Celebrating 150 Years

Part 1: Balboa Park’s beginnings, 1868 -1893

Balboa Park ranks very high on the list of places to visit in California, and rightly so. Who among its visitors does not have a special and personal tale to relate? Those who can return do so again and again. With all that it offers, it is a truly magical place, and in 2018, the dream that began in the 19th century will celebrate its sesquicentennial, better known as its 150th anniversary.

Beautiful, enchanting, informative, recreational, cultural — it was not always so. Imagine 1,400 acres of dirt, rock, chaparral, cactus, a few wild flowers, and coyotes. Not much to brag about. That was the pueblo land the San Diego Board of Trustees voted to set aside for creation of City Park on May 26, 1868. There were only about 2,300 residents in all of San Diego at the time. Certainly, the vote was an act of great vision, though in monetary terms, the pueblo parcels for the original City Park were worth very little. A century and a half later, however, the value of what is now Balboa Park is beyond estimation.

Celebrating 150 Years

Alonzo Horton is known as the “Father of San Diego”

The recommendation for the park was presented to the Trustees by city fathers Ephraim W. Morse and Alonzo Horton. That the recommendation was approved in May 1868 is noteworthy in that only three months before, Morse had presented a more limited proposal consisting of two 160-acre parcels. The 1,400 acres were free, part of the acreage given to San Diego by Mexico when it designated San Diego a pueblo town in 1835.

Morse was a leading advocate for a city park. He was a town trustee and a successful businessman. But, as historian Florence Christman noted, it was Alonzo Horton who “…was the first citizen to ask the Board of Trustees to establish a city park in 1867…” Horton was originally from Northern California, but moved to San Diego with the mission of establishing a strong city. He purchased large swaths of land, acquiring much of what is now downtown San Diego for tiny sums.

He made a great deal of money from his investments, but he also donated land to many charitable causes and organizations, and was an important part of the group that selected the site for the park.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given San Diego’s subsequent history, in 1870, the legislature had to pass an act to ensure the permanency of the park reservation to protect it from attempts to repeal the initial legislation. Over time, encroachments were inevitable, but slowed by Park activists. Of particular note was the construction of Russ School on Park land in 1882. Joseph Russ donated wood to build the school, thus the name. Later, however, the name was changed to San Diego High School, and even now, more than a century later, the wisdom of the original arrangement with the City is still being debated.

Celebrating 150 Years

Through beautification, City Park evolved into Balboa Park

City Park remained in a natural state for more than 20 years until 1889, when an effort was initiated to plant trees. The long dormant period in the life of City Park was ending, but water was a problem and would remain so. With support from a water company, the Ladies Annex planted 700 trees, but the following year, the project faltered due to lack of water. Fortunately, a local business stepped in to provide the needed water, and the trees quickly recovered. It was around this time that other citizens began contributing to the Park as well, but the big news was that admired horticulturalist Kate Sessions became involved. The importance of Kate Sessions to Balboa Park cannot be overstated. She is still referred to as the “Mother of Balboa Park,” and, in 1892, she began planting 100 trees a year in the Park. It was part of a land lease for her own horticultural activities, an arrangement that continued for more than a decade.

Celebrating 150 Years

Park acreage in Golden Hill began to interest community leaders, who were eyeing spaces for a possible playground and rose garden. Golden Hill was a highly desirable section of town, so there was considerable motivation to upgrade the Park. The idea of beautification was taking hold.

Another strong civic leader and successful businessman, George White Marston, played a major role in the Park’s early development. He invested enormous amounts of time, money, and thought into its betterment. He left his print all over San Diego and, as a Park Commissioner, he personally guided the process that would ultimately lead to what we now call Balboa Park, the Jewel of San Diego.   Darlene G. Davies

Celebrating 150 Years

Sculpture of George White Marston in Balboa Park by Ruth Hayward

George White Marston & Plaque: Photography by Paul Marshall All other imagery courtesy of David Marshall



Balboa Park Takes Shape, 1893-1918

This is the second installment of a six-part series on the 150-year evolution of our historic treasure

Balboa Park

Kate Sessions

San Diego Floral Association, 1907

The San Diego Floral Association was, and remains, a major player in Balboa Park. Founded in 1907, the association helped beautify the park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Revered horticulturalist Kate Sessions was a founder of the group, and the organization was a true game changer, transforming San Diego from a town of dirt and sagebrush into one of lovely gardens and groves. The Floral Association remains vibrant in 2018, 111 years after its founding.

