Preservation: A labor of love

Posted: August 4th, 2017 | Features, News, Top Story | No Comments

By Dave Fidlin

After honors for Balboa Park Gate House restoration, Friends group shifts attention to venerable carousel

For decades, they sat stagnant, pockmarked by peeling paint, rotting wood, chipping siding and other unsightly blemishes.

In 2014, just as Balboa Park was on the cusp of entering its grand centennial celebration, it seemed all hope was lost for a pair of long-lived gate houses that adorned both sides of the Cabrillo Bridge.

The gatehouses were badly in need of repair. (Courtesy Friends of Balboa Park)

Removing the deteriorating structures from their longtime perch was under serious consideration. But a group of preservationists, working under the apt name Friends of Balboa Park, saw beauty and possibility where others saw blight and deterioration.

Fast forward three years, and the Balboa Park Gate Houses are gleaming, proudly demonstrating the venue’s storied history that stretches back to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Thanks to the Friends, they were restored to their former grandeur. (Courtesy Richard Signeous)

The project is one in a long string of endeavors the Friends group has taken on since it was first established in 1999.

“We like to say that we are the vessel between the city of San Diego and Balboa Park,” said John Bolthouse, executive director of the organization. “We raise money and awareness for capital projects that are not in the city’s budget.”

Jim Hughes, who has served Friends of Balboa Park in a variety of capacities, rolled up his sleeves and took on the role of project manager when the organization accepted the gate houses as a restoration project in 2014.

“One of [the gate houses] had a crushed roof,” Hughes recalled. “We didn’t know a lot about the structures when we first got started. All we did know was they looked miserable.”

One of the old gatehouses (Courtesy Friends of Balboa Park)

While the gate houses are a microscopically small part of Balboa Park, the Friends group asserted the restorative effort, which carried with it a $140,000 project budget, was well worth the effort and expense because of the story behind the structures.

The gate houses were initially constructed to anchor a sprawling series of gates, which were used to control admission into that first exhibition 102 years ago.

While the adorning gates have long since been removed, the gate houses continued to stand in place for years to come.

The heavy lifting — planning and the actual restoration work — began in earnest in 2015 and wrapped early this year.

A formal ribbon cutting commemorating the project’s completion took place in late March.

At the onset, Hughes and his team were unsure how they were going to tackle the project because of the scarcity of information.

“We weren’t able to locate any documents on the structure,” Hughes said. “There weren’t any blueprints or good photos. Our initial thought was we would just work on stabilizing the structures.”

But additional details did surface as the project got underway, and Hughes said the Friends group worked tirelessly to ensure each painstaking restorative effort was true to the gate houses’ original designs.

“In a historical sense, you don’t guess,” Hughes said. “Either you do it right, or you don’t do it at all.”

The Friends group initially anticipated the gate house restoration work taking about a year to complete. But once additional information surfaced, the project’s timeline stretched closer to the two-year mark.

In May, the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) recognized Hughes for his leadership role in restoring the Balboa Park Gate Houses. SOHO’s members singled Hughes out, bestowing him with the group’s cultural landscape award.

Hughes said the SOHO recognition was the perfect ending to a fulfilling project, though he was quick to point out the award extends beyond himself.

“In the end, we were very happy with the finished project,” Hughes said. “This only came together because of everyone’s expertise. There were quite a few disciplines involved in this.”

With the gate house restoration effort wrapped, members of the Friends of Balboa Park have shifted their attention toward a new effort: restoring a recently purchased 107-year carousel that has strong Balboa Park ties.

The carousel dates back to 1910 in North Tonawanda, New York, and first made its way to San Diego during the 1915 exhibition. The structure has been privately owned for most of its existence, though the Friends group recently raised enough funds to acquire it.

“It’s in magnificent shape,” Bolthouse said. “Our highest priority right now is to raise the profile of the carousel in the community.”

The Friends group is in the midst of an extensive campaign to fully restore the carousel to its heyday. The anticipated cost of the project is expected to hover around $3 million, and $798,000 has been raised thus far.

For more details on Friends of Balboa Park’s latest capital campaign, which was formally announced July 25, visit

—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at

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