Del Mar Terrace celebrates its 100th birthday

By Maryruth Cox and Jennifer Crittenden

On Feb. 5, 1913, a title insurance agent filed a map with San Diego County of a new subdivision called Del Mar Terrace. It was located on the south side of Del Mar, crawling north from Los Peñasquitos Lagoon – the slough, as it was called then – up into gigantic sandstone cliffs. One-hundred years later, the area is a flourishing neighborhood of over 300 homes, constantly bustling with activity, including restaurants and small businesses along Carmel Valley Road, but its development was long in coming.

The history of the Terrace, like much of California, is linked to water. Lots were offered for sale in 1913 for $150 and up, with payments as low as $5 a month. Tantalizing advertisements promised ocean breezes and spectacular views. But there were few takers, as the only access to fresh water was a big water line that ran through the middle of the Terrace with no agency to distribute it. The lots lay empty, and a farmer planted beans on the lower slopes of the Terrace. In 1943, 30 years after its subdivision, there were only five houses on the Terrace.

In the 1950s, interest in the area began to rise, particularly following annexation by the city of San Diego in 1958. Intrepid settlers tapped into the water line with homemade pipes and banded together to build a little community. By 1953, there were 40 households that were drawing their water through an intricate network of water lines. Because of the lack of reliable water, proper roads and sewer lines, the banks wouldn’t issue loans to build houses in the Terrace, so a tradition of building one’s own house developed. Today, there are at least 10 homes still standing that were built by their first owners after work and on weekends. Pre-existing cottages were moved into the neighborhood, several from Camp Callan, a military training camp south of Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Because of the proximity to Scripps and UCSD, many settlers in the 1960s were oceanographers and professors. Some of those early residents still live in the Terrace, although they are now retired. The area was also popular with surfers and artists. The milkman came daily, and a fisherman would pass through with his daily catch. Soule’s Market opened on the corner of Via Aprilia and Carmel Valley Road, now the site of the Mexican restaurant Roberto’s. Neighbors met for schnitzel and polka dances at Little Bavaria, a German restaurant, whose DANCE sign could be seen from the Torrey Pines grade. In 1962, street names were changed from the existing Laurel, Fir, and Cedar, and assigned Italian names, including Via Aprilia, Borgia, Cortina, etc., in alphabetical order from west to east. The I-5 opened in 1966, dramatically reducing traffic on Highway 101. When Del Mar Heights School was built in 1965, the neighborhood children began to walk to school through what is now the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension.

Between 1964 and 1970, in the face of continued development from the north, including heavy bulldozing, local residents united with conservation groups to form a grassroots effort to save some of the natural land around them. Through dances, bake sales, and national media attention, they were able to raise matching funds for a $900,000 grant from the state to purchase 197 acres containing the white and red sandstone bluffs that form the backdrop of the Terrace. This area was donated to the state and named the Torrey Pines Reserve Extension. A nature education trail was built through the efforts of Carol Mason, an elementary school teacher. Now, generations of children have grown up on the Terrace, walked to Del Mar Heights school on that trail, and discovered wildlife in the Extension.

The quirky nature of the subdivision attracted architects and landscapers, and unusual houses began to spring up in the 1970s and 1980s, designed by Batter Kay, Sim Bruce Richards and others. Ted Smith constructed several of his renowned Go Homes, multi-family dwellings organized around a common kitchen. Ed Smith built a 12-sided house at the top of the Terrace in which he lived until his recent death. Today, from A-frames and surf shacks to enormous masterpieces, the houses of the Terrace are each unique. The topography of the area poses particular construction challenges, such as holding houses onto the sandstone cliffs or fitting them into oddly-shaped lots.

The streets in the Terrace have retained their original 1913 layout, including the popular walking “loop” around the junction of Via Grimaldi and Via Latina at the highest point in the neighborhood. In the 1950s, only Carmel Valley Road, then called County Road, was paved, so the Terrace streets were sandy quagmires that turned into mud holes when it rained and blanketed everything with dust when it was dry. After severe flooding and washouts in the 1960s, a temporary paving was put on. Because the streets were sub-standard, they were not routinely maintained and were frequently in disrepair. In 1992, the city of San Diego proposed an improvement plan for the streets including installing sidewalks, storm drains, and street lights. Residents resisted, hoping to preserve the original feel of the neighborhood and avoid widening the streets. Following neighborhood meetings and petitions, the City and the residents agreed that a special district would be formed permitting street paving without sidewalks or storm drains. The agreement is still in place today, to the delight of dog-walkers and night sky watchers.

In the late 1990s, another special district was formed to assess residents for the undergrounding of overhead wires. Many residents on the upper streets participated while those on the flatter streets have retained their telephone poles and lines, offering local birds, including herons, a place to perch.

Children raised in the Terrace in the 1960s were acutely aware of its outsider status. With a postal address in Del Mar but located in the city of San Diego, life in the Terrace didn’t fit either the high-class Del Mar lifestyle or the urban San Diego environment. These kids banded together as the “Terrace Rats,” and tattooed themselves with “TR”s, as commemorated in Bonnie Zobell’s writing about the local scene in The Reader. They share memories of horned lizards, tumbleweeds, and Slide Rock, one of the sandstone bluffs worn into grooves from the sliding good times of local children.

Although the Terrace offers a modern appearance on a quick drive-through, its long history and uneven development becomes apparent during any significant infrastructure project. Sewers are frequently cleaned and maintained for problems associated with aging and to battle against Torrey Pine tree roots. Homeowners discover inconsistent historical property records or a confusing array of pipes and electrical work under their yards. One resident, planning a remodeling project, was told by a local surveyor, “Establish a property line in the Terrace? Well, the first thing you do is hang up and call Dial-a-Prayer.” As construction and growth continues in the neighborhood, and as property values have risen, disagreements arise between neighbors over construction height, view impingement, setbacks, and clearances. But, as these disputes are resolved and plans are curtailed and modified, resulting in lowered ceilings, asymmetrical decks and strange rooflines, the neighborhood adds to its nonconformist appearance and pays homage to its eclectic past.

About the authors: Maryruth Cox and Jennifer Crittenden are both residents of the Del Mar Terrace, Maryruth for 60 years and Jennifer for a mere 15. They are working on a book of the history of the Terrace.