Horton Plaza Fountain: Century old technology continues to delight

A historic landmark and focal point for San Diego’s bustling downtown over a century ago, has been restored to its former splendor.

The lights and water features that make the Horton Plaza Fountain (also known as Broadway Fountain) unique are working again. The fountain was restored as part of a $17 million renovation and expansion of Horton Plaza Park which opened to the public on May 4, 2016.

“It is a beautiful fountain,” said David Marshall, a local historic preservation architect and president of Heritage Architect & Planning. He, along with colleague Curtis Drake, were part of a multidisciplinary team that completed the fountain’s restoration. “The columns are solid white marble, the base is granite and the decorative pieces are cast in bronze.”

1915 Horton Plaza Fountain The fountain had been fenced off from the public since 2008, because of safety concerns. In 2006, the Commission for Arts and Culture contracted with Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC, to perform an initial condition survey funded by the Getty. In 2009, the Commission collaborated with Centre City Development Corp in hiring Griswold Conservation to conduct a more thorough condition assessment of the fountain in order to develop a conservation treatment plan. That plan was the foundation for the restoration work that was just completed. In 2012, Spectra Company was tasked with restoring it.

“We took the bronze domes off, took them back to our shop and stripped them down, stripped all of the buildup, all of the corrosion that was on them and stripped them back down to bare bronze and then applied a patina so it looks more natural, “ said Troy Parry, project manager with Spectra Company.

“The hardest part was taking a piece of glass and finding someone who could create a necessary curve in it,” Parry said.

The fountain is considered the first work in the City of San Diego’s Civic Art Collection. It was designed by world-renowned local architect Irving Gill. Modeled after the 4th century B. C. Choragic Monument in Athens, it was completed and dedicated in October 1910, the same day the U. S. Grant Hotel opened across the street. Louis J. Wilde, banker, developer and part owner of the Grant donated $10,000 for the fountain’s construction.

Believed to be one of the first electric powered fountains in the country to use lights submerged in water, many people feared accidental electrocution.

“This was a really big deal. It was avant garde, high-tech stuff,” said John Griswold, architectural materials conservator with Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC. “This was back when people were still getting used to electric lights in their homes. People knew you didn’t want to get your electrical stuff wet because horrible things could happen.”

In this case it didn’t. The fountain, which boasted a light show with 15 special effects alternating every 30 seconds, worked without a hitch. The lights in the restored fountain are color-changing, energy-efficient LEDs.

Griswold, who by training is a museum object and sculpture conservator, was brought in to assist in making sure the fountain’s restoration utilized methods that didn’t damage the original materials.

“There was a lot of sleuth work done. It can be very difficult if the physical evidence isn’t there to be found. Luckily, we had a lot of material here,” Griswold said.

Restoring the fountain was no small feat and meant taking painstaking care to get everything right.

Horton Plaza Fountain Restoration Work
Courtesy Spectra Company

“Sometimes when restoring a building or an object, you have to take it apart,” said Marshall. “And there’s always concern when you reassemble it to get everything right.”

Parry said it took Spectra staff a couple of months on-site at Westfield’s Horton Plaza and several more months in Spectra’s warehouse to complete the work.

“To be involved with something like this and the significance it has to this area is amazing,” he said. “I’m super proud of this one.”

With proper maintenance, Griswold believes the fountain will continue to be something San Diego can be proud of for decades to come.

“I’m very pleased with the balance between preserving the historical integrity and making way for the City to have an operating and maintainable fountain,” said Griswold. “The very clever solutions to keep the visual effects as historically accurate as possible were really well done.”

You can learn more about the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture’s public art programs here.