The Naming of Balboa Park, 1910

Historian Nancy Carol Carter’s careful research disputes the often repeated story attributing the name of Balboa Park to a contest. There was an unofficial contest, but Carter makes a strong case for crediting the City Park Commission with the naming. It appears the park was formally named Balboa Park by that official body in 1910. There is no question that, with the planning of the upcoming 1915 Exposition, there was strong incentive to select a less generic name than City Park. There were numerous suggestions, including Cabrillo, Junipero Serra, Marston, Del Mar, Panama, Roosevelt, Silver Gate, as well as Balboa, the name ultimately chosen in homage to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, thought to be the first European explorer to see the Pacific Ocean. With a new name settled upon, preparation for the great exposition was full steam ahead.

Exposition Groundbreaking, 1911

The 1911 groundbreaking festivities for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition were a four-day affair, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world. They came in droves to little San Diego, standing on the actual sites of future exposition buildings. Clergy and elected officials were in full view amid music, bounteous flowers, and colorful splendor. There were historical reenactments, an industrial parade, and an additional parade of elaborate floats topped with miniatures of California missions and relevant historical figures.

Balboa Park

Groundbreaking for Panama-California Exposition in 1911

Panama-California Exposition, 1915-16

The Panama-California Exposition was held in celebration of the newly completed Panama Canal, and drew several million visitors over two years. At the time, San Diego had some 50,000 residents, and the exposition was designed to introduce the small but growing city to the world. Numerous Spanish Colonial Revival buildings, mostly temporary, were built to showcase nations, states, performing and visual arts, industry, science, food, and all sorts of entertainment. G. Aubrey Davidson proposed the idea, and Bertram Goodhue was the lead architect. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and former U.S. presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were among the many notables to visit.

The Roar of the Lion and the San Diego Zoo, 1916

Driving away from the Exposition in 1916, Dr. Harry Wegeforth heard a roaring lion and said to his brother, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego?” It was a moment of epiphany from which would grow the world renowned San Diego Zoo, a great place for locals and an international destination as well. Now known as San Diego Zoo Global and 102 years old, this remarkable institution has evolved through the years to become a leading voice promoting animal and plant care and conservation science. Darlene G. Davies

From Fair to War: The Navy Takes Over

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. The U.S. Navy quickly transformed Balboa Park’s vacant exposition grounds into San Diego’s first Naval Training Station. By 1918, the station had 6,000 “bluejackets” who were being instructed in every phase of naval life. After 90 days the sailors were, according to the San Diego Union, ready to join the “finest body of seafighters in the world.” The sailors’ average age was 19 and they were paid $35 a month. The Plaza de Panama was used for a wide variety of Navy activities, from bayonet drills to Saturday night dances. Recruits learned to row and swim in the lagoon in front of the Botanical Building.

While Balboa Park served its military mission well, it was not the permanent solution that the Navy desired. The San Diego Union reported, “one thing…is lacking in the camp, and that is sufficient opportunity for aquatic instruction. There is…a canyon, which may be so dammed that if filled with water, it would make a lake.” Cabrillo Canyon was never transformed into a lake, but in 1923 the U.S. Navy did get a permanent waterfront training facility when the Naval Training Center, now Liberty Station, opened on Point Loma. David Marshall, AIA

Kate Sessions: Photo Courtesy of Mission Hills Nursery All other imagery courtesy of David Marshall, AIA



The Post-Exposition Years, 1918-1943

This is the third in a six-part series on the 150-year evolution of Balboa Park, our local treasure

