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Balboa Park's California Tower reopens after 80 years

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Visitors to Balboa Park will now be able to climb California Tower for the first time in 80 years, as the San Diego Museum of Man opens the historic landmark New Year’s Day.

From the museum’s second floor, visitors can go up a staircase that’s been hidden from the public for decades.

During the seven-story climb, glimpses of Balboa Park can be seen through narrow windows, as well as the 100-chime electronic carillon that makes the California Tower’s music, including the chimes that sound every 15 minutes.

Past the museum level, a narrow, spiral metal stairway — with 125 steps — leads outside near the top of the tower, where visitors can walk around and enjoy 360-degree views of the Southern California skyline, about 23 miles of visibility on a clear day.

“I personally love looking at the Alcazar Garden with the boxwood [hedges] because when you get that aerial view, you can see how people planned to lay everything out,” said Hope Carlson, chief development officer for the Museum of Man. “It’s a totally different experience than when you are walking through on the ground.”

To climb the California Tower, you must go to CaliforniaTower.org to purchase a ticket with prices ranging from $10 to $22.50. There are only 12 spots per tour and 10 tours per day. The tour takes about 45 minutes to complete.

Visitors to Balboa Park will now be able to climb California Tower for the first time in 80 years, as the San Diego Museum of Man opens the historic landmark New Year’s Day. Courtesy photo

“They are selling out fast and the first three days are already sold out,” Carlson said.

The Museum of Man has also set up four cameras at the top of the California Tower that look out in each direction with a live feed of the San Diego skyline that is directed back to a 78-inch curved high-definition television on the first floor, so that those who aren’t able to climb the steps can see the view.

The California Tower was built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition as an entry to the event, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. The tower was designed by architect Bertram Goodhue as a hybrid of Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo architecture styles to present a unique Spanish colonial façade.

The 462-foot high California Tower was open for 20 years before it closed right after the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. The California Tower is being opened to commemorate Balboa Park’s centennial.

“We don’t know why it closed, but in the intervening decades everyone at one point or another has said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could open the tower?’” Carlson said.

“With the centennial of the park and the Museum of Man, we have been able to finally bring that to pass. It has been a project requiring all sorts of stakeholders coming together and we are so grateful to the city, the architects, everybody in the different government offices for helping us bring this to pass.”

In October, the Museum of Man started a $3 million fundraising campaign to renovate and improve safety standards on the tower. The fundraising campaign kicked off with a third of its goal already reached after the Legler Benbough Foundation pledged $1 million.

The museum is also offering donors a one-time chance to name one of 76 steps for $5,000 each or one of 20 benches for $25,000 a piece with a 54-character message of their choice.

Some 50 steps and six benches were sold by Dec. 30.

“San Diegans and non-San Diegans have been coming together to say, ‘Yes, I want to be part of history: I want to leave a legacy this way,’” Carlson said.

“We have seen some really wonderful messages: ‘All you need is love,’ ‘We love Balboa Park,’ all sorts of wonderful things people are saying so their grandchildren can actually come climb the tower and see this someday.”

Donations at all levels will continue to be accepted for long-term care of the tower and to invest in the future of the museum.

The Museum of Man is a 100-year-old nonprofit museum that focuses on human connections in the context of what it means to be human. The museum’s current exhibit is on “Beerology” across time and cultures. Included in the exhibit is a beer cup used by King Tut’s father in Egypt 3,500 years ago.

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