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Auto Museum Restoration Phase I Complete!

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

The revival of the Palisades continues! Begun in early January, contractors and artisans have now restored the long-lost grand tile murals and bold bas-relief ornamentation to the Automotive Museum’s façade.

Lost to decay after the conclusion of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, the original faux tile painted murals were recreated with real glazed ceramic tiles by RTK Studios in Ojai, Calif. The 576 tiles were boxed and numbered and carefully shipped to the park for installation.

Like the original murals, the lightweight ornamentation also did not last long after the expo. The ornamentation – bold friezes along the parapet and over the doorways, and obelisks crowning the entry, have been recreated in durable glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) by Bellagio Precast. These restored features will finally make permanent what was once only imagined to be temporary.

Also restored were key elements of the building’s illumination. These lighting features will recreate the evening drama (and added safety) that the fairgoers once enjoyed, and aid in re-activating the Palisades area long after sunset.

The Balboa Park Committee of 100’s construction team, led by contractor Barnhart-Reese Construction and citizen architect Robert Thiele, launched the project and kept up production even in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Only a few rain days slowed progress starting in late January. The team also worked closely with the Auto Museum to maintain site safety and the security of the collection – even while a separate asbestos abatement project was being carried out concurrently.

As the construction progressed, careful demolition of the original plaster revealed that the original building framing is in great condition and was deemed fully reusable (with only limited reinforcing) by the project structural engineer, Tony Court. The old growth lumber framing and wood lath proved too tough for San Diego’s usual termites and moisture decay!

After cutting and removing the plaster within the outline of the murals, the tile subcontractor Christian Brothers began installing the murals. The original wood lath was first clad in water repellant felt, followed by wire lath, then a cement scratch coat, mortar and finally the ceramic tiles and grout. The tile murals now sit flush with the original plaster finish, just as though they had been there since 1935.

Upon completion of the tile murals, the crew moved on to installing the ornamentation. Molded in sections and shipped to the site, the lightweight yet durable GFRC sections of the upper frieze were anchored to the existing framing of the parapet through the original plaster, while the obelisks and lower frieze were bolted into new wood and stainless steel framing added to the original walls.

The lower frieze also conceals the new linear LED lighting fixtures for the murals. Sealing the joints and painting the entire facade were the final steps in blending the ornamentation smoothly with the rest of the building, and, like the murals, now look like they have always been there.

The construction team then took down the fencing and scaffold to proudly present the restored façade to Mayor Todd Gloria for the city of San Diego at a press conference on April 13.

The team is now moving on to Phase II, the California bears and flagpoles.

Once final design is complete and permits are granted for Phase II, the team will begin the steel reinforcing and lighting necessary to restore these features to the rooftop.

The two flag poles will fly the California and American flags over the entry rotunda, while the bears will grace the corners of the parapet at either end of the building. These finishing touches are targeted for completion by late this year and will finally restore the exposition’s California State building to its former glory.

- Kevin Carpenter, Chairman, Projects Committee

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