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Saving the Golden Hill Fountain Grotto

Posted: January 15th, 2016 | Columns, Communities, Golden Hill, PastMatters, Top Story | 4 Comments

By Katherine Hon | Past Matters

There’s an old riddle: When is a door not a door? The answer — when it’s ajar. Here is a local variation: When is a fire pit not a fire pit? The answer — when it’s a fountain. If you are thinking that’s not funny, many Golden Hill residents and members of the historic preservation community would agree with you.

Will McCullough gives a thumbs-up to his fellow volunteers with Boy Scout Troop 53. His parents, Catherine and David, are first and second from right, back row. Scoutmaster Hank Levien is center, front row. (Courtesy of Catherine McCullough)

Will McCullough (center) gives a thumbs-up to his fellow volunteers with Boy Scout Troop 53. His parents, Catherine and David, are first and second from right, back row. Scoutmaster Hank Levien is front row, center. (Courtesy of Catherine McCullough)

This story starts 126 years ago in the southeastern corner of Balboa Park, then called City Park. As historian Susan Bugbee wrote in her 1988 article, “Golden Hill Fountain, a Splashing Success” for the Neighborhood Reporter, Golden Hill residents Matt Heller and Leroy Wright were inspired by Kate Sessions planting landscaping along Sixth Street and planted their small part of City Park in 1890. A subsequent seven-year drought spoiled this first attempt to landscape Golden Hill Park. But in the early 1900s, forces gathered to create a beautiful gathering place that would include a unique fountain and attractive plantings.

Architect Henry Lord Gay, who came to San Diego in 1904 and is perhaps best known for designing the Western Metal Supply Company Building that is now a part of Petco Park, worked with Park Commissioner and Golden Hill resident L.A. Wright to propose “a spring at the head of the first canyon upon the west of the entrance of the park.” They determined that it would be “made to resemble the old-fashioned spring, so dear to the hearts of most people, into and out of which the water will flow all the time, running over cascades and shaded by ferns and shrubbery.”

The restored Golden Hill Park fountain awaits water so it will cease being misused as a fire pit. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

The restored Golden Hill Park fountain awaits water so it will cease being misused as a fire pit. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Golden Hill residents contributed $75 toward construction of the fountain, and the park commission provided matching funds. On March 8, 1908, the San Diego Union reported that the Golden Hill section of the park had a new fountain at the west end near the 25th Street entrance. The fountain was made of irregular pieces of rock set in circular form about four feet in diameter. Cobblestone steps led into and out of the secluded spot, which became a place for families to pose for photographs and enjoy nature.

Fast forward 101 years to 2009. The Golden Hill Fountain Grotto, with its fountain that is older than the better-known 1910 Horton Plaza Fountain designed by Irving J. Gill, is on the National Register of Historic Places. But it also is on the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) Endangered List for being neglected and allowed to deteriorate. SOHO’s summary notes that “the native stone and concrete stairs are decomposing and a safety hazard, and the fountain last worked in perhaps the 1930s.” Without water, the fountain was being misused as a fire pit.

However, the community has rallied to save and restore the grotto fountain with an efficient recirculating water design. That is a whole other story with many dedicated participants, and their work is nearly complete.

Ansen Caires (middle, far left), Balboa Park Nursery supervisor, watches the crew install plants from the nursery, which was started by Kate Sessions more than 100 years ago. (Courtesy of Catherine McCullough)

Ansen Caires (middle, far left), Balboa Park Nursery supervisor, watches the crew install plants from the nursery, which was started by Kate Sessions more than 100 years ago. (Courtesy of Catherine McCullough)

Also coming to the rescue is Boy Scout Troop 53, and in particular, 15-year-old Life Scout Will McCullough. He wanted to achieve Eagle Scout rank (the highest possible rank, which must be attained before a scout’s 18th birthday). One of the requirements is for the scout to perform a project that benefits an organization in a non-monetary way. Will is a big fan of the KPBS show “San Diego’s Historic Places” and he remembered a segment on the Golden Hill Fountain Grotto. He found out what the community was doing to restore the grotto, and asked the Golden Hill Planning Committee how he could help.

His contact, Joe Grant, suggested Will handle the landscaping of the slope above the fountain. This was perfect, because Troop 53 does a lot of planting projects, and Will’s father, David, is a landscape architect. So Will coordinated with the Balboa Park Nursery supervisor and the district manager of Balboa Park to obtain plants and permissions. He enlisted the help of his fellow troop members, and together they planted a succulent garden above the grotto.

The finished grotto grounds (Photo by Katherine Hon)

The finished grotto grounds (Photo by Katherine Hon)

The grotto fountain is now off SOHO’s Endangered List, but preservationists are keeping a watchful eye on its condition. Your eyes would help. All who are participating in the restoration of this iconic piece of San Diego’s history hope that the neighborhood will visit the site, enjoy it as it has been intended for more than 100 years, and remain vigilant to keep it maintained and not misused.

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory.org or 619-294-8990.

4 Comments

  1. Don Lexan says:

    Katherine,
    Can you please provide the grotto fountain’s National Register of Historic Places landmark number and date of listing on the Register? Thanks.

  2. Morgan says:

    Went to check out the progress of this amazing San Diego landmark today and was quite disappointed. The “succulent garden” is nothing more than ice plant and a few other cheap run of the mill varieties planted in row, not the type of garden one would expect from someone trying to wow the community with their outreach on a project (let alone someone whose father supposedly works in landscaping). .

    There is a pile/strip of gray (and out of place looking) “river rock” down the middle of the succulent garden leading directly to the top of the fountain which has plastic road block devices and orange plastic netting perched atop it (presumably to keep people from standing on it which doesn’t seem like it would be an issue if the river rocks didn’t create a path directly to the top of the fountain).

    Broken pieces of rock and stone from the grotto still litter the ground surrounding the area and haven’t been put back in their places, while the ones that have been reattached were done so messily and with cheap cement that does not match the mortar of the grotto whatsoever. It was also rather evident that the fountain has been used as a fire pit very recently as it was filled with half charred debris and kindling for a new fire.

    Overall this “restoration” is a disappoint thus far. Obviously no one viewed old pictures or postcards from the “grotto” in its heyday to reference landscaping. If they had perhaps they would’ve chosen drought resistant bushes, trees, and some plants other than boring (and cheap) succulents to create the hidden “grotto” feel that this place once held.

    It’s always sad when “restoration efforts” are done in a haphazard and lazy looking way. I applaud the boy trying to become an Eagle Scout, but it looks like he’s done the bare minimum on this project, and that the parks department approved this landscaping simply because they weren’t the ones that were going to have to Foot the bill.

    I know these projects take time, but if what’s been done so far is any indication of what will take place during the rest of this restoration us San Diegans are in for a big dissappontment.

  3. H. says:

    Glad to see this happen, but too bad they chose Carpobrotus for some of their ice plant.

  4. Heidi Flynn says:

    Wow. This “Morgan” person should get a real problem to complain about! Thank you to all of those who pitched in for their community and for the Boy Scout who saw a need and decided to do something about it!

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