From run-down to restored, Balboa Park’s Automotive Museum presents a truer picture of the 1935 exposition

Exterior of the San Diego Automotive Museum.
Workers finish up the exterior of the San Diego Automotive Museum on Monday. Balboa Park preservation group the Committee of 100 spent six years and $715,000 working to restore the exterior with murals that represent California’s commerce, scenic beauty, agriculture and industry.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Preservation project, spearheaded by the Committee of 100, ties into a broader campaign to rehabilitate the Palisades in keeping with the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition


No longer an eyesore, the facade of the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park has been painstakingly restored following a six-year, $715,000 preservation effort that ties into a broader campaign to rehabilitate the Palisades in keeping with the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.

On Tuesday, April 12, the Committee of 100, the all-volunteer group behind the restoration effort, celebrated the building’s return to its roots by presenting four installed, 8-by-18-foot murals to San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who accepted them on behalf of the city.

The historic re-creations, which tower over the entrance of what was originally the California State Building, depict a Depression-era march of progress through visual representations of commerce, scenic beauty, agriculture and industry, and represent one of the most striking park improvements in recent memory.

“I’m grateful to the Balboa Park Committee of 100 for their efforts to beautify our city’s crown jewel with these murals depicting hope and promise,” Gloria said in a statement. “Like the San Diegans depicted in the murals who were living in the midst of the Great Depression, we know that we too will overcome this difficult period in our history and build back better than before. Having this artwork displayed proudly above the museum is a rich reminder to residents and visitors alike that we forged ahead then and today we are on a trajectory do it again.”

Founded in 1967, the Committee of 100 is the city’s oldest park support group and was formed to save and restore Balboa Park’s most historic structures. The preservation-driven nonprofit turned its attention to the Automotive Museum’s facade in 2015 as part of a larger plan to make the entire Palisades region — also home to the San Diego Air & Space Museum, Municipal Gym, Starlight Bowl and future Comic-Con Museum — into more of a standout park destination. The group’s efforts have been aided by the city, which last year turned the area’s south parking lot into a car-free zone known as Palisades Plaza, adding turf, brightly colored tables and chairs, and enhanced landscaping.

San Diego Automotive Museum commerce mural
One of four murals re-created for the San Diego Automotive Museum, this scene represents commerce and is emblematic of some of the 1935 exhibits featured in the original California State Building.
(Kristian Carreon/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The restoration of the former state building, financed with help from the Jack and Irma Redfern estate, includes a fresh coat of historically appropriate beige paint (or “bagel”), the four murals, new LED lighting and ornamental Maya-inspired panels. Still to come are two California grizzly bear statues and flagpoles for the roof.

Although just one part of the overall project, the murals are the most eye-catching. Created by Hollywood set designer Juan Larrinaga, the original murals symbolized the California building’s 1935 exhibits and were discarded after the fair. The new version consists of 526 ceramic tiles elaborately crafted from the only original thing remaining: A black-and-white photo.

“In the process of designing the murals, we had to take that black-and-white photograph and we had to lay it out flat somehow. We did that in Photoshop and added a little color, and boom, all of a sudden things came to life,” said Robert Thiele, project architect and Committee of 100 board member. “We found RTK Studios up in Ojai and they immediately identified the technique as a “cuerda seca” technique, a really old technique of tile-making and glazing to bring pattern and life to another tile form.”

The auto museum’s exterior is now the picture of near 1935 perfection, presenting a marked contrast from the Municipal Gym directly opposite the newly reclaimed Palisades Plaza. The run-down building, also constructed for the 1935 exposition, is next on the Committee of 100’s to-do list.

— Jennifer Van Grove is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


5:37 a.m. April 13, 2021: This story was updated with additional information.