Years Following the Panama-California Exposition, 1918-1935

Following the conclusion of World War I, the Navy maintained a presence in Balboa Park with its hospital, dedicated in 1922. Since then, a Naval hospital has remained in Balboa Park, though in different locations. Also in 1922, the park became home to the beloved Carousel. Sadly, the civic auditorium burned down in 1925 on the night of the annual Fireman’s Ball. The following year the Fine Arts Gallery was dedicated, serving as the Palace of Fine Arts during the California Pacific International Exposition. It later became and remains the San Diego Museum of Art. Designed in the Plateresque style of the Spanish Renaissance by William Templeton Johnson, it continues to proudly anchor the northern end of Plaza de Panama. Johnson also designed the Natural History Museum, which opened in 1933. The same year saw the dedication of a recreation center, soon named Morley Field in honor of longtime Balboa Park Superintendent John Morley. Times were flush during the 1920s, but turned ominous with the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The park’s 1935-36 exposition was an effort to invigorate the San Diego economy during those difficult times.

Balboa Park

California Pacific International Exposition, 1935-1936

Created to give the local economy a shot in the arm, the fair was inspired by the success of the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. The themes emphasized in San Diego were those of beauty and progress, with a focus on American technology and industry. Visitors to the California Pacific International Exposition encountered simple but bold architectural lines and strong Art Deco representation, along with influences of Mexico and the Southwest. The lead architect, Richard Requa, envisioned inclusion of Pre-Columbian motifs. There was extensive landscaping plus elaborate colored lighting, with scene enhancement by Hollywood set designer Juan Larrinaga. The area south of the Organ Pavilion, known as the Palisades, was graced with new structures, notably the Mayan themed Federal Building and the Standard Oil Tower, plus, among others, the California State Building, the circular Streamline Moderne Ford Building, and the Ford Bowl. The Firestone Singing Colored Fountains provided spectacular sounds and colors. North of the Palisades, Requa redesigned the interior of the Foreign Arts Building, now the House of Hospitality, so that it included an inviting patio. Spanish Village and the Old Globe Theatre were added, and the nudist colony at Zoro Gardens was especially popular.

Balboa Park

1935 Guide Book

The Globe Players, brought from the Chicago fair, offered abbreviated performances of Shakespeare productions, and there were concerts by the San Diego Symphony in the Ford Bowl. At the same time, there were some unusual attractions, including Alpha the Robot, Midget Village, a beaver dam exhibit, and Gold Gulch. And, oh yes, the fan dancer Sally Rand also performed. Another popular exhibit was at the Ford Building, where visitors could see how cars were assembled and tested, while the Midway amusement area beckoned with attractions such as Crime Never Pays and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. There was something for everyone, and the Exposition fulfilled its mission, employing thousands of San Diegans and attracting approximately seven million visitors.

Balboa Park

1915 Midway

Life After the 1935-1936 Exposition, 1936-1943

What to do with the buildings from the Exposition? Most were never intended to be permanent structures, and common advice was to tear them down. But many citizens resisted. Almost immediately, volunteers raised funds to protect the Old Globe Theatre and adjacent Falstaff Tavern from the wrecking ball. The San Diego Community Theatre moved in and performed its first production in its new home in 1937. South of the Organ Pavilion, however, the Palace of Travel, Transportation and Water was demolished and replaced by a parking lot. Other plans under consideration had to wait as the Navy again took over with the nation’s entry into World War II. Medical needs were extensive, so much so that cultural institutions became hospital wards, requiring works and artifacts to be stored for safekeeping. The Palace of Education, now the Balboa Park Club, became an Officers’ Club, while nurses resided in the House of Hospitality. Adaptation was the name of the game as the Navy maintained control of the park throughout the war. Darlene G. Davies

Balboa Park


Naval hospital & Exposition ticket: Images courtesy of David Marshall ALL other images courtesy of Darlene G. Davies



Momentum After the War, 1943 -1968

This is the fourth in a six-part series on the 150-year evolution of Balboa Park

Speeding Into The Future, 1946

The Navy returned the Exposition buildings to the City of San Diego in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II. Organizations reclaimed their former homes and plans were made for other structures. A production of The Time of Your Life by the San Diego Community Theatre at The Old Globe was a highlight of 1947. Also, construction of a war memorial building was given the green light. The next year saw youngsters lining up to ride the park’s new miniature train — still rolling and still loved 70 years later. It took until 1966, however, for the iconic California Tower to receive its magnificent lighting, creating the vision that has since become synonymous with Balboa Park. In that same year, Dr. Frank Lowe gave new chimes to the California Tower, ensuring beautiful music throughout Balboa Park.

