The La Jolla Mushroom House: a hidden wonder on the sand

If you’re a local to San Diego, you may have heard about or stumbled upon La Jolla’s Mushroom House, a surprise orbicular structure tucked below and against the towering cliffs along Black’s Beach in La Jolla.

It’s a long stretch away from the classic La Jolla beach cottage or the mansion beach houses of today.

It’s quite an architectural sight, with its circular head and panoramic windows resting upon a thick stem and a 300-foot tramway railing. It looks like a house you’d see on Mars, some supervillain’s lair, an impenetrable doomsday bunker, a concrete fortress.

Naming the Mushroom House

The house is mainly called the Mushroom House because of its mushroom-like shape. However, it was initially called The Pavilion, or The Bell Pavilion, after Sam Bell, who was the heir to the General Mills fortune.

After Bell purchased his oceanfront home, he wanted a guest retreat that would be sure to impress, so why not 300 feet below the bluffs? As good a place as any, right?

An ambitious undertaking

Bell enlisted the help of La Jolla’s high-profile architect Dale Naegle. Naegle and a creative design team worked together to bring Bell’s vision of a futuristic-looking house to life. 

They would also build it to withstand the natural, sometimes unforgiving, elements. The location alone would be an immense planning and engineering challenge, but Bell’s team was up for it. 

Bell brought on Arnold Hunsberger and the Elevator Electric Company co-founders to help engineer the tramway connecting the guest house to the main house. The team behind Elevator Electric received notoriety for designing and constructing the first-ever outdoor glass elevator for the El Cortez Hotel in Downtown San Diego in 1956.

Because of their innovation and success with the El Cortez elevator, Bell trusted them to take on his beach house project.

It became an extraordinary and dangerous challenge, so when workers abandoned the job before completion, the three founders of Elevator Electric finished the last 100 feet of the tramway.

Built just in time

A beach house like this, especially where it is, would never fly in today’s Coastal Commission era. That would be a hard no. La Jolla’s Mushroom House was built in 1965 before the California Coastal Commission was established in 1972.

They built it as a guest house that connects to the main house at 9044 La Jolla Shores Ln. Interestingly, it’s normal for some of these oceanfront properties’ boundaries to include the bluff and part of the beach.

These days, though, regardless of the lot boundary extending down to the beach, the coastal commission protects that land despite ownership. However, owners of the main property got away with their unique accessory property before the future Coastal Commission could say anything about it. 

It’s always been a fun discovery for locals and visitors who finally see it for the first time.

The unknown future of La Jolla’s Mushroom House

The Woolley family purchased the Mushroom House in 1987 and put it in the family trust. Local philanthropist Buzz Woolley, the trust owner, has taken care of the property but does not live there.

In 2020, part of the bluff collapsed, sending 100 cubic yards of bluff debris around the house. This event caused significant damage to the tramway, rendering it completely unusable.

There was controversy over Woolley’s decision to move the fallen cliff debris into a large mound on the north side of the house. Ashley Mackin-Solomon with the La Jolla Light reported Woolley did so “so it could be naturally distributed through wind, rain, and waves.”

The issue was that Woolley did so without a permit and received a notice of violation from the California Coastal Commission. The situation sparked conversations about the future of the iconic structure.

Any future repairs to the tramway will require permits from the Coastal Commission. Given that their job is to protect these sensitive coastal areas, they could deny any improvements if they deem it harmful, leaving the future of the house unknown. 

Sadly, the Mushroom House is in a state of decay, but it remains a prominent landmark in La Jolla.

How to get to the La Jolla Mushroom House

Backed by dramatic rocky cliffs along La Jolla’s most isolated beach, La Jolla’s Mushroom House is an exciting discovery for anyone seeing it for the first time.

You’ll find it at the southern end of Blacks Beach. It’s best accessed during a low tide, so be mindful when heading to the beach to see it. 

You can access Black’s Beach in a few different ways, each varying in difficulty:

Via La Jolla Shores Beach- Take the longer beach trek heading North from La Jolla Shores Beach, passing the Scripps Pier, which is about a 20-minute walk. This is the easiest, as it’s predominantly a flat walk.

Via Torrey Pines Glider Port- The trailhead takes you down a long dirt staircase at the glider port’s southern end of the parking lot. Once you reach the bottom, walk south until you reach the house.

Parking is free at the glider port, and you can even grab a snack and water at the Cliffhanger Cafe to reward yourself for making it back up on the return trip.

Via the intersection of Blackgold and La Jolla Farms Road- Other than a walk along the beach, this would be the next ‘easiest’ route down to Black’s Beach. The paved path down spits you out at the southernmost end of Black’s Beach, closer to the Mushroom House.

Via Ho Chi Minh Trail/Saigon Trail- If you want extra adventure points and are up for taking the most challenging route to Black’s Beach, take the Ho Chi Minh Trail

It’s a slippery, steep hillside that has sections of narrow slot canyons and water crossings. Wear grippy shoes to help you navigate loose dirt or rocks.

Some like to take this way down and either the paved road back up or the glider port staircase.

Stay safe and have fun exploring

When you get to the Mushroom House, remember that this is a private property surrounded by rocks and a concrete wall, so exercise caution and don’t attempt to access the home or tramway.

There have been bluff failures and rock slides that happen without warning. You should keep your distance away from the bluffs to avoid injury, just in case. Enjoy this architectural art piece safely at a distance from the beach.

While exploring the area, you can check out the nearby Dike Rock tide pools or walk under the Scripps Pier.

Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.
Picture of Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch

Valorie Hirsch is a Content Manager and writer at lajolla.ca, helping readers discover the best of La Jolla, from things to do, dining, events, and more, so visitors and locals can have the best experience and stay connected. A San Diego native, you can usually find her enjoying live music shows, hiking local trails, tackling the world's most difficult reads, or catching up with her favorite Instagram cat celebrities.

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