seems all too clearly to be part of a thought-out plan.

“It’s like they’re purposefully doing this,” he said. “Over the years, the ivy grows over, they begin to deteriorate. The public begins to think of them as an eyesore, they lose their romance. The next thing you hear from the public is, ‘Let’s get rid of those rat-trap eyesores.’ ”

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Ciani compares the situation to the continuing battle over the Green Dragon Colony, a cluster of cottages just down Coast Boulevard that is threatened by a hotel project. Like the Red Roost and Red Rest, the cottages that make up the colony have been allowed to wither in the coastal breezes while the fight rages on.

“You hope the decision makers have enough smarts not to be fooled by that strategy, because it is a strategy,” Ciani said. “It isn’t an accident that this happened.”

Luckily, he said, restoration can be accomplished on the most disheveled of structures. The Red Roost and Red Rest, in particular, should be good candidates for rehabilitation because their simple construction will allow carpenters to dismantle and rebuild “board by board,” he said.

Ciani and other restoration boosters also contend that a sizable segment of the community supports preservation, despite the deterioration of the cottages.

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The revived effort to save the structures was sparked by a design workshop held in June to discuss infrastructure improvements for La Jolla. Half a dozen architects and scores of residents in attendance agreed that a prime goal for the community should be to save the historical cottages.

But will it happen?

In the past, Heimburge has rejected “any and every offer” from potential buyers, according to Buckley of the city’s Historical Site Board.

Of late, however, new property and income-tax laws have made preservation of historical landmarks a more advantageous investment scheme. In addition, an owner can make use of a preserved site for commercial enterprises not normally allowed and can get a significant break on parking requirements, Buckley said.

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“We believe we can show him how he can make a more than adequate return on the investment on his property,” Buckley said. “We would certainly like him to entertain that idea rather than letting the property go to waste.”

Buckley and others have pointed to the state Coastal Conservancy, a nonprofit outfit that has provided financial help for other historical restorations on the California coast, as a potential participant in any deal.

Peter Brand, a project manager with the conservancy, agreed that financial help is possible but cautioned that funds are short and suggested that the fate of the Red Roost and Red Rest could hinge on the more pressing fight to save the Green Dragon Colony.

“If the preservation of the Green Dragon succeeds, there’s a very good chance that a similar restoration effort could work for the Red Rest and Red Roost,” he said.

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Ciani said he hopes that time has made a difference and that the buildings will live on.

“Fifteen years ago, when these cottages were first threatened, things were not quite as bleak for La Jolla,” he said. “Now people see what we have lost in those years and realize we have to save what’s left.

“It’s that new resurgent energy and enthusiasm, I think, that’s going to pull this off.”


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