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Time Takes a Heavy Toll on Famed El Pueblo Ribera Beach Cottages

July 07, 1986|WAYNE SWANSON

LA JOLLA — The surfers and sun worshipers on their way to Windansea Beach are not likely to notice the small cluster of cottages a block from the sea called El Pueblo Ribera.

Tucked amid overgrown vegetation and turned inward, away from the street, this secluded complex of concrete-sided structures is hardly remarkable at first glance. In fact, some of the units have been on a downward slide toward becoming the La Jolla version of slums.

Nevertheless, they are landmarks. Architects from around the world make pilgrimages to La Jolla to see these funky little beach cottages.

They are one of San Diego's few claims to architectural fame, the creations of the internationally known pioneer of modern architecture Rudolph M. Schindler. Built in 1923, they survive as reminders of a time of innovation and experimentation in architecture in California, when men such as Schindler and San Diego's Irving Gill were trying out the new ideas that would guarantee them places in architectural history.

But buildings, even those acclaimed as works of art, must also serve functional and economic needs, and on those counts, El Pueblo Ribera has not fared so well.

When architects make their visits these days, they lament the state of their treasures. Although some units have been carefully maintained, others are deteriorating.

The concrete walls, once finely detailed, are crumbling, and the wood detailing is rotting. Makeshift additions mar some of the original designs. One unit burned three years ago and still shows its charred timbers and gutted interior to the street.

"It's a shambles out there," said one prominent visiting architect, in town to judge an architectural competition. "It's a crime to let them deteriorate like that."

Local architects and preservationists lament the condition of parts of the complex, which has been designated a local landmark. In fact, the cottages are one of the targets of a push by the city's Historical Site Board for a stronger ordinance mandating maintenance of historic structures.

A more immediate concern is the fate of six of the units, half of the entire complex. Their owner died in June, and preservationists are concerned about their future.

In the hands of someone committed to preservation, they could be restored as true landmarks. But they sit on land where real estate values may outstrip architectural values, so pressure could mount to replace them.

"I think it could go either way," said Jeffrey Shorn, a La Jolla architect and member of the Historical Site Board.

"If I had a dream for them, it would be for a new owner to come in and restore them all," said Shorn, who once lived in the complex. "But it would also be possible for a developer to come in and try to level them to put up condos. That seems to be the way the neighborhood is going."

El Pueblo Ribera is continuing a struggle for survival that began when they were built.

Back in the 1920s, La Jolla was enjoying a building boom, and a San Diego dentist, W.L. Lloyd, sought to cash in on the demand for rentable housing. He hired Schindler, a young architect beginning to make a name for himself in Los Angeles, to build him a distinctive, attention-getting complex.

Schindler, originally from Vienna, had come to America in 1914 to begin his career, and was soon an apprentice to the great Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. He came west with Wright in 1920, overseeing some of Wright's most important work in Los Angeles.

A few years later, he was on his own, developing a distinctive style tied to Wright but also to the emergence of modern architecture. El Pueblo Ribera, thought to be Schindler's only work in San Diego, demonstrates many of the qualities that set Schindler's work apart.

As the name implies, the complex takes its inspiration from Indian pueblo villages of the Southwest, but the forms have been abstracted and updated. The materials--concrete and wood--are simple and stark, but they are delicately detailed to relieve their coldness. Most innovative is Schindler's use of space and the California climate.

"I propose to treat the whole in true California style--the middle of the house being the garden, the rooms opening wide to it, the floors of concrete, close to the ground," Schindler wrote to owner Lloyd. "The roof is to be used as a porch, either for living or sleeping."

The units are quite small, but they have been arranged to give the illusion of roominess and the reality of great privacy. They are set in L-shaped pairs, with the wall of one serving as the garden enclosure for another.

UC Santa Barbara architectural expert David Gebhard said recently the plan is "quite brilliant" as a means of providing denser urban housing while avoiding a sense of crowding.

But Gebhard, who has written a book on Schindler's career, said El Pueblo Ribera is "typically Schindler" in an other, less positive manner as well.

"They were so poorly built to begin with that there was a built-in series of problems before the last nails were even pounded," he said.

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