Modernism Tour in La Jolla reveals local midcentury marvels

Mapping out what it hopes will be an annual tradition, the La Jolla Historical Society hosted a La Jolla Modernism Tour Oct 14, showcasing seven examples of midcentury modern architecture across many La Jolla neighborhoods.

The self-guided tour launched this year’s La Jolla Landmark Week, which continues through Sunday, Oct 22 with various events.

The Modernism Tour featured a curated selection of six historic, midcentury modern private residences opening their doors to tour-goers throughout the day.

A seventh, “bonus” site gave attendees a look inside a midcentury office site, designed by the tour’s featured architect, Frederick Liebhardt, who also designed two of the homes on the tour.

These are “hidden jewels” in La Jolla, according to tour committee chair Joan Gand, who owns one of the homes on the tour and also serves as a Historical Society board member.

Though the La Jolla Historical Society hosted a similar, smaller tour about ten years ago, “we’ve never mounted something quite this large and with this number of really spectacular homes,” Executive Director Lauren Lockhart said.

The homeowners, along with volunteers, were on hand during the tour to answer questions; attendees also received a booklet featuring photography and information on each site.

Gand conceived the idea for the tour having spent time in Palm Springs, where modernism is a “big topic of discussion,” she said.

“Modernism is newer to the preservation table,” Gand said, noting the period, widely defined as from 1945 to 1969, is “now entering that endangered stage. We really want to educate people and get them to appreciate what modernism is all about.”

The style grew from architects wanting “to create something new, something different,” Gand said, in contrast to other styles that revived older periods such as Spanish colonial or New England architecture. 

Architects looked “at architecture from a fresh point of view,” she said, following criteria that simplified design and imparted “a horizontal feeling to it … so it blends into the landscape.”

That landscape connection signified that architects “were already thinking about environmental and ecological issues,” Gand said, a consideration that, along with the period’s penchant for filling spaces with natural light, led to the incorporation of “passive solar design, where the sun can come in and warm the house during the colder times of year” and the use of overhangs to block the sun during the warmer times of year.

The indoor-outdoor integration is “unique to this period and style of architecture,” Lockhart agreed.

To bring a modernism tour to life in La Jolla, “we needed someone with Joan’s expertise and her enthusiasm for modernism,” Lockhart added.

The tour committee Gand led first cultivated a long list of recommended houses and homeowners to approach that committee members then narrowed down.

Lockhart credited the abundance of modernism showcased on the tour to the homeowners who were eager to share their properties and advocate for preservation.

The tour’s importance also lies in the opportunity to get past what is often “a very subtle presence” from the street, Gand said, belying the details inside a midcentury modern home that must be “experienced to be appreciated.”

La Jolla “is really an epicenter of” modernism, Lockhart said, with Liebhardt’s contributions as well as those of modernist architects Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, Louis Kahn and Richard Neutra, among many others.

And, with the 300 tour tickets sold out a month prior to not only locals but also curious tourists from Los Angeles and Palm Springs, the East Coast and Mexico, “clearly we’re learning there is a huge amount of interest and excitement around this topic,” Lockhart said. 

“If you are a dedicated modernist, to find a new neighborhood in our community that you haven’t experienced before. … People are willing to drive and travel for that,” she said.

With that in mind, and with the tour having “incredibly generous” support from Atomic Ranch and so many others, Lockhart hopes she has the blueprint for future Historical Society success, noting she and Gand are already planning for how they can grow the program in future years.

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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