Balboa Park

U.S. 395/Cabrillo Freeway, 1948

A Highway Through Balboa Park, 1948

In 1941, San Diegans voted overwhelmingly to approve the building of a highway through Balboa Park. The vote was required by charter because Balboa Park land was to be used only for park purposes. Construction commenced the following year, but the new route, U.S. 395/Cabrillo Freeway, wasn’t completed until 1948. Prior to the freeway, the site contained a man-made lagoon, which was replaced by the freeway that runs under the Cabrillo Bridge, its four lanes making for a snug fit passing through the bridge’s arches. There were opponents to the incursion, of course, and to allay fears, hundreds of thousands of plants of many varieties were provided by the State Division of Highways. The median dividing the highway was transformed with imposing trees, but while some trees were gained, others from the 1915 Exposition were destroyed. The public still views the highway, now 163, positively. When visiting San Diego in 1963, President John F. Kennedy reportedly described it as “…the most beautiful highway I’ve ever seen.” The 395 was the first freeway in San Diego County and one of the first in the state. The 163 was designated a “California Historic Parkway” in 2002.

Bartholomew Master Plan, 1960

In 1960, a restoration plan for Balboa Park was released, authored by Harland Bartholomew, a city planner with experience in New York, Newark, N.J., and St. Louis. The plan commented that the park had “become neglected,” and it was loaded with suggestions such as razing 13 structures, including the Ford Building, which was considered to be “lacking in architectural significance.” Another notable suggestion was the restriction of vehicular traffic within the park, a subject that continues to be debated to this day. Protests to Bartholomew’s plan poured in. The argument over Smokestacks versus Geraniums was in full view.

Fine Arts Gallery Expansion and Timken Museum of Art, 1964-1965

The years 1964-65 saw an influx of artistic masterworks into the park with the expansion of the San Diego Museum of Art and construction of the neighboring Timken Museum of Art. Unfortunately, in order to build their modern exhibit spaces, these institutions tore down two of the most prominent 1915 Exposition buildings — the Science and Education Building and the Home Economy Building.

The demolition of the temporary Exposition buildings would not have been so controversial had their replacements been compatible with the Spanish Colonial Revival style of the park, as had been done when the Fine Arts Gallery/Museum of Art replaced an Exposition building in 1926. However, the art institutions chose to construct replacements in a modern aesthetic that did away with the harmonious arcades and style that tied together Bertram Goodhue’s Spanish city.

This “out with the old, in with the new” approach did not sit well with local architecture critic James Britton, who decried the planned replacement of the Expo buildings. In 1959, Britton wrote, “Both the Timken wing and the Fine Arts Gallery west wing will be in currently fashionable modes. They might even be acceptable architecture — anywhere but along El Prado.” In the years since, the Timken’s stone-clad Mid-century modern design, designed by Frank L. Hope and Associates, has become an admired work of architecture, despite boldly contrasting with its Spanish neighbors.

The silver lining is that the loss of the two Balboa Park landmarks led to greater public awareness of preservation, which culminated in the designation of the Exposition grounds as a San Diego’s first Historic Landmark in 1967. The park later became a National Historic Landmark District and design guidelines were implemented to assure that future additions fit in with the park’s Spanish Colonial Revival tradition. The 1964 demolitions also resulted in the formation of The Committee of One Hundred, whose mission is to preserve Balboa Park’s historic architecture. David Marshall, AIA

The Committee of One Hundred, 1967

This ardent Balboa Park advocacy group was formed in 1967 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. Among the founders were civic leader Bea Evenson and architect Sam Hamill. With a mission to preserve and restore historic buildings and spaces in the park, its list of completed projects in the half-century since its founding is dazzling.

All Images courtesy of David Marshall

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