San Diego Construction crews are again hard at work at David Copley's corner of La Jolla, where three years ago they added what the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time called "a many splendored wing" that more than doubled the size of his mansion, Fox Hole, at 1252 Virginia Way.
But this time, community tongues are wagging over the publishing scion's plan to add to his compound two more properties on adjoining lots just north of Fox Hole, both of which he bought within the past 12 months. Plans on file with the City show that Copley wants to merge one of the newly acquired homes, at 7616 Ivanhoe Avenue East, into his 6056-square-foot main house through a two-story "addition" that will include a 67-foot curved hallway and a five-car garage. The remodel is adding 1954 square feet of interior space to Fox Hole. The city estimates the cost of the project at $167,000, based on a formula developed by an international builders' group. No plans have yet been filed for the other home, at 1274 Virginia Way, but last weekend a big construction dumpster was positioned in its driveway. Its soon-to-be-merged neighbor, meanwhile, was gutted, with only its front brick fa ade, white window shutters, and brick chimney still standing. The foundation for the "addition" connecting it with Fox Hole has already been laid.
Neighbor Noel Stuart, who owns a duplex across the street from Fox Hole, says the construction is the talk of the neighborhood - and word has it that the house at 1274 Virginia Way, with its shabby gray exterior and overgrown landscaping, also figures into Copley's ultimate expansion plans. "The gossip I heard is that he bought the house on the corner [1274 Virginia Way] and the house behind it on Ivanhoe, and he's going to make it look like one big house in the front, but it's only going to be a facade," she says. "The inside will be nothing but a big game room, along with a garage, so he can drive through the alley and park all his cars."
Stuart says she has no complaints with the remodel. "If he bought them I guess he can do whatever he wants," she says. "I've been told he has millions and millions in that house, so if he has the money, that's his money and his right."
Other community voices are not so kind. They are outraged at what they see as another example of the growing "mansionization" of La Jolla, in which landowners such as Copley keep building onto their homes until they dwarf surrounding structures and thus destroy the character of the neighborhood.
"The city has adopted a plan which is supposed to maintain the community character - that's the actual wording - but in parts of La Jolla and Pacific Beach, they have ignored this," says Al Strohlein, a veteran community activist.
Strohlein blames a loophole in zoning laws for the rash of oversized homes. If a homeowner buys two lots, tears down the houses, and then builds up from scratch, he must win coastal commission approval - a process that requires notification of neighbors within a 300-foot radius and a public hearing.
"But if you take down part of the house and leave part of it standing, you can circumvent these requirements and just build whatever you want to," Strohlein maintains. "There's a home in my block which looks like a Nazi pillbox - it's an absolutely horrendous house, very overbuilt for the lot - and when I went downtown to the city to find out if I could do anything about it, I was told there was no coastal development permit because it's only a 'rehab,' so I couldn't even appeal. And it looks like what Mr. Copley is doing is exactly the same thing."
Jack Brandais, public information officer with the city's development services department, agrees that what Copley is doing is legal. "If you own two lots next to each other, and you want to build across them, you can do that," he says. "You don't even have to file a lot-tie agreement or get a variance; you just get a building permit and you do it."
Mary Frances Smith, who chairs a subcommittee of the La Jolla Planning Group, says she was unaware of Copley's latest remodel but maintains that "David Copley dots every i and crosses every t; when they went through this process before, they were overly careful." She says the homes in La Jolla are getting older, and there's little room for new construction, so it isn't surprising that a growing number of homeowners are remodeling their houses into larger, fancier homes. "Things are beginning to pick up," she says, "so the fact that another remodel is going on isn't worth printing a story over. It's happening all over La Jolla."
That's the problem, Strohlein says. "Pacific Beach has already lost its community spirit," he says. "But La Jolla still has something worth fighting for."
In 1991, Copley bought the house next door, at 1260 Virginia Way. He demolished the existing house and built a much larger structure, which he attached to Fox Hole. The new mansion, combined with a guest house and pool room, measured 8859 square feet, according to the permit Copley obtained from the City of San Diego. Initially Copley had wanted to build an even larger structure, covering 9800 square feet, but those plans were turned down by city zoning officials because a house that large would have covered more than 60 percent of the entire Fox Hole property, the legal limit. So Copley shaved 1000 square feet off the original design and in September 1992 got the city's go-ahead to proceed.
Construction got underway the following year. According to blueprints on file with the city, the front doors were to open onto a 182-foot entrance hall with cathedral ceilings and tall windows reaching to the second story. The entryway would face a spiral staircase and an elevator. To the left of the entryway, according to blueprints, would be a study with a stone-hearthed fireplace, a library, a wet bar, a "morning room," a patio, and a guest bedroom. To the right of the entryway would be a sunken living room, a second living room with stone-hearthed fireplace, a "china hall," a kitchen with attached "powder room," and a dining room. The kitchen and dining room were to open onto a flagstone patio and pool, beyond which would be a separate pool room, guest house, and three-car garage.
The spiral staircase and elevator would both rise into a long second-floor hallway that would lead to an exercise patio, guest quarters, a sitting room, and the master suite, complete with stone-hearthed fireplace, bedroom, walk-in closet, dressing room, balcony, and wet bar.
The expansive remodel, by A.C. Brown Construction, was formally unveiled a week before Christmas 1994, in a gala attended by Mayor Susan Golding, Joan Kroc, Gordon Luce, and Bill Kolender - and covered by the U-T's society columnist, Burl Stiff. Stiff noted that the "opulent new layout" was designed by architect Walter Nelson and included a new stairwell and entry hall. "A focal point in the stairwell is a crystal chandelier - shaped like an ascension balloon - that survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906," Stiff wrote. "San Diego artist Richard Gabriel Chase gets credit for two of the conversation pieces in the new entry hall - a circular mosaic of St. Francis inlaid in the floor and a domed ceiling ringed with whimsical portraits of film stars costumed to play Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, and other regal roles." Neighbor Noel Stuart, a real estate broker, has just bought a "retirement home" on Camino de la Costa and is now looking to sell her Virginia Way duplex, at 1285 and 1287 Virginia Way. The duplex has a total of 8514 square feet of interior space. The asking price is $1.1 million. Has Stuart thought about asking Copley if he wants to add to his La Jolla holdings? "I asked him if he wanted it, and he said he wasn't interested," she says. "I guess he's got enough going on."