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

September 21, 1986|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — 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.

"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.

"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."

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.

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