The San Diego Automotive Museum opened in 1988 in what was originally the California State Building to house state exhibits for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition in 1935-36. While the building was built as a permanent structure, its decorative elements were not and soon after the fair, they were removed.
The Balboa Park Committee of 100 (C100), the park’s oldest preservation group, raised the funds, an estimated $750,000, to accomplish these tasks over the past eight years:
Paint the building in its historic colors, based on paint chip research by Susan L. Buck and Natasha K. Loeblich, assisted by Will Chandler. City crews did the labor and C100 provided the painting materials.
Recreate the four monumental tile murals over the entrance in ceramic tiles. Designed by the fair’s artistic director, Juan Larrinaga, the murals, from left, depict images of California’s commerce, scenic beauty, agriculture and Industry. RTK Studios of Ojai researched, designed and manufactured the 576, 12-inch-square tiles.
Recreate the decorative ornamentation. Bellagio Precast researched, designed and manufactured the ornamental elements in glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC).
Return replicas of the two life-size California grizzly bear statues to the roof. Bellagio manufactured the statues in bronze-coated GFRC .
Install two flagpoles at the parapet, including Bellagio-made 23-karat gold-leaf finials and historically accurate brackets.
Recreate the two original “California State Building” signs flanking the front doors and manufactured by Bellagio.
Light the new elements. Absolutely Electric designed and installed the lighting.
In addition the city removed invasive landscaping and rehabilitated the south half of Pan-American Plaza for pedestrian-only use.
C100 also held a poster contest in 2021 to celebrate the completion of the murals. Graphic artist Antonio Mustico, a former pastry chef, won the contest, which was underwritten by the Peggy and Robert Matthews Foundation and managed by AIGA San Diego, the primarily graphic arts group.
Architect Robert Thiele oversaw the entire project over an eight-year period on a pro bono basis. Structural engineer Tony Court worked with the auto museum and the city to manage the installations. Barnhart-Reese Construction was the construction manager and general contractor. It should be noted that building documentation was scanty and Thiele and the contractors worked largely from black and white images to determine the original look.
C100 previously championed the restoration of El Prado buildings and grounds from the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and is working to bring the Palisades back to its original visual splendor as well.
2080 Pan American Plaza
City of San Diego/Balboa Park Committee of 100
Ross Porter, president, BP Committee of 100