New exhibit celebrates the Torrey Pine State Natural Reserve

A panorama of the Torrey Pines Reserve in La Jolla.
A panorama of the Torrey Pines Reserve in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of John Durant/La Jolla Historical Society)

The La Jolla show honors the rarest tree in North America as well as local conservation efforts to protect the reserve from development and climate change


Historical exhibitions often involve years of curatorial work and research. In the case of an exhibition opening this week at the La Jolla Historical Society Wisteria Cottage Gallery, one gets the sense that it’s a showcase that’s been 100 years in the making.

Yes, co-curator Peter Jensen agrees that he and others have worked diligently to put together an exhibition focusing on the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and the majestic trees therein, but he also agrees that it’s the result of a century, perhaps multiple centuries, of protective efforts at the reserve.

“At first we thought we’d just do an exhibition about the lodge,” says Jensen, referring to the reserve’s rustic adobe-style Torrey Pines Lodge, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. “And then we began to think, ‘what do we want people to take away from this show?’ Then our thinking turned to what the lodge symbolized more than just being an architectural landmark.”

This initial idea evolved into “Rare Trees Sacred Canyons: Torrey Pines — San Diego’s Symbol of Preservation,” a bold, beautiful and historically nuanced look at not only the rarest tree in North America, but also the local conservation efforts that have protected the reserve from development and, more recently, the consequences of climate change.

“It became a show about preservation and environmentalism,”Jensen recalls. “That maybe this reserve, at least locally, was the springboard to this notion that we can save these beautiful places for future generations.”

A Torrey Pine cone.
A Torrey Pine cone. The Torrey pine is a critically endangered species growing only in coastal San Diego County and Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara.
(John Durant / La Jolla Historical Society)

The planning for the exhibition began nearly four years ago when Jensen, who’s been on the board of the Torrey Pines Conservancy off and on for more than 20 years, noticed that the 100th anniversary of the beginning of construction of the lodge was approaching. Along with the rest of the board, they floated various ideas on ways to mark the occasion and eventually came up with the idea for the “Sacred Canyons” exhibition, since both the Lodge and the La Jolla Historical Society were the result of Helen Browning Scripps’ philanthropic dedication.

Still, initial dates for the anniversary exhibition had to be put on hold due to the pandemic. Jensen, however, almost sees the delay as something of a blessing in disguise for a few reasons. The resulting exhibition, which opens Saturday, now falls on the 100th anniversary of the Torrey Pines Lodge’s opening, rather than its groundbreaking. Also, it afforded Jensen and co-curator John Durant more time to track down various documents and artworks that now make up part of the exhibition.

“The exhibit is not heavily scientific and it’s not entirely a natural history exhibit,” Jensen says. “There’s already plenty of good exhibits devoted to local flora and fauna.”

Lauren Lockhart, the executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society, agrees with this assessment.

Local artists paint in the Torrey Pines Reserve in 1930.
Local artists, including well-known Alfred Mitchell, sought inspiration in the Torrey Pines Reserve, also a popular destination for plein-air oil-painting classes, as seen in this 1930 photograph.
(Courtesy of San Diego History Center)

“I think what distinguishes this exhibition from what you might see at a natural history museum, or at the Lodge itself, is that it explores this history with some specific milestones and the important figures and communities that have helped preserve this place,” Lockhart said.

“It also devotes a lot of time to the ineffable magic of this place, in particular through the artists’ perspectives. Peter has done a great job at pulling together some artists; everything from ceramics and photography, paintings and pen-and-pink drawings. It shows just how many artists have been drawn to this beautiful place throughout the years and their attempts to capture it,” she said.

This includes Impressionist landscape paintings from Alfred Mitchell that the artist did while visiting the reserve. It also includes botanical illustrations of pine cones and needle clusters from Albert Robert Valentien and watercolor paintings from James Hubbell, who is probably best known for his home designs, sculpture and stained glass, but who used to frequent the beaches around Torrey Pines. There’s also the work of Tsuyoshi “Mat” Matsumoto, a self-taught artist who drew nearly 400 highly detailed, pen-and-ink drawings of trees at the reserve in the 1970s.

Besides the documents and art, Lockhart also took the lead in researching and presenting a much more nuanced historical presentation of how Indigenous peoples lived on the land for thousands of years before White encroachment. This includes a video interview with Stanley Rodriguez, a member of Kumeyaay Santa Ysabel Band of the Iipay Nation and the tribe’s culture bearer, in which he explains the Kumeyaay peoples’ multi-generational relationship with the Torrey Pines land, as well as the tribe’s creation story, which is tied directly into the region’s oceanfront.

“We felt it was important to recognize this and that their relationship to the reserve be addressed in the exhibition,” says Lockhart.

There will also be vintage and contemporary photographic contributions at “Rare Trees Sacred Canyons.” All of the art, in addition to the extensive research, notebooks and documents presented at the exhibition, help paint a picture of how special Torrey Pines was to early 20th century residents, despite efforts by some to develop it.

“We want to present this more as a flurry of creativity, because one of the premises of this show is that so much art is inspired by nature,” says Jensen. “At the same time, art can lead us, the greater population, toward a greater good in preserving nature. The more we know about nature from art, or see it and appreciate it, the more people might get the heck out there, walk around to see it for themselves, and then want to save it.”

Both Jensen and Lockhart see the exhibition as an extension of both the Torrey Pines Conservancy and the La Jolla Historical Society’s overall mission. They hope that visitors will leave with a sense of what nature can inspire and, by extension, that they’ll want to help preserve the Torrey Pines reserve for future generations.

“We do hope people walk out the door and do feel a call to action as they’re leaving — that they feel inspired and empowered by seeing what others did to try to designate this as a reserve space,” Lockhart says. “That you too have the ability and maybe the responsibility to try to preserve those spaces that are in your own backyard and neighborhood.”

‘Rare Trees Sacred Canyons: Torrey Pines — San Diego’s Symbol of Preservation’

When: Opens Saturday and runs through May 28. Noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays

Where: La Jolla Historical Society Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St., La Jolla

Phone: (858) 459-5335


Combs is a freelance writer.