Owners seek historic designation for Point Loma’s ‘Shell House’
The home on Rosecrans Street has ties to Frank and Eliza Jennings and Ingrid Croce.
Along Rosecrans Street in the La Playa neighborhood of Point Loma sits an unassuming Colonial Revival-style home. Colloquially known as the “Shell House” for its massive concrete seashell-shaped lawn ornament in the front, the home was one of only a few structures in the area when it was built at the turn of the 20th century.
The most recent owners of the home are Carolyn Kutzke, a real estate investor and former educator, and her nephew Kyle Kutzke, a former Marine Corps officer who works for the San Diego fire department and the Coast Guard Reserve. The duo acquired the house in April 2020 for just over $1 million.
“We didn’t know this when we originally purchased it, but the home has a one-of-a-kind connection with a few notable women in San Diego dating back to the late 1800s,” Kyle said.
Kansas state Sen. Frank Jennings moved to San Diego in 1887 and was an early land developer in the Point Loma area and served as San Diego County sheriff from 1895 to 1902. Two years before coming to San Diego, Jennings introduced a resolution as a state senator for the appointment of a committee on the political rights of women.
He built the house at 952 Rosecrans for his sister Eliza Jennings and her husband, William Smith. In the time she lived in the home, Eliza proved prominent in the area’s early development.
In 1911, she, along with 27 other women, helped establish the Point Loma Assembly, a women’s club whose efforts were focused on local improvement. Eliza held some of the club’s earliest meetings in her La Playa home. The club officially incorporated in 1913 when Frank built an assembly hall a few doors down from the Smith-Jennings house, where it still stands.
Eliza also donated an olive tree from her personal garden to the original La Playa Trail.
Years later, her home would be occupied by another notable San Diegan, Ingrid Croce, who was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2012. Croce, the widow of musician Jim Croce, is an entrepreneur and a restaurateur who has helped advance music and art. The shell sculpture in the front yard is an art piece she commissioned.
During her time living in the home, Ingrid opened Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar, which many credit as the flagship in a revitalization movement for San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter in the mid-1980s.
Ingrid was a co-owner of the home with Gabriela Myers, a former director and consultant for Southern California First National Bank who helped found the Women’s Bank in San Diego, only the second women’s bank in the United States at the time.
“The time frame in which [these women] were growing up and working as professionals and entrepreneurs, there were countless and massive hurdles for them to overcome,” Kyle said. “Ingrid was doing restaurants, film, music, and my aunt Carolyn was involved most extensively in real estate. Both of them are tied to this particular home.”
Carolyn, who turns 83 this year, has owned as many as five other notable properties in San Diego, including the home of Robert Mosher, the principal architect of the iconic Coronado Bridge. She also is a member of the Point Loma Assembly, the organization Eliza Jennings helped found more than a century ago.
“I’ve been a member forever,” Carolyn said. “I believe in giving back to my community. It’s nice that we had an opportunity to bring this house back to some of its former glory.”
Kitty McDaniel of the Ocean Beach Historical Society and chairwoman of the La Playa Trail Association said the Shell House’s association with the Jennings family had been relatively unknown. But after researching the home with the help of local historical societies, Kyle focused his efforts toward designating the home as a historic site.
“I thought to myself, ‘Man, this place has to be preserved,’” he said. “Even just looking at the house, without knowing any of the history, you could tell this place has a story.”
In accord with Kyle’s effort, McDaniel wrote a letter to the San Diego Historical Resources Board, which designates historical sites. Her letter specifically referenced the work by Eliza Jennings as reason to maintain the house in its current form.
“I wholeheartedly believe that this home should be preserved as it stands today,” the letter read. “In the interest of the history and preservation of this community, it would be beneficial to have historical designation given to the William A. Smith and Eliza Jennings Smith house.”
Kyle’s application is set to be presented to the Historical Resources Board in April.
Kyle said he has as many as eight letters of support from different community groups. He listed the Peninsula Community Planning Board, La Playa Trail Association, Ocean Beach Historical Society, Ocean Beach Woman’s Club and the office of City Council President Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Point Loma.
The letters ask the board to give the home special consideration. Kyle also has gathered upward of 200 signatures on a petition he posted outside the home and has prepared a 200-page report for the review board.
However, the house may face some scrutiny at its hearing. Kyle said he was told during discussions with city staff that the porch balcony could present a problem.
The porch roof was renovated into a balcony by a previous owner. That means the home could be disqualified under specific criteria regarding historical architecture that the board follows when determining historic significance.
Kyle says the renovations were made by Ingrid Croce, one of the home’s historically significant inhabitants.
“It’s almost ironic,” he said. “Ingrid Croce herself raised the roof of the front of the house. The irony in this particular move is, Ingrid’s change was done in the spirit of the original style of the home. This is her indelible fingerprint on this place. I think to undo what she did to the roof as a means of historical preservation would be inappropriate.”
Another potential obstacle to designating the home are white shingles installed along the side that were not part of the original design. Kyle said he isn’t concerned that this will impede his designation efforts.
If the site does earn historical designation, it could be awarded a tax credit to help offset the costs of preservational upkeep.