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Yes, the California Tower Is Giving You a Dirty Look

As it turns 101 years old this summer, the California Tower, one of the most landmark buildings in all of San Diego, is looking a little less than postcard-perfect.

Today, we debut a new VOSD feature called What’s the Deal? These stories will tackle the head-scratching mysteries of life in San Diego. Some of the issues we explore will be big, and some will be small. But all the answers will provide insight into the city and county we call home.

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As it turns 101 years old this summer, one of the most landmark buildings in all of San Diego is looking a bit less than postcard-perfect.

Long vertical dark streaks mar the sides of Balboa Park’s stunning California Tower, which starred in “Citizen Kane” and is now open for tours as the park celebrates its centennial.

What's the Deal LogoThe stains aren’t too distracting. But they’re obvious to the hordes of tourists armed with cameras aimed at the tower and the adjoining California Building — topped by that remarkable blue-and-gold dome — near the west entrance of the park.

What’s the deal with the stains? It turns out they’re a products of an old building’s poor drainage, the scuzzy air we live in and the expense required to give the tower a bath.

The California Tower, built in 1914, didn’t always look like this, of course. When Balboa Park buildings appear in “Citizen Kane” as part of “Xanadu,” a millionaire-wonderland takeoff on Hearst Castle, the tower looks clean. But we have a lot more cars on the road and airplanes in the sky spitting out smog than we did when the movie was made in 1941, and the dirt has found its way to the tower.

The stains on the tower are primarily caused by mildew, “a result of age and exposure to the elements,” said Tim Graham, a spokesman for the city, which owns and maintains the building. “Dirt and airplane soot are also contributing to the staining, which is fairly common on older buildings both in the United States and other countries.”

The stains were cleaned via power washing several years ago when ornamentation on the tower was repaired, Graham said, but much of the staining has returned to the unpainted cement plaster exterior.

Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego

Photo courtesy of the city of San Diego

“The stains appear where the stucco gets wet due to rainwater. The tower was not designed with internal drains, and water collecting on the balconies and other surfaces of the tower drains over the exterior. Adding interior drainage would reduce some staining, but wouldn’t eliminate it entirely.”

There are no plans to clean the tower.

“For some fans of architecture,” Graham said, “the staining is often considered charming as it indicative of a building’s age or the materials of which it is constructed.”

I contacted several architects who specialize in maintaining old buildings, and none found the stains to be charming. While it’s true that preservationists appreciate what he called the “patina of age,” historic architect John Fidler of Marina Del Rey doesn’t believe this is one of those cases. “Does the soiling here look attractive? I don’t think so.”

But architect Peyton Hall, managing principal of the Historic Resources Group firm in Los Angeles, wasn’t dismayed. “My first impression was that it’s not that bad, aesthetically speaking,” he said.

The architects pointed out the big challenges of cleaning a building like the California Tower. It’s not as easy as spraying it from a giant bottle of SoftScrub, and it could cost a bundle to do it right.

John Lesak, a historic architect and principal with the Page & Turnbull architect firm in Los Angeles, said the logistics of cleaning — gaining access to the sides of the building, controlling runoff and so on — are expensive.

In addition, testing may be required to figure out the best way to clean the stains. “There’s a lot of investigation that goes into why something is stained and what you should do about it,” Hall said.

Lesak said stains on old buildings have a variety of causes, such as dirty water, salt buildup and chemicals that leech out of building materials like cement.

Overall, Lesak estimated that a cleaning project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Fidler, the Marina Del Rey architect, said cleaning could be a simple process using a “bio-wash” and clean water at low pressure.

Other landmark buildings in Balboa Park suffer from similar drainage stains, so the California Tower may have competition if there’s ever money available for a makeover. For now, as San Diego debates how to keep Balboa Park beautiful, the tower serves as a 198-foot reminder that preserving the past comes with costs in the present.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego and national president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

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