Remembering Ellen Browning Scripps on her birthday

Remembered locally as a force for La Jolla’s early development, Ellen Browning Scripps commissioned many of the recognizable buildings and institutions in the community: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Scripps Memorial Hospital, The Children’s Pool, Scripps Park, St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, the La Jolla Woman’s Club and more.

As much as education and gathering spaces were important to Scripps, who was born on this day in 1836, she also promoted play, and though she never married nor had children of her own, was engaged in promoting recreation activities for youth.

Younger Ellen Browning Scripps

Dedicated to perpetual studying and reading, Scripps, born Oct 18, 1836 in London, wasn’t much for play herself. 

Her family moved to Illinois in 1844, where Scripps, “an imaginative girl,” continued to read voraciously and taught or explained as much as she could to her siblings, according to local historian Molly McClain in her book “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money & American Philanthropy.”

Scripps, according to a description by Mary Eyre printed in Jacob Chandler Harper’s 1936 book “Ellen Browning Scripps,” had “not much time to play with dolls: … there had always been other children on hand who had taken the place of dolls to her.”

A center of play for all

Scripps moved to La Jolla in 1896, “a lover of children,” Harper wrote, adding Scripps was a favorite aunt among nieces and nephews who stored a supply of “the most recent and interesting toys” under the big table in the sun parlor at home. 

Outside her home, called South Molton Villa (and the current site of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Prospect Street), Scripps “was particularly interested in helping orphaned children,” McClain wrote.

Photo courtesy of the La Jolla Historical Society.

Scripps’ “interest in all that pertained to the guidance and education of children was unfailing,” according to Harper.

To that end, Scripps bought the lots of land across from her home and commissioned architect Irving J. Gill – who designed many of the philanthropist’s developments – to draw up plans for a “community house” and playground, now the La Jolla Recreation Center run by the city of San Diego at 615 Prospect St and primed for a multi-million dollar renovation.

Scripps “wanted to showcase this progressive notion of a community house where people could speak freely about any matter and children and adults could exercise with play and safety,” said La Jolla resident and architect Trace Wilson, who is spearheading the current renovation plans.

In the 1910s, when designs were taking shape, “there were no paved streets,” Wilson said. “It was muddy, it was horse manure. There was no running water. [Scripps] wanted to create safe places to shower and to change and to play and recreate.”

Scripps and Gill designed a community house with a large assembly room, locker rooms for boys and girls, games and activities and a shallow wading pool, a summertime staple for neighborhood children, McClain wrote.

The wading pool was later removed, likely during the polio epidemics of the 1950s.

The playground and community house opened to the public in July 1915.

Scripps expressed satisfaction with the community houses’s success, saying in 1917 play is vital to childhood and people’s happiness, according to McClain, who also wrote the playground was used by people across a wide range of races and incomes. 

Rendering of the proposed Rec Center renovations. Photo courtesy of Trace Wilson.

Rec Center revisioned

Scripps died in 1932 but the Rec Center lives on, though its grounds and building are rundown, Wilson said. 

His plans – designed via a committee of the nonprofit Friends of the La Jolla Recreation Center – will preserve the “historic architectural fabric” of the original community house while upgrading spaces and repurposing others to open up the center and improve flow through the building, he said.

Outside, the team has “designed an amazing new playground,” Wilson said, “which is totally inclusive, … tactile and coastline themed.”

The playground plans are based on the committee’s work with “various local families that have challenged children,” he said.

The plans also propose bringing back the original water feature, modernizing it with a splash pad element.

Part of the Rec Center plans involve a vacation of the adjacent portion of Cuvier Street, meaning the city would turn over its right of way of the street to the relevant property owners. 

A vacation of Cuvier – now in its final approval stages at the city – would split the resulting square footage with The Bishop’s School on the other side of the cul-de-sac and net the Rec Center another half-acre of recreational space, Wilson said. 

The cost estimate for the plans, which is now more than a year old, is $36.6 million, he said, adding the Friends group wants to add another $10 million as an endowment fund “so that we can afford to maintain it.”

Fundraising for the revision is now on hold, however, amid another of Wilson’s initiatives for La Jolla to become a city independent of San Diego.

If successful, oversight of the Rec Center and its plans would then shift.

Fundraising pause notwithstanding, Wilson still looks forward to revamping Scripps’ original vision: “I’ve always thought of [the Rec Center] as our City Hall without a city.”

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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