When Christy Martin was named “Fairest of the Fair” in 1976, her brother Harry, then 12, remembers his family being escorted around the Del Mar Fairgrounds by its sombrero-clad ambassador, Don Diego.
Today, Don Diego is gone and so is the Fairest of the Fair contest. Soon, another iconic fairground attraction will be lost — the 63-year-old Don Diego clock tower will be torn down to make way for expanded vendor exhibition space.
The tower’s destruction has been discussed for more than six years, but its fate was sealed last week at a meeting of the 22nd District Agricultural Assn.’s board of directors. The building is beyond repair, the board determined, because of extensive termite damage and a leaking roof. Its bathrooms, clocks and electronic sign no longer work.
“They were making jokes at the meeting that the only reason it’s staying up is the termites are holding hands,” said board member David Watson. “The tower is in pretty bad condition ... it doesn’t get used. It’s just sitting there in the middle of the parking lot and it’s in the way.”
When the San Diego County Fair reopens June 2, the structure will be gone, officials said. Martin, now a real estate agent who lives in Escondido, said he’s upset about the impending demolition. The clock tower, which is decorated with three large tile murals of Don Diego — who was portrayed for many years by actor Tommy Hernandez — is one of the last surviving memories of his childhood visits to the fairgrounds.
“It’s one of the only things that’s still left of Tommy Hernandez over there,” Martin said. “They’re taking away all the history of the Del Mar Fair. I read about how the building has fallen into disrepair and I think it’s all a little too convenient for the fair board. They want it gone so they can make some more money, so they just let it fall into rot so they can knock it down.”
News of the planned demolition created a firestorm of criticism on the “Vintage San Diego” Facebook page among longtime San Diegans who feel their history is being lost. Native San Diegan Glenn Steiner said he’s been going to the fair for 48 years and the tower was one of his favorite attractions.
“Sad they are pulling it down,” he wrote. “Little is left of the San Diego and La Jolla that I grew up with … the developers will just build something nondescript, rubber-stamped by the city fathers.”
Barbara Grice, who is executive director of the San Dieguito Heritage Assn. in Encinitas, said she used the tower as a meeting point with her girlfriends as a teenager in the 1960s. She’s sorry to see it r go, but she’s happy about the board’s decision to preserve the iconic tile murals of Don Diego, each embedded with a clock, that decorate three sides of the structure.
“The building itself is going to fall down if they don’t take it down, but the Don Diego and the clocks need to be carried on,” Grice said.
During World War II, the fairgrounds was used by the military for housing and training. The fair returned in 1946 with an official greeter, Don Diego, a Mexican ranchero character.
A year after the tower was built in a flurry of new construction, the clock tile murals of Don Diego were added on all three faces in 1954.
The tower building, which included public bathrooms and benches under a sweeping roof, is one of San Diego’s few surviving examples of Googie architecture, a period of design that began in San Diego and Los Angeles after the war, according to Irvine architect and historian Alan Hess.
“It related to the optimism of the postwar period when Southern California was booming. People were looking to the future with great excitement and the architecture reflected that popular interest,” said Hess, the architecture critic for the San Jose Mercury-News and the author of 19 architecture books, including two on the Googie period.
The typical features of Googie buildings were prominent rooflines with cantilevers, zig-zags and upswept points as well as tall sign pylons. Some had fanciful “Jetsons”-like features inspired by the Space Age and science-fiction films.
Hess said the Don Diego tower was notable because it incorporated the adobe style of the region’s dominant Spanish architecture.In 1958, 4-year-old Bruce Coons of San Diego made his first visit to the clock tower, where Hernandez and that year’s “Fairest of the Fair” contest winner, Racquel Tejada (later Welch), gave him a lift back to his father’s exhibit booth in their motorized cart.
“I was quite smitten with it as a little boy,” said Coons, who is executive director of San Diego’s Save Our Heritage Organisation. The group has fought to save the tower since the board first introduced a possible demolition plan in a 2009 environmental impact report.
“It’s one of the best examples of the Googie style locally and it’s the essence of what makes a landmark,” Coons said. “It’s the most iconic thing at the fairgrounds and that’s why everyone used it as a meeting point.”
But the district’s master plan committee found the tower did not meet the criteria for listing in the national or California registers of historic places and, the panel’s report says, it “does not represent the work of a master nor does it possess high artistic value.”
Hess said the tower is going the way of many Googie buildings that flourished in the 1940s to 1960s but have since mostly been torn down or remodeled. “What this points out to me is neglect,” Hess said of the clock tower. “Many people haven’t taken this style of building seriously and so they let it go. That’s when they get to the point of just being structurally unsound. … As a result, we don’t have many of these left here in Southern California.”
As car culture exploded in California in the 1950s, Hess said the Googie style was most often seen in fast-food restaurants, car washes, gas stations, drive-in laundries and motels, particularly the space-themed lodges that once surrounded Disneyland. In San Diego, restaurateur Robert O. Peterson employed the style at his quick-service restaurants Oscar’s and, later, Jack in the Box. Nearly all of those early structures are gone.
“They had energy and were really appealing to the eye, especially the hotels around Disneyland that were so bland,” Hess said. “We don’t need blandness, we need exuberance in our landscape.”
Fairgrounds spokeswoman Shawn Feisst said that once the mural clocks are removed, they will be taken someplace safe to be restored. Eventually they will be reinstalled, most likely at prominent locations around the fairgrounds.Larry Brooks, president of the Del Mar Historical Society, said his group isn’t upset about the demolition because his board didn’t see the tower as historic.
But he hopes the mural re-installations will restore the fair’s commitment to Don Diego. The fair retired Don Diego as fair ambassador after Hernandez died in 1984, but a statue of the character was installed at the fairgrounds’ front gates in 1985.
“I think the fair has been a little remiss in not keeping the legend of Don Diego alive. This might be the opportunity to resurrect that,” Brooks said. “The legend of Don Diego isn’t just a wood-frame building with stucco on it.”
Solana Beach resident Diane Y. Welch, who co-wrote a historical book on the Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2008, said she hopes the demise of the clock tower doesn’t mean the demise of Don Diego’s welcoming spirit at the fair.
She suggested having the restored murals installed in other locations outside the fairgrounds, such as downtown Del Mar or Solana Beach. That way, she said, “the story of the handsome, dashing caballero figure will continue to be relevant.”
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.