Avalon Ventures’ Kevin Kinsella Remakes Private Copley Library in La Jolla

10/20/10Follow @bvbigelow

Kevin Kinsella moved to San Diego with his Ford Pinto in 1978. He still remembers driving shakily past the private library of newspaper publisher James S. Copley in the tony enclave of La Jolla, and thinking, “Wow.”

To Kinsella, who graduated from MIT in 1967 with an undergraduate degree in management, “It looked like one of those ivy-covered buildings had been plucked out of Cambridge and dropped in La Jolla.”

Times change, and so do fortunes. Earlier this year, Kinsella bought the two-story, 15,822-square-foot Copley Library for a reported $3.75 million. He’s spent the months since then updating and remodeling the interior of the building, which has been renamed The Kinsella Library. He also has been remaking the building as the new headquarters for Avalon Ventures, the venture capital firm he started in 1982.

Avalon Ventures moved into the library at the end of August, and Kinsella recently gave a tour when Bob Buderi, Xconomy’s founding CEO and editor-in-chief, was visiting San Diego. While the headquarters of some major venture firms are renowned for their opulence, Avalon’s office surely ranks as one of the few museum-quality spaces in the VC industry, with a collection of art and memorabilia that reflects Kinsella’s personal interests and aesthetics.

Kevin Kinsella

Kevin Kinsella

The library’s main attraction is an airy central reception hall, ringed by a second-story balcony with an antiqued iron railing that overlooks the entire room. On prominent display is a candy-apple red grand piano on loan from Yamaha, which Kinsella explains is the piano that Elton John plays when he’s on concert tours through Southern California. “Yamaha was kind enough to loan it [the piano is signed by Sir Elton] to The Kinsella Library, while the 9 foot Yamaha Disklavier which we have on order is being hand-built in Japan for delivery in May 2011,” he said.

At the other end of the hall is a wooden sculpture of a breaching humpback whale carved by sculptor Ron Sansone of Hana, Maui, (where Kinsella lives part of the year) from a single piece of kamani wood.

Some rooms off the central reception hall have been converted into offices for Avalon’s partners and their staff. Other rooms will be used to exhibit artwork.

Kinsella, who operated Avalon as a solo practitioner for many years, has helped start and finance more than 60 startups, including Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Aurora Biosciences, ReVision Therapeutics, AXYS Pharmaceuticals, Athena Neurosciences, and Landmark Graphics. In the coming weeks, Avalon is expected to close on its ninth venture fund; the firm had raised $161 million at the end of September and is expected to end near the high end of its estimated range, which was $150 million to $200 million. The venture firm estimates that the aggregated market valuation of Avalon’s portfolio companies over the past 28 years exceeds $11 billion.

Helen Copley built the library in the mid-1970s to provide a permanent home for the collection of historical American documents, paintings, and other materials that her husband amassed before he died of a brain tumor in 1973. Although Copley had been collecting material for decades, Kinsella says the conservative newspaper publisher became a serious collector after 1969, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to the U.S. Bicentennial Media Committee that was then planning for the upcoming 1976 celebration.

The building itself was constructed of concrete block and a brick-veneer façade, with a band of embossed copper bordering the roofline. The entrance alcove, which features four murals of Abraham Lincoln, includes bricks from the railway platform in Springfield, IL, where Lincoln took the oath of office after he was elected as the 16th president in 1860.

Exterior view of The Kinsella Library

Exterior view of The Kinsella Library

Many of the 2,000 items in Copley’s collection of Americana pertained to the Revolutionary War, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, pamphlets, and other documents from Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and others. Copley also collected documents from the Civil War and the exploration and settlement of California and the Southwest, as well as literary works by Mark Twain and other authors. A second-floor storage vault was designed to maintain a constant temperature of 60 degrees to preserve the historic documents, rare books, and other sensitive research materials.

But the vault could not protect the Copley Press from the Internet, which undermined the enormous profitability of the newspaper business by siphoning off classified advertising, job notices, and other types of advertising. Helen Copley’s son, David, began selling the company’s Illinois newspapers after she died in 2004, and he put the San Diego Union-Tribune up for sale in 2008. The Copley collection, with an estimated value of more than $15 million, was also put up for sale through a series of auctions organized over the past year by Sotheby’s.

Kinsella’s interests in collecting run in a different direction. He has lifelong ties to show business (his father Walter Kinsella was a career actor on Broadway, radio television, and film) and he plans to fill at least one room of the library with his Jersey Boys memorabilia. As I reported in 2008, the musical tells the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Kinsella and his wife Tamara became the show’s biggest investors when the musical opened at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2004, and helped move the show to Broadway’s August Wilson Theater, where it won four 2006 Tony Awards. They also took an interest in producing the Grammy-winning CD for the musical, Jersey Boys: Original Broadway Cast Recording, which went platinum (more than 1 million copies sold) about six months ago.

“It’s going to be great for the community,” Kinsella told us. “There’s a full theater in the basement [that showcases a 103-inch Panasonic flat-panel TV screen], and we’re starting to have events here. Five years of Jersey Boys memorabilia will be open to the public by appointment.”

Kinsella, who sits on the board of trustees at the San Diego Museum of Art, also has a sizable personal collection of California plein aire paintings (impressionist landscapes painted by artists in the “open air”) from 1900 to 1950, and an eclectic assortment of other artwork on display.

In buying the Copley Library and continuing to operate it as a private library, Kinsella has almost certainly rescued the building from becoming another Southern California condo conversion. When the place was advertised by Prudential Realty late last year, the listing touted the building as a “unique village property…rare…built and used as a library—it could be converted to a spectacular, in-town, single family residence or split into two or more condominiums…”

Kinsella says if he hadn’t bought it, “A developer probably would have bought it and would have gutted the building.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Danny

    I don’t know if this article has anything to do with Avalon (A Rare Earth company).Must be some mistake from Google..second time in a month
    Danny

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  • Sir Donald

    Fantastic article. What Kinsella has done with this is a phenomenal example to the community.