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.
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.”
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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.