San Diego's "Crown Jewel" has just taken on a brighter shine as Balboa Park's iconic California Tower welcomed visitors Thursday after being closed for 80 years.
The tower's reopening on New Year's Day celebrated the centennial of Balboa Park's 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which brought San Diego worldwide recognition.
The building was a showpiece then but was shuttered in 1935 during the depths of the Depression, and there hasn’t been the money or civic motivation to reverse that until now.
"Over the intervening years at various points, someone would raise a hand every now and again and say, 'Couldn't we open it?' And somebody else would say, 'Well I just don't think that would be possible. Too difficult, too expensive,'” explained Hope Carlson, chief development officer for the San Diego Museum of Man.
"But with the centennial approaching,” Carlson continued, “our CEO Micah Parzen decided, ‘You know what? Now's the time. We really should do this’ … it's really an all-hands coming together to make this happen — including San Diegans too, who have donated generously to be able to pull this off."
It took $3 million in philanthropy, three years of planning and a whirlwind three months of structural upgrades to ready the tower for accepting visitors.
"It's one of only a few structures (in the park) that were designed to be permanent,” Carlson noted in an interview Thursday. “And it was always a museum — originally named the San Diego Museum, now the Museum of Man — and what we love about this building is that it has symbolized Balboa Park and San Diego to so many people over the last 100 years. And we're really thrilled to be able to bring people inside for that climb once again."
Carlson guided NBC 7’s crew up 125 stairs to the newly opened observation deck, more than 100 feet above El Prado, to find a breathtaking array of vistas that sweep for miles at all points of the compass.
Message to naysayers and skeptics about the city's ability to get meaningful things done?
"This is an example of something where San Diego came together and built real greatness,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Peters (D-52nd), addressing a gathering of dozens of locals and tourists during noon-hour ribbon-cutting formalities that included window-dressing such as an early 20th-century roadster and some back-in-the-day bikes on hand.
“We are a great city; we've been a great city,” Peters added. “And if we think like this, we'll continue to be a great city."
Out-of-towners marveled as they took in the scene and the born-again tourist attraction.
"We feel like we need to dress up for the occasion, right?" said Albuquerque resident Patty Braden, turning to her companion Tom Grasser.
"I know, exactly,” Grasser replied. “It's amazing. Amazing history here. Beautiful."
While the tower tours are sold out through Sunday, other visitors vowed to return to San Diego someday to make the climb.
"We'll come back,” said Baton Rouge, Louisiana resident Beth Courtney. “My brother is president of the Spreckels Organ Society; he put on the show last night. He was the chair of it, so we had to come out here for that."
As for tackling the tower at some future date: “Absolutely, we're looking forward to it,” Courtney enthused. “We're also happy to see it during the day — as we were here last night."
Thursday’s first tower visitors, after media crews and dignitaries, had to wait until late afternoon to reach the observation deck.
The tours are guided in groups of twelve at 40-minute intervals.
The adult price is $22.50, which includes admission to the Museum of Man.
Not only is the California Tower in the National Register of Historic Places, according to online research, it's San Diego's most-mentioned building in American architectural studies and the city's most photographed landmark.
The original construction cost for state taxpayers: a quarter-million dollars.