The horse and jockey on the 40-foot-by-80-foot faded yellow mural beckon you to the Tijuana of days gone by, when festive weekends were filled with horse racing, gambling and drinking while rubbing elbows with Hollywood stars.
Crossing the border was a different experience in the 1960s, when the mural was painted to advertise the fading Agua Caliente Racetrack, and preservationists worry the signs of those times are numbered.
The Caliente sign in downtown San Diego, along with its two companion murals on the 1927 California Theatre, are some of the last remaining murals from that era in the city.
“There are few historic sites that can take you back to a place in time,” said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which is fighting to protect the murals along with the theater building itself. The Caliente mural is a conversation starter and a lesson in history, he said.
According to SOHO’s website, all three murals have transcended their original purposes to become iconic public artwork representing a nostalgic time of cross-border culture and mutually beneficial economics.
In late June, San Diego’s Historical Resources Board (HRB) is set to review reports from both SOHO and developers who have proposed a 40-story, 282-unit residential tower at the site. An earlier report, commissioned by developers Sloan Capital and Presidio Bay Ventures, was lacking, the board said in late April.
The developers have proposed replicating part of the theater’s façade in their new project, Overture.
But what about other historical murals in San Diego? There aren’t too many. Compared to other cities, America’s Finest City seems to have fewer ghost signs, as these old hand-painted advertisements are called.
Murals are commonly thought of as public art, such as the artwork at Chicano Park or the Whaling Wall that used to be visible in Little Italy. But some, especially the older, faded murals, were the billboards of their day.
“San Diego in general hasn’t recognized the significance of these items in the past,” Coons said. “With our go-go development at all costs, they just haven’t done much to preserve them.”
City staff didn’t think the murals had historical value. In a recent report to the HRB, it said: “Research into the history of the painted wall signs did not reveal any information to indicate that the signs exemplify or reflect special elements of the City’s or downtown’s historical, archaeological, cultural, social, economic, political, aesthetic, engineering, landscaping or architectural development.”
They were painted well after the 1927 construction of the California Theatre Building, which was designated on the local historical register in 1990.
San Diego doesn’t keep a record of historical murals and ghost signs, a spokesman said. Any murals commissioned by the city are catalogued as public art, along with other paintings and sculptures, while signs on privately owned buildings are not tracked.
According to Coons, there’s one sign that has been restored and now has historical designation.
In the Gaslamp Quarter, a mural at the former Maryland Hotel, now the Andaz San Diego, on F Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues, was painted over during rehabilitation of the property in 2007. The HRB later intervened, and the sign was refurbished.
Another ghost sign isn’t seriously threatened at this time, but Coon points out that there are a lot of development activities in its immediate area. The red Ben-Hur coffee can in Little Italy advertises a company that’s long gone. Ben-Hur was bought out in the mid-’50s but previously had operated a sales branch at the intersection of Ivy Street and Kettner Boulevard.
Meanwhile, others haven’t stood the test of time.
A small ghost sign for a blacksmith shop at 13th and J streets was set to be protected in an agreement between a developer and SOHO, Coons said, but the property sold and the new owner isn’t honoring that agreement. The Mexican Presbyterian Church on that property is historically designated and will be restored, Coons said.
A few years ago, most San Diegans lost their unobstructed view of the Whaling Wall on the north side of the U.S. Bank Building in Little Italy, at Kettner Boulevard and Beech Street.
But if you’re a resident of the Ariel Luxury Apartments high-rise building, which was constructed nearby, you can still view Robert Wyland’s whale mural, poolside.