From sea to seal: a breakdown of La Jolla’s most famous wall

Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

Now a refuge for the harbor seal, The Children’s Pool in La Jolla wasn’t always so.

With a 300-foot, 93-year-old seawall tucking it away from rip currents and dangerous waves, The Children’s Pool – or Casa Beach, as some still call it – is founded on the safety of the community’s youth.

Long before La Jolla’s landscape attracted those who would develop it into the seaside vacation spot it is today, the shoreline just below 850 Coast Blvd. at the end of Jenner Street was, like many of La Jolla’s beaches, “unsafe for swimmers due to the rapid cross current that swept through the shore,” according to Jeremy Hollins in his article “Until Kingdom Come,” which appeared in the Summer/Fall 2005 edition of “The Journal of San Diego History.”

One photographic print of an aerial of the construction of children pool in La Jolla 1931TheChildren'sPoolJune24

Shoring up the shoreline

Famed La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, responsible for much of La Jolla’s early and enduring development, “had for some time desired to make a pool for the children where they could play in the ocean and yet be quite safe,” wrote Howard Randolph in his 1955 book “La Jolla Year by Year.”

Scripps endeavored to create a breakwater in the form of a seawall that would lead to a beach where children would lay primary claim, Hollins wrote.

The seawall “would ultimately benefit all visitors to La Jolla’s beaches,” Hollins said, and is today one of the community’s most recognized structures.

Construction of the Children’s Pool was an intensive effort that took nearly a decade to complete. The project began with Scripps contracting hydraulic engineer Hiram Newton Savage in 1921.

Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

Savage conducted preliminary surveys and in 1923 presented Scripps with the idea to build a seawall at the crescent-shaped beach immediately in front of Block 56 of the then-called La Jolla Park subdivision, already a favored swimming pot of locals who risked the currents for a dip.

The structure, Savage claimed, would “remain a lasting edifice on La Jolla’s coastline,” Hollins wrote. 

Composed of reinforced concrete, the seawall would be 300.6 feet long, with 79 percent of the structure 10 feet high and the remaining 21 percent extending seaward to 16 feet high to create a gradual incline “devoid of sharp, jagged lines.”

After a years-long delay due to Savage’s leaving town for unrelated disputes with the city of San Diego, Scripps retained architect William Templeton Johnson to design the breakwater’s parapet walls and dressing stalls, Hollins wrote.

Johnson had already designed a number of buildings in San Diego, including the private Francis Parker School in 1912 and the La Jolla Public Library in 1921.

Shortly thereafter, Savage hired contractor W. M. Ledbetter and Company of Los Angeles, who came in with the lowest bid of $55,215 for the project and had previously constructed the 1916 Scripps Institution of Oceanography Pier at La Jolla Shores.

Construction on the seawall began Sept. 17, 1930; the first phase of construction involved the assembly of a timber trestle used as a platform for the workers, trenching and assembly of a pile driver, according to Hollins.

Work proceeded more slowly than expected, hampered by construction delays precipitated by the unruly ocean.

Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

On March 27, 1931, crews closed the seawall’s four wooden grillages, or formations meant to strengthen a structure on wet and unstable foundations, which prevented the sand in the pool from moving west through the sluiceways, Hollins wrote.

The pool’s floor immediately lowered one and a half feet, forming a sand beach three days later.

The Children’s Pool and seawall were completed April 4, 1931, Scripps’ final contribution to the La Jolla community (she died in August 1932).

The Children’s Pool dedication ceremonies were held May 31, 1931. Scripps was too ill to attend the celebration, Hollins wrote, though she was “delighted with the result,” according to historian Molly McClain in “Ellen Browning Scripps: New Money & American Philanthropy.”

From people to pinnipeds

For decades, The Children’s Pool drew residents and tourists alike, who would swim in the calmer waters provided by the seawall or stroll atop the wall itself during lower surf events. 

It’s also a “popular beach for scuba divers because of the reefs just offshore,” the same reefs that create very strong currents and other hazards that necessitated the wall originally, according to the city of San Diego.

The Children’s Pool is also one of nine city beaches that has a permanent lifeguard station patrolled by San Diego lifeguards.

Over time, however, another attractive by-product of the seawall emerged: the harbor seal. In 1999, 100 seals rested at the beach, causing the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department to install a rope barrier, Hollins said.

The advent of the seals hauling out on the sand to rest has also become a point of interest for tourists as well and led to contention between those who argue for unfettered beach access and animal rights advocates.

In 2004, the city removed the rope barrier and adopted a “joint use” policy, allowing members of the public to use the beach recreationally but preventing them from harassing the seals, Hollins wrote.

After a long battle that involved many versions of rope barriers, dismantled beach cameras and more, city officials have The Children’s Pool beach closed to public access during harbor seal pupping season yearly Dec. 15 through May 15. A chain blocks visitors from accessing the stairs to the beach during the closure so seals can give birth and nurse their young.

Fortifying the future

At the 1931 dedication ceremony, Savage reminded the audience of the difficulties involved in constructing the seawall and the importance of the breakwater to the people of La Jolla, Hollins wrote.

Despite controversy over the colony of seals, enjoyment of The Children’s Pool continues, as do efforts to restore the wall ahead of its approaching centennial.

In 2021, community group La Jolla Parks & Beaches funded, at the commission of member Phyllis Minick, an $11,000 project to assess the seawall’s structural condition.

The comprehensive study and report, led by local engineer Matt Mangano and his firm, MDEP Inc., noted the overall condition of the seawall as “poor” and in need of prompt attention.

Repairs are estimated at $2.3 million; the project is still in the early phases, seeking funding.

The seawall in the meantime is currently closed, due to immediate damage to its railings sustained during recent winter storms.

Working in the seawall’s favor is The Children’s Pool’s inclusion in the La Jolla Park Coastal Historic District, which recently gained a national historic designation.

The Historic District encompasses eight acres of coastal land from Coast Walk south to the end of Coast Boulevard and includes geographical spots like The Cove, along with structures such as the Casa de Mañana retirement community and Red Roost and Red Rest cottages.

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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