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Auto Museum restoration begins construction

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

The Balboa Park Committee of 100 began construction on Monday, Jan. 18, on the $715,000 restoration of the San Diego Automotive Museum that will return an inspiration piece of public art, absent for nearly 90 years.

Overseen by Barnhart-Reese Construction, workers installed a construction fence and scaffolding and began removing stucco from the entrance wall.

The demolition work is needed to confirm that the wall is ready for installation of four 18-foot-high tile murals depicting scenes of California in 1935. The original artwork, designed by Juan Larrinaga, a Hollywood set designer, was painted on fiberboard but did not survive the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.

The replacements are 12-inch-square ceramic tiles designed and fabricated by RTK Studios in Ojai, Calif. They are based on a careful analysis of black-and-white contemporary photographs of the originals. They depict commerce, industry, agriculture and scenes of California.

"These murals represents perhaps the largest and most inspiring public art installation in Balboa Park in many years," said Roger Showley, president of C100, the park's oldest stakeholder group founded in 1967.

The schedule calls for removing the stucco, checking the structural integrity of the wall, making any necessary repairs, and then preparing the base wall for installation of the tiles starting early in February.

The murals are just the first of several decorative elements to be returned to what was originally the California State Building. It was one of many structures designed for the fair by San Diego architect Richard Requa.

Additional items being returned include ornamental panels, obelisks, California grizzly bear statues and flagpoles. Completion is expected this spring.

The project is being funded by donations to C100 over the past several years.


Ehmcke Sheet Metal is fabricating stainless steep brackets to hold up the various Bellagio elements made of GFRC -- glass fiber reinforced concrete.

In 2020 C100 contributed about $15,000 in materials to the city to repaint the Auto Museum building in the original bagel-like color.

The Balboa Park Committee of 100 has been working on the project since 2015 as the first of several planned to revitalize the Palisades of Balboa Park. That was a new area of the park originally developed for the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935-36. C100 had previously focused on El Prado, the center of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.

The total project cost is about $715,000, all raised from donations. Other key contractors include A.B. Court & Associates, structural engineer; Chandler Art Consulting Services, color consultant; Christian Brothers, tile installation; and Absolutely Electric, lighting.

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