The Agua Caliente sign, on the west wall, together with the theater building have been on SOHO's Most Endangered List since 2012, the theater longer than that. "The Caliente sign is San Diego's largest and most visible extant example of a traditional sign painter's technique that is no longer being practiced," said SOHO's Erik Hanson.
This is not the first time the horse racing mural has been threatened. In 2011, the HRB staff bypassed the 45-year criterion and issued a permit for the mural to be painted over with a beer ad. SOHO led the public outcry and launched a petition that more than 1,000 people signed to get the city to retract the permit, which it promptly did. (The beer company scampered away faster than you can say HRB.) During that controversy, Todd Gloria, a councilman then and now, argued for preserving the mural as a historic artifact of regional significance.
"The Caliente sign has been a landmark in downtown for decades. When there was a proposal to cover it up with a more modern billboard, the outpouring of community opposition was very loud and very strong," Gloria told NBC San Diego. "I think a lot of people have an emotional attachment to it."
A second mural on the south wall advertises dog racing at Agua Caliente, a diversion offered beginning in 1928, one year before horseracing.Agua Caliente's legacy in general is forever tied to San Diego history. The legendary racetrack was built by a trio known as the "Border Barons." They were Baron Long (partial owner of downtown's U.S. Grant), sports promoter James Coffroth (who was instrumental in bringing the Star of India to San Diego Harbor in 1926), and Wirt G. Bowman (who at one time was the landowner of Rancho Peñasquitos). Later, the racetrack would become the brainchild of illustrious San Diegan John S. Alessio of "Mr. A's" restaurant fame. His promotional efforts evidently prompted the two murals, painted sometime during the 1950s or '60s. A third sign on the north wall advertises the Barbary Coast Tavern, which was housed in the theater building. It reads: "Barbary Coast, San Diego's In Spot, corner of 4th and C." Its mural is more recent than those for Agua Caliente; it was open from 1968 to 1976.
To torpedo the historic signs' significance, the building's owner - Sloan Capital Partners, LLC of Beverly Hills - hired a Goliath to write the report that City staff is buying into. AECOM is the world's largest architecture and engineering firm for six consecutive years, according to "Engineering News Record" magazine. Historic preservation is a tiny fraction of AECOM's work around the globe, but its website says, "We are adept at...managing historic preservation processes and moving the project forward, regardless of the challenges." This is code for "Make sure the client gets what he wants," regardless of history and the facts.