La Jolla’s Playground, 1915-2015

La Jolla’s Playground, 1915-2015

In July 1915, San Diego celebrated the opening of a $200,000 Community House and Playground, now known as the La Jolla Recreation Center. Financed by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, it was the most completely equipped playground and community centers in the United States. Its swings, croquet grounds, and tennis courts were used by the children of the San Diego—black and white, rich and poor—while its auditorium provided a place where even controversial guest lecturers enjoyed freedom of speech.

The La Jolla Recreation Center had its origins in the Playground Movement of the early twentieth century. In 1906, Harvard-educated philanthropist Joseph Lee and educator Luther Gulick founded the Playground Association of America in the hopes that scientifically directed “play” could enhance the skills of working men and women, make them better citizens, improve their health, and enhance the quality of their lives. By 1900, industrialization and rapid urbanization had changed the face of childhood in America, creating multiple generations raised in tenements, factories, and on the streets. Children worked in factories, canneries, home industries, and as newsboys, messengers, and bootblacks. Not until 1938 did the Fair Labor Standards Act ban child labor under the age of fourteen.

Unable to keep children out of factories, reformers focused on providing education and recreation outside working hours. Lee believed that children learned their most abiding lessons on the playground: “The boy without a playground is father to the man without a job.” For girls, games offered the opportunity for social development: “In playing games suited to their strength, girls learn how to co-operate.”

Reformers also advocated the creation of recreational facilities for “grown people” that would take the place of the saloon. Working-class men most frequently socialized in bars and taverns, despite attempts by reformers to draw them out into the fresh air of public parks or into parish halls and libraries. In the mid-nineteenth century, the YMCA was founded as an alcohol-free alternative to the bar or club; the only drawback was its origin as an evangelical Protestant institution.

By 1900, it was thought that playgrounds could be equipped with a community house or recreation center to provide many of the same benefits of the YMCA on a non-sectarian basis. In addition to providing exercise facilities and meeting rooms for adults, community centers promised to help promote neighborliness among long-time residents and new immigrants, wealthy citizens and poor ones. They also provided places where newly arrived citizens could come into contact with “American life” and “learn American traditions,” thereby promoting civic participation.

After 1900, economic development brought a substantial number of working-class people to La Jolla. They worked as carpenters, plumbers, painters, grocers, cooks and waiters, telephone operators, auto mechanics, gardeners, clerks, and maids. In 1913, nearly one-half of La Jolla residents described themselves as employed in some kind of trade. Jethro Mitchell Swain, who came in 1910, eked out a living as a farmer, peddling honey, eggs, and berries to local residents while his wife Alice worked as a seamstress and laundress for The Bishop’s School.

The village also had a growing population of black residents, many of whom lived between Eads Avenue and Cuvier Street. Thomas Debose, a former slave, came to La Jolla in 1892 from Champaign, IL, with five children. Described as “hard working and thrifty,” he raised and trained horses and bought real estate. His second wife, Henrietta Vanhorn, worked for the Brown family as a housekeeper and cook before opening up her own hand laundry business.

In 1911, Ellen Browning Scripps decided to do something for the ordinary people of La Jolla. Until now, her contributions had benefitted mainly well-to-do San Diegans: The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, St. James-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, and The Bishop’s School. Now her progressive sympathies demanded that she turn her attention to “those handicapped in life’s game by poverty.” The result was a playground and recreation center that served the working population of San Diego, in particular, its children.

She decided to build a playground on lots located in Block 33, across the street from her house. Scripps’ friends and neighbors sold her their properties on the understanding that she would move their bungalows to other plots of land. In early 1914, she met with members of the Playground Commission to discuss plans.

Construction began in August 1914. Irving J. Gill designed the Community House in the same architectural style as the La Jolla Woman’s Club and The Bishop’s School, using “tilt-slab” concrete construction. On the south side of the building, Gill planned boys’ and girls’ locker rooms that were partially open to the sky, a unique idea intended to achieve “the maximum of ventilation and sanitation.”

The architect also designed a shallow wading pool for children, surrounded by sandboxes and a vine-shaded pergola. This became the center of activity during the summer months when the older children were on the beach. Benches on the outer edge were used by mothers “who sit with their sewing and mending while the laughing children splash happily in the sun-flecked water or romp in the white sand.”

The playground was divided into boys’ and girls’ sections, each with its own equipment such as vaulting horses, flying rings, and horizontal bars. In addition, there were swings, see-saws, a volleyball court, three tennis courts, and a baseball diamond. For special occasions the tennis net posts could be removed and the entire space used for dancing, pageants, or outdoor celebrations.

Completed in 1915, the Community House was praised as exceptionally well provided with the most modern amenities. The auditorium had a small stage with footlights, spotlights, and a moving picture machine. An adult clubroom, located to the west of the auditorium, was also used as a library and reading room. There was even a five-room bungalow built on the grounds for the new director, Joseph Hallinan. The latter, who had viewed modern recreation centers in Chicago and on the East Coast, told the San Diego Union “that for completeness there is nothing like it.”

Scripps financed the playground and community house with the understanding that this would be a place where ordinary people could meet and speak their minds without fear of harassment from civil authorities. Recalling San Diego’s suppression of “free speech” in 1912-13, Scripps specified in her deed of gift that the place should be open to everyone, no matter what their views, provided they did not violate the laws of either the United States or California while using the premises.

In 1917, just weeks before the United States entered World War I, Scripps praised the possibilities offered by the Playground Movement:

Play makes people happy, puts music into their souls, teaches people the art of working together, makes for international understanding…And it may be that someday the world’s battles will not be fought with cannon and shells, with overhead zeppelins and submarines, but on the athletic field. And I think we would all echo Shakespeare’s cry, ‘May God hasten the Day!’

[An earlier version of this article appeared in The La Jolla Historical Society’s Timekeeper, vol. 34, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 6-7]

Photo courtesy of The La Jolla Historical Society.