The breezy morning of July 4, a small gathering of La Jollans celebrated the restoration of the Park Row (aka Union Circle Park) flagpole. While not a “cure for cancer,” as one attendee put it, the project involved several entities coming together and overcoming challenges along the way.
And more work went into the project than anyone could have realized at the onset.
Emceed by La Jolla resident Ray Weiss, the small ceremony involved speakers from the parties involved.
Weiss gave La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten credit for “getting this project started” because she noticed the bottom of the flagpole was deteriorating. She said the park was developed by Walter S. Lieber in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the flagpole was erected in his honor in 1945 (more on Lieber later). But since it went up, the flagpole’s base had fallen into a state of disrepair — termite and water damage, paint chipping, etc. — so she got the ball rolling to have it refurbished.
Olten reached out to La Jolla Parks & Beaches chair Ann Dynes, who was credited with playing a “key role” in getting the City to approve the project.
“I got an e-mail from Carol four or five months ago, asking about what we could do about this flagpole,” Dynes explained. “So I inquired to the City about whether they could repair it, and got a response indicating it would cost $16,000 …”
One attendee quietly exclaimed, “ouch!”
“… So I thought, ‘We could do better than that!’ ” Dynes continued. “This became a wonderful example of bringing the pieces together and the expertise of the community, with the La Jolla Parks & Beaches committee and its relationship with the City Department of Park & Rec. It’s not a cure for cancer, but it’s very joyful and neat to see our little community pull together for stuff like this.”
Dynes reached out to local builder Tom Grunow to see if he could donate services, and find others willing to do the same. A number of sleepless nights and hundreds of e-mails later, Grunow explained he was able to find some volunteer contractors to keep costs down. But, in getting the flag down, he faced more challenges than anyone.
“We thought about using a crane, but I didn’t know when we started to lower it whether it would have a weak spot or a knot or if it cracks,” he explained. “I woke up in the middle of the night wondering what would happen if it cracked. So I got a couple of my guys together and we braced the flagpole and cradled it down slowly, and it was really pretty tricky getting it down. As we got it down, we saw one post was completely rotten and there was an air gap, so all that leverage was being held (by us).”
Once lowered, John Peek of Peek Painters gave it six coats of paint in a neighbor’s driveway.
Next, Grunow said he woke up a few more nights thinking about the bolts and the concrete. “I knew we were going to drill it out and vacuum it out so we could dig the new supports three feet into the ground. I had to have a lot of faith,” he said to laughs.
To cover remaining costs — $1,800 total — residents circled back to the La Jolla Historical Society for funding.
Weiss explained his mother, Irma “Pludi” Waser had bequeathed some money to the Historical Society upon her death in 2018. “She used to live in a house on Park Row until she died last year at age 94,” he said. “So when we heard about this project, I asked if the Historical Society could use some of the donation to replace the flagpole and executive director Heath Fox said ‘yes.’ Not only did my mother live here, during her last days, she would make a round with her caregiver around the park. She would be embarrassed if she were here, hearing me say these things, but I think she played a real role.”
As such, and in light of the renovation, plans for a new plaque were launched.
Grunow noted: “We had to consider whether the City would even approve the new plaque,” and Dynes said some suggested secretly placing the plaque, which she squashed. But the City did give it the OK, and a new plaque recognizes the flagpole was “restored in 2019 by the La Jolla <FZ,1,0,16>Historical Society with the support of Irma ‘Pludi’ Waser (1924-2018) and others.”
At the same time, after years of tarnishing, the plaque recognizing Lieber for his role was to be refurbished.
Olten explained: “I think it’s important that we honor Mr. Lieber … The history of this party is really quite old and significant to the overall history of La Jolla. This park was park of the original La Jolla park sub-division of 1887. The people developing La Jolla at that time, designated two parks along with all The Village neighborhoods. One was here and the other was Scripps Park down by the Cove. As residents, we are all proud that our little park didn’t become as famous as Scripps Park.
“Lieber came from a family of wealth and didn’t come out here to get rich. He wanted to be a humanitarian and improve the small community he found here. One of the first things he did was start improving the community of La Jolla. He cleaned up the parks … the flagpole was erected in his honor.”
La Jollan Chris Cott carefully cleaned the Lieber plaque to its original — and legible — state. The refurbished plaque was placed in its original location, with the new plaque on the other side of the flagpole.
Grunow concluded: “I get a lot of satisfaction out of giving back to the community. This is a neighborhood I never really appreciated. I’d driven past it a hundred times, but never knew the history. You gain a lot of appreciation for your town when you volunteer.”
Raising a glass of orange juice (with maybe a splash of Champagne), the event concluded with mingling and merriment.