By Ann Jarmusch | Preservation Matters
When a construction fence comes down this month, the Horton Plaza Park fountain — one of Downtown San Diego’s gems — will be a bit closer to its long-awaited reawakening this spring.
Horton Plaza Park, at Fourth Avenue and Broadway, and its iconic domed fountain, tell a compelling preservation story that has stretched beyond a century, embracing decades of change, growth and public celebrations.
Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), San Diego’s leading preservation advocacy group, has saved the fountain not once, but three times since its founding in 1969. Initially working behind the scenes with city staff, SOHO ensured the park became Historic Site No. 51 in 1971, and continues its watchdog role for this unique landmark’s future, which is looking brighter than it has in years.
That’s because the park and fountain are currently being restored to their historic 1910 appearance, as designed by noted San Diego architect Irving J. Gill.
Gill based the neo-classical fountain design on the ancient Greek Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens and made it the centerpiece of hallowed park ground set aside in 1870-71 by Alonzo Horton, the father of New Town San Diego.
The bronze and marble fountain stands opposite the Broadway entrance to the 1910 U.S. Grant Hotel. On the hotel’s opening night, owner (and future mayor) Louis J. Wilde unveiled the $10,000 fountain he’d had inscribed “Broadway Fountain for the People.”
This civic gift was also an engineering feat: the first fountain to combine flowing water and electricity. The electricity powered scores of changeable colored lights that turned plumes of water into a nocturnal spectacle.
Today’s park restoration is part of, but distinct from, an expansion of public space between it and Westfield’s Horton Plaza retail center. Instead of a blocky Robinson’s-May department store, which had once hemmed in the park and crowded historic buildings around it, visitors will soon enjoy programmed open space, including an amphitheater and food and ticket pavilions, along with reclaimed urban vistas.
Although the city has grown up around Horton Plaza Park, the overbearing store’s demolition enhances the plaza’s visibility and access.
“One of the nicest things is that four historic buildings surround the park on all sides,” said Bruce Coons, SOHO’s executive director, who advised Westfield to ensure an accurate restoration.
For the first time in decades, for example, the fountain’s bronze-and-prismatic-glass dome will be in sight of the restored, historic Balboa Theatre’s tiled dome on Fourth Avenue. Cleaned, stabilized and completely restored, the fountain’s white marble and bronze eagle and domes will gleam by day, and its new, energy-efficient LED lights will dazzle by night. Light posts topped with globes (added around 1916-18) and long-missing urns are being replicated for the park, while monuments to be reinstalled include a 1985 plaque commending SOHO’s preservation action on the park’s 75th anniversary and rededication.
“The key to this project is open space, civic space, so the park becomes a socially significant part of San Diego again,” said Curtis Drake, of Heritage Architecture & Planning.
Drake described the combination of the historic park alongside the paved expansion, where Westfield plans to host 200 events each year, as “a whole different approach.”
A new era has arrived and preservationists helped us keep sight of the value of a beloved public place.
“The reason SOHO saved Horton Plaza Park and its fountain is for this day,” Coons said. “So it would be honored and cherished, restored and used.”