Del Mar Fair board approves demolition of Don Diego clock tower

The Don Diego clock tower, an icon that has stood tall over the central midway of the Del Mar Fairgrounds for 63 years, where it served as a meeting place for generations of families during the annual county fair, is facing a date with the wrecking ball.

Directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the state-owned fairgrounds, voted unanimously to tear down the venerable structure before next year’s county fair starts in June.

The fairgrounds will use the central space now occupied by the clock tower for vendors that will generate some $300,000 annually for the 22nd DAA during just the 26-day run of the San Diego County Fair, according to a report by fairgrounds staff.

In an interview before Tuesday’s meeting, fairgrounds CEO and general manager Tim Fennell said the clock tower, which was built in 1953, is in bad shape, suffering from such problems as termite infestation, a leaky roof, non-functioning bathrooms and an electronic signboard that no longer works.

“The termites are holding hands. If one lets go it’s going to come down,” Fennell said.

Refurbishing the structure would cost too much, Fennell said.

“It would be too expensive to fix and the property is too valuable,” he said.

Fennell acknowledged that the tower may have sentimental value to some fair-goers.

“I’m sure there are some people who would prefer to see it there forever, I get that,” said Fennell. “Unfortunately it’s useful life has come and gone.”

An environmental impact report completed in 2009 when the fairgrounds was preparing a master plan for future development concluded that no structure on the fairgrounds property, including the clock tower, is considered historically significant.

However, Fennell said the fairgrounds does plan to remove the tile mosaics painted with the likeness of former fair ambassador Don Diego, which gave the tower its name, from the structure and install them somewhere else on the property.

For 37 years, actor Tom Hernandez portrayed the genial, courtly fair ambassador Don Diego, from 1947 until his death in 1984. The tile mosaics of Don Diego adorn all three sides of the triangular tower, along with clocks that are now missing their hands.

Although the clock tower is not considered historically significant, it is an example of the “Googie” style of architecture that was popular throughout the Southwest in the 1950s and 1960s, according to the fairground’s environmental impact report.

The website Arch Daily described the architectural style as “a meshing of car culture and the Space Age,” characterized by sweeping arches and hard angles, cantilevered roofs and bold colors, and the starburst. 

The style was named after a coffee shop, called Googies, that was located on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. One famous example of the architectural style is the iconic Las Vegas sign at the entrance to the gambling Mecca.

But these days, the fairgrounds clock tower’s bathrooms are shuttered and its jaunty roofline looks as it could use a coat of paint.

“It’s pretty tired,” said fair board president Russ Penniman.

Board member Fred Schenk said, “We need to give families another place to meet up. If (the clock tower) has one redeeming value, that’s it.”

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