Members of the 22nd District Agricultural Association board of directors and Del Mar Fairgrounds staff unveil the restored Don Diego clock tower at its new location just outside the front gate of the state-owned facility during a March 14 ceremony. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek
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Don Diego clock tower relocated on fairgrounds

DEL MAR — It was the best of times for the Don Diego clock tower when officials at the Del Mar Fairgrounds revealed its new home just outside the front gate of the state-owned facility and not far from a statute of its namesake.

“What a fitting location it is,” fairgrounds General Manager Tim Fennell said at the March 14 unveiling ceremony.

Everyone driving by on Jimmy Durante Boulevard, coming to the fair or using the main entrance will see the clock tower, he added. Families will be able to take their picture or meet in front of it.

“And the fairgrounds will continue its commitment to the spirit of Don Diego by hosting a grand party known as the San Diego County Fair,” Fennell said.

“This is front and center on the property,” added Russ Penniman, president of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which governs the facility. “We charged the staff with finding a place for it and they did an excellent job.

“We also had discussions about taking the tiles off and placing them somewhere on the fairgrounds,” Penniman said. “But this was the best way to preserve the spirit of Don Diego because everyone can see it. And it’s the first time the clock has functioned in a lot of years.”

Don Diego Alvarado, whose family had a large land grant in the Del Mar area in late 1800s, was known for his grand parties and was regarded as the local symbol of a gracious host, Fennell said.

In 1947 he was declared the official greeter and host of the Del Mar Fair, as it was known at the time. From that time until his death in 1984, actor Tommy Hernandez portrayed Diego and “played his part to a tee, promoting the fair as its goodwill ambassador,” Fennell said.

The 27-foot clock tower debuted at the 1954 fair. It was centrally located along the main fairgrounds avenue west of O’Brien Hall, north of Bing Crosby Hall and south of the Plaza de Mexico.

For decades it served as a meeting place for fairgoers, especially when they became separated from family or friends.

“Unfortunately, Father Time catches up to all of us and the Don Diego clock tower is no exception,” Fennell said. “Its support base was no longer functional and it was becoming potentially unsafe.”

This past December fair board members agreed to demolish the base, a move planned years ago as part of a master improvement plan.

The structure was built in 1953 using a futuristic design known as Googie architecture, which originated in Southern California about a decade earlier.

Influenced by the Space Age, the design was used in the Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport, the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington, and coffee shops, car washes and motels nationwide.

While the tower represents a “fairly intact example” of Googie architecture, it doesn’t qualify as a listing for the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historic Resources, nor does it represent the work of a master or possess artistic value, according to fairgrounds records.

Its central location was considered prime real estate for potential vendors, who committed to about $300,000 in rent annually for the site just during the fair.

“Thanks to the commitment of our board of directors … and the staff of the 22nd DAA, preserving the clock tower became a priority,” Fennell said.

Staff members recommended 52 possible sites, including the infield and arena area.

“This location just fit so much better than the others,” Penniman said.

It cost about $185,000 to demolish the deteriorating base and $29,000 to restore and relocate the tiles and clock, said Gary Reist, fairgrounds deputy general manager. The original beams inside the tower were restored and reused.

“Staff cleaned the tiles and did some faux painting,” Reist said. “It was a labor of love. Nobody wanted to see it destroyed.”