Del Mar resident’s company restores Don Diego statue at Del Mar Fairgrounds

By Kristina Houck

The San Diego County Fair attracts more than 1.4 million fairgoers each year. With this year’s “Fab Fair” well underway, returnees have most likely noticed the fair’s mascot has received a much-needed makeover.

The 16-foot bronze Don Diego statue, which stands at the fair’s main entrance, was restored prior to the start of the fair. Carlsbad-based Restoration ArTechs was hired to do the job.

“I’ve seen Don Diego degrade and not be appreciated,” said Restoration ArTechs owner Barry Feinman, who has lived in Del Mar for more than a year. “Being that I live in Del Mar, they felt I had a vested interest in wanting to take care of him and that we would be the right company.”

With the fair season kicking off June 7, Feinman and his team began the three-day restoration process May 25. First, Feinman and his employees cleaned the statue. Then, they removed the patina, a thin and usually green layer that forms naturally on bronze when it’s exposed to air for a long time. They also removed discolorations.

“Bronze actually has natural gold highlights in the metal,” Feinman explained. “But this happened to have been painted. A lot of the faux look that he had was painting.”

The Restoration ArTechs team stripped the paint and buffed the statue to bring out its highlights, then added a clear, protective coat, which has a 10-year warranty. The coat will preserve the appearance of the statue’s tones and protect it against the salt air, Feinman said. Finally, the team added a wax coating to the statue.

“This is the work that we take pride in — restoring sculptures, keeping the area beautiful, and making places presentable and welcoming,” said Feinman, who wouldn’t disclose the exact project coast, but noted it was several thousand dollars.

Feinman has been in the restoration business for 18 years. He started his business out of his garage, and now his company has a portfolio that includes work on the Golden Gate Bridge. From private art collections to national monuments, Feinman has restored metal, stone, tile and glass surfaces across the country. But his latest project is one that’s truly special.

“I’m a local,” he said. “I attend the fair every year.”

The Don Diego statue was unveiled nearly 30 years ago, the night before the 1985 fair. The monument was created in honor of Don Diego, the official greeter and host of the fair for decades, a caballero portrayed by Spanish actor Tom Hernandez from 1947 until his death in 1984.

The character was based on the real-life Don Diego, Don Diego Alvarado, whose family had a large land grant in Del Mar during the late 1800s. Don Diego was known for his grand parties, and was regarded as the local symbol of a gracious host.

Don Diego lives on today as the fair’s symbolic host and through the Don Diego Scholarship Foundation, which provides financial support for San Diego County college-bound students.

“I’m always amazed because it’s like a diamond in the rough,” said Feinman, of the restored statue. “When we take off the damages, we start to see the underlying beauty and what the artist intended. It starts to come alive. That’s what we seek out.”