Standing for Something: Flagpole repair unites La Jolla civic groups

The flagpole in Union Circle Park.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

In what has been described as a “little” but “heartwarming” project, the flagpole at Union Circle Park (at the center of Park Row) is being refurbished, as part of a community project bringing together Park Row residents, the La Jolla Historical Society, La Jolla Parks & Beaches committee (LJP&B) and local contractors.

Installed in the 1940s, the flagpole’s base has termite and water damage from the City’s sprinkler system; its paint is peeling; the memorial plaque affixed to the base is worn out and damaged; and at the top, the California flag waves in the breeze (rather than the American flag, so the pole does not have to be illuminated at night, at the request of residents).

La Jolla Historical Society historian Carol Olten got the ball rolling on the project by calling the City to ask that the appropriate department make the necessary repairs. “It needs some care,” she said. “I’m a little surprised it didn’t fall over during the recent storms and high winds.”

The damaged base of the flagpole in Union Circle Park. Ashley Mackin-Solomon

But one small problem emerged: the $16,000 pricetag.

Seeking an alternative, Olten looked into carrying out the project privately. She reached out to La Jolla Parks & Beaches advisory board and then took a look at available La Jolla Historical Society funds.

As fate would have it, the Historical Society had recently been bequeathed some money from Park Row resident, Plüdi Waser, who passed away Feb. 2, 2018 at the age of 94.

Upon hearing about the flagpole repair project, her son, another La Jolla resident (who wishes to remain anonymous), asked that “a small part” of the funds be used to pay for the “badly needed” refurbishing.

“Plüdi was a long-time La Jolla Historical Society volunteer who cared deeply about the heritage of this community,” he said of his late mother. “This park and its flagpole with its California flag are certainly important parts of that heritage. In addition, Plüdi lived the last years of her long life … adjacent to this park. I know she would have loved to have helped.”

To find a City-approved vendor to carry out the work, Olten approached former La Jolla Historical Society president and local contractor Tom Grunow, who said the project was “right up my alley.”

Grunow said he reached out to his contacts and found people willing to volunteer (or offer at a reduced cost) their equipment and services to lower the flagpole, clean it up, repair it as needed, repaint it and put it back up again.

“Rather than the City’s $16,000, we are at about $1,750 and we are going to preserve a piece of our heritage,” Grunow said at the Jan. 28 LJP&B meeting, to applause.

“It’s a little thing, but it’s heartwarming,” added LJP&B chair Ann Dynes. On Dec. 18, she said, she proactively reached out to the City Park & Recreation Department to apply for the right-of-entry permit associated with the work.

Notes from a December e-mail chain between Park & Recreation area manager Rosalia Castruita and those involved read: “Once all the documents are submitted, we could request the right-of-entry permit to our department.”

A LJP&B motion at the Jan. 28 meeting passed unanimously to authorize Grunow Construction to engage in the repair and ratify the request to the City for the right of entry permit.

Grunow later told the La Jolla Light the whole process would take two weeks, and he would begin shortly after the City processes the right-of-entry permit, noting it takes about 90 days.

“This project is meaningful to me because I love La Jolla and get great satisfaction from volunteering and making a difference, La Jolla has been good to me and my company (and I see this) as a way for me to give back, my father was a World War I bomber pilot and I was brought up to respect the flag and be a patriot, and I enjoy historical projects.”

The project is also special for Olten, who authored an article about the site for the Historical Society’s Timekeeper publication: “When the original La Jolla Park subdivision was laid out in 1887, it provided for two public parks in La Jolla. One, Scripps Park, became a popular, highly-used landmark at La Jolla Cove. The other, Union Circle Park, entered into the ranks of obscurity. Today, most often referred to simply as ‘Circle’ Park, it remains a small green oasis with large pine trees enjoyed mainly by the residents who live around it — including me,” she wrote.

The flagpole, Olten told the Light, was put up in the 1940s and dedicated to Walter Lieber, who came to La Jolla in 1904 from Philadelphia, fairly wealthy, and was a friend of Ellen Browning Scripps.

The tarnished plaque for Walter Lieber Ashley Mackin-Solomon

“He loved to plant trees, and he planted the palms at The Cove,” Olten said. “When he died in 1945, friends and family put up the flagpole and it has a little bronze plaque on it dedicated to Walter Lieber in honor of (his efforts).”

According to Historical Society literature, Lieber came to La Jolla in 1904 after attempting to gain mining work in Mexico. But facing health problems, he left by train to head back to the East Coast. His train had a short stop in La Jolla, where he intended to only stop for a few hours, but stayed for the rest of his life.

The flagpole was deemed an appropriate memorial because of the “citizenry in the 1940s,” Olten said. “His widow rented a house near the circle. She probably went up there all the time, and probably suggested something in the park.

“Hopefully, when the flagpole gets restored, they will be able to take the plaque down, get it cleaned up nice and shiny, and put it back.”