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Tiles, and Murals, and Bears; oh my!

Updated: Feb 7

The Balboa Park Committee of 100, the park's oldest stakeholder group that was founded in 1967, embarked on the restoration of the San Diego Automobile Museum in 2015 and the centennial was winding down for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition.


The Auto Museum opened in 1988 in what was originally at the California State Building at the subsequent 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. It was centered on the Palisades area of Balboa Park, southwest of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.



The first priority of the restoration was the recreation of four decorative murals that hung over the entrance to the building. They are made of 576 ceramic tiles, each one 12 inches square and weighing about 4 pounds. They were fabricated by RTK Studios in Ojai, Calif., based on a careful analysis of the contemporary photos at the building during the fair. The originals were painted on fiberboard by Hollywood set designer Juan Larrinaga and apparently were discarded when the fair ended in 1936.


There are four murals, each measuring 8x18 feet, depict visions of California's manmade and natural resources in the 1930s From left, Commerce, Scenic Beauty, Agriculture and Industry murals symbolized fair exhibits in the building.


Christian Bros., the tile subcontractor, set the first two, lowest rows on Industry on Thursday March 4, and on Friday they'll set the first two lowest rows on the other three murals. Those initial rows are meant to add stability as the higher rows are added. The next three weeks the workers will work on one mural at a time and by the third week of March, they hope to complete the work. They will then remove the scaffolding and reveal the beauty of this remarkable piece of public art.


Meanwhile Ehmcke Sheet Metal and Bellagio Precast will install ornamental pieces, made of glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) depicting Maya glyphs or linguistic symbols, around the roof parapet. When the scaffolding is gone, they will install the rest of the ornaments at the lower level and complete three obelisks above the entrance. The original ornamental pieces were composed of Canec, a product made from sugar cane fiber that was easy to mold but did not last very long. They were also removed after the expo.



In the second phase, once permits are secured, two California grizzly bear statues and two flagpoles will be mounted on the roof to recreate the look in 1935 Bellagio will fashion the life-size bears, weighing about 1,200 pounds, will be made of GFRC, as well. We hope this work will be proceed this spring or summer for completion by September.


In 2020 C100 donated $15,000 in paint, equipment rentals and materials to the city for city crews to paint the building in its historic color, "Bagel." The ornamentation is painted in a lighter tone called "Honeymoon."

The entire project is costing $715,000 and was funded from donations by C100 members and supporters over the past six years.


Former C100 President Mike Kelly worked with board member and citizen architect Robert Thiele to plan the entire project. Barnhart-Reese Construction is the construction manager.


C100 intends to launch a similar restoration of the nearby Municipal Gym, which was the Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries at the 1935-36 fair. Its standout public art feature is a bronze-like panel over the entrance that depicts themes of exhibits in that building. That and other ornamentation was removed after the fair but the artistic feature painted on the concrete entrance remains and will be restored as well.

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