The California State Building (San Diego Automotive Museum) was a sorry sight when the Balboa Park Committee of 100 (C100) launched its drive to restore the Palisades area’s buildings and grounds in 2015. All its 1935 ornamentation was gone, it was obscured by overgrown ficus trees that were undermining its foundation, its paint color was wrong, and it looked out over an ugly, dangerous parking lot. In 2021 C100 completed the first phase of a $715,000 restoration of this building, just as the city was finishing up the C100-supported rehabilitation of the southern half of Pan-American Plaza into a pedestrian only space, with lost parking replaced in other park lots.
Constructed for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, this building housed exhibits from California’s counties and states government to illustrate the present and future wonders of the state — this at the depths of the Great Depression. San Diego architect Richard Requa designed this and other Palisades buildings as a celebration of the state’s debt to pre-Columbian civilizations and their artistic motifs. Juan Larrinaga, the expo’s art director, designed the decorative elements; he was a Hollywood set designer who worked with his brother on the “King Kong” movies in 1933. Larrinaga painted four 8×18′ murals on fiberboard to resemble ceramic tiles. The murals, from left, depict commerce, scenic beauty, agriculture, and industry and include elements of many scenes from around the state. The ornamental panels were carved out of Canec, pressed sugarcane fibers, and inspired by Maya reliefs. Also on the building were two California grizzly bear statues and two flagpoles that C100 hopes to recreate in coming months.
Great care was taken to recreate the murals and ornamentation as close to the originals as possible, although documentary evidence did not exist to know precisely what was pictured and what colors they were painted. RTK Studios in Ojai spent two years researching the murals and months of trial and error in fabricating 576 12×12-inch art tiles. Bellagio Precast in San Diego took equal care in fabricating the ornamentation in glass-fiber reinforced concrete. C100 also underwrote the cost of researching and repainting the building in the historic “bagel” color of the original.
C100 hopes this project will inspire the public to look optimistically to the future, just as the originals did to visitors bummed out by bad economic times.