The San Diego Aerospace Museum, now known as the San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM), opened its doors to the public on Feb. 15, 1963 in Balboa Park’s Food and Beverage Building, constructed in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition. The first president was Preston M. (Sandy) Fleet, founder of the photo development chain Fotomat and son of Convair founder Reuben H. Fleet. The first board chair was Ret. U.S Navy Captain Norvel R. Richardson. Richardson was in charge of the Navy’s aircraft nuclear propulsion program in the 1950s and served on many community boards, including the Balboa Park Committee. During the first year, more than 285,000 visitors learned about airplanes, missiles, space vehicles and San Diego’s early and continuing contribution to aerospace.
In February 1979 the City commissioned Thomas Parker Emery, a San Diego Master Teacher of Art, muralist, designer and sculptor, to restore the March of Transportation mural. Eight months of planning, cleaning, patching and painting were required in the restoration. Three key assistants, Gwen Pendergast, Michael Dunham, and Angela Tang, along with many trades’ people, helped Emery in this arduous task.
The restoration and reuse of the building as an exhibit space gave new life to both the Ford Building and the San Diego Air & Space Museum, preserving a notable historic structure and era for the citizens of San Diego. The new San Diego Air & Space Museum opened its doors for limited hours Feb. 22, 1980, the second anniversary of the fire. With only 25 airplanes in the huge building, the Air & Space Museum was back in business. Full-time hours began a few months later on June 28 of that year.The murals of carriages and automobiles painted in the Rotunda by Blackburn, Blane, and Reveles were covered by canvas panels. The total cost of restoration was $3,088,600.
After 75 years, the Ford Building in San Diego’s Balboa Park still stands in all its glory. As the present home of the San Diego Air & Space Museum, more than hundreds of thousands tour the building annually; most of whom are probably unaware of its past and its unique significance. To this day, remnants of the Ford Motor Company can be seen, as in the geometric design of the V-8 fountain and the valve-shaped light fixtures in the courtyard. There are also Ford automobiles and one Ford aircraft displayed on the Museum’s exhibit floor.
Since opening in 1980, the Museum’s collection has grown from 25 aircraft to over 80. The Museum’s exhibits are displayed in chronological order from the dawn of flight to the space age. Along the inner wall, the March of Transportation mural accentuates this temporal arrangement.Through the years, the building has gone through many minor renovations since its major facelift in 1977. Milford Wayne Donaldson, well known for his work with historic structures, has been the primary architect for the Museum’s construction projects, one of which includes the unique framework for the cover of the open-aired courtyard and the renovation of the Rotunda.
In 2000, the opaque canopy, with its circular skylight, was added over the courtyard to protect the Museum’s aircraft and Ford vehicles exhibited there. The skylight forms a large circle of the eight in the Ford V-8 logo fountain. The “V” and the small circles of the eight are shown in black paint on the roof, ensuring that the historic Ford logo can be seen when flying over the building – as it has been seen since 1935. The now enclosed courtyard provides an excellent venue for Museum hosted and private special events.
Renovation of the rotunda was completed in 2004 with design work by Donaldson. A glass facade was added to the Museum store facing the Rotunda and four tall monoliths were removed from the opposite wall to make room for a new admissions and information counter. Both areas were framed in aircraft-style brushed aluminum with art deco appointments.This year the Museum opened its Alaska Airlines Flight Path Café located on the back exterior deck. Umbrella-covered tables once again occupy this space overlooking the former Roads of the Pacific and downtown San Diego.
Today only a small section of the Roads of the Pacific remains. Lying unused since the 1936 Fair, the roads have deteriorated to a point of being almost unrecognizable. Through years of neglect, only a portion of the old circuit can be seen on the northerly end. Of the 4 “Ford Road” built by the Company from 1934 to 1939, our 600 foot long section is the only one remaining. The section is the end piece of the Benquet Road of the Philippines, all of the Inca Highway of Peru, and the Gold Road of Panama, and a short stretch of the Cariboo highway of Canada.
The San Diego Ford Building remains an enduring and beloved example of the Streamline Modern architectural style of the 1930s. Of the five exposition buildings built specifically for the Ford Motor Company, the San Diego site is the last remaining and perhaps the only important exposition building of that style in the nation.