Balboa Park: Celebrating 150 Years
Posted on July 10, 2018
Balboa Park ranks very high on the list of places to visit in California, and rightly so. Who among its many visitors does not have a special tale to relate? Those who can return do so again and again. With all that it offers, it is a truly magical place, and this year, 2018, that dream which began in the 19th century is celebrating its sesquicentennial, better known as its 150th anniversary. To honor its milestone anniversary, we take a look back at the evolution of this treasured San Diego landmark. Please keep returning to this piece through the end of 2018, as each month we will continue to add a new segment highlighting each 25-year period in Balboa Park’s history.
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 were worth very little. A century and a half later, however, the value of what is now Balboa Park is beyond estimation.
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 of 1868 is noteworthy in that only three months before, Morse had presented a much more limited proposal consisting of two 160-acre parcels. The 1,400 acres were free, part of the acreage allotted by the Mexican government when San Diego, then part of Mexico, was designated a pueblo town in 1835.
Morse was a leading advocate for a city park. He was a town trustee and successful businessman. Still, historian Florence Christman cites Alonzo Horton as the first person to approach the Board of Trustees with the idea of creating a city park. That was in 1867, but as far back as 1851, Horton had been seeking fortune in California, first in the gold fields of the north. There, Horton repeatedly made money, losing some, but making more. Next, Horton traveled to the east coast, where he married for the second time—reportedly one of as many as five marriages he would enter into in his lifetime.
Horton returned to San Francisco and became a successful businessman, but it is when he traveled south and visited San Diego that he was truly captivated. Horton saw great potential in the small town and after selling his business interests up north, he moved to San Diego, where he purchased large swaths of land, acquiring much of what is now Downtown San Diego for tiny sums. Indeed, he bought prime land on San Diego Bay for 27.5 cents per acre. The year was 1866, and the area was called “New Town” in contrast to “Old Town,” which was then San Diego’s town center. As time went on, however, Horton’s new creation continued to take on greater and greater importance given its proximity to the harbor and the ships arriving on a near-daily basis from the East Coast.
Horton made a great deal of money from his investments. He also donated land to many charitable causes and organizations, and was an important member of the group that selected the park site. Again, even in this, Horton prospered as land values escalated during the 1880s, but late in the decade prices plummeted, and at the time of his death, at age 96, he was no longer a very wealthy man. Nevertheless, he is remembered as someone who contributed greatly to the city’s growth, and he is regarded by many as the “Father of San Diego.”
Ephraim W. Morse
For his part, Morse also came to California during the Gold Rush. Born in Massachusetts in 1823, he set sail for San Francisco in 1849. Like Horton, Morse ventured south to San Diego, where he would assume many roles and hold numerous positions during the course of his life. Morse’s banking connections enabled him to fill the slot of town trustee, while at the same time he was a member of the school board when the city’s first public school opened in 1865. Christman notes that some historians believe Morse “should be recognized as the founder of Balboa Park because he inaugurated the movement for the park reservation.”
In 1871, Morse traveled to Washington, D.C., as San Diego’s representative for Pueblo Lands, a role in which he was critical in bringing the Santa Fe Railroad to San Diego. In terms of railroads, Morse was also a director of the San Diego and Gila Railroad. He was an influential man, though of all his public service, it was his passion for the park that is regarded as his greatest contribution.
Morse was committed both to the park’s preservation and, ideally, its enhancement, leading some historians to view Morse as the true hero of the park movement. Because he and Horton worked well together and with others, the new city park was created in a timely manner, just one year after Horton established his New Town. Interestingly, Morse, who was a partner in an Old Town merchandise store, soon moved his office to Horton’s New Town.
In addition to his business ventures, Morse devoted his energy to the park unsparingly. 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. One of Morse’s greatest accomplishments was ensuring that park land would be set aside in such a way that it could not be encroached upon by later generations.
Morse was a friend of the park to the end, standing up for its preservation even when others faltered. By all accounts, he was full of kindness and unassuming to the degree that the true value of his service was often overlooked. He was a truly public-spirited citizen to whom no worthy enterprise or charity ever appealed in vain. Morse readily adapted to different cultures and surroundings. He learned Spanish early in life and the native population regarded him as a friend as well.
Like Horton, Morse became wealthy through his many enterprises, though, again like Horton, the economic collapse of the late 1880s deprived him of most of his wealth. Farmer, teacher, merchant, deputy sheriff, city treasurer — Morse passed away on January 17, 1906, retaining his faculties to the end.
In spite of the Morse’s efforts, 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, the name was changed to San Diego High School, and now, more than a century later, the wisdom of the original arrangement is still being debated.
The End of Dormancy
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 the 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 a lack of irrigation. Fortunately, another local business stepped in to provide the needed water. But the challenge to provide adequate water would persist into the future.
It was also around this same time that park acreage in the city’s newly named Golden Hill section began attracting attention. Community leaders were eyeing spaces for a possible playground and rose garden and, as Golden Hill was now a highly desirable address, there was considerable motivation to upgrade the neighboring portions of the park.
The idea of beautification was taking hold. In the words of Daniel Schuyler, the man who advocated for the name Golden Hill when petitioning city trustees in 1887: “…The drooping sails of an anchoring fleet/The shadowy city at our feet/With the Mountains’ proud peaks so lofty and still/’Tis a picture worth seeing, from Golden Hill.”
By 1890, residents of Golden Hill were enthusiastically tending their gardens in the southeastern corner of Golden Hill Park, later to be renamed Balboa Park. Golden Hill was the place to be, an elite neighborhood that would be inhabited by San Diego Mayors for the next three decades. Filled with Victorian mansions and craftsman homes, D Street (now Broadway) swept all the way from Golden Hill in east to the bay in the west. With the nearby park, beautiful views, and generously sized lots, the rich and influential claimed Golden Hill as their neighborhood of choice.
It was also in this period that admired horticulturalist Kate Sessions became involved. The importance of Kate Sessions to Balboa Park cannot be overstated. For good reason, she continues to be referred to as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” In 1892, Sessions began planting 100 trees per 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.
Sessions was ahead of her time in many ways — as a woman, as an individualist, and as a horticulturalist. She was born in San Francisco in 1857, graduated from high school, attended business school, and then graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1881. The title of her graduation essay was “The Natural Sciences as a field for Women’s Labor.” In 1885, following a couple of teaching stints, she became co-owner of the San Diego Nursery. She was a natural teacher and found many ways to impart her knowledge, through writing, lecturing, and “hands on” instruction.
Sessions served the park during much of her lifetime. A continuous line from 1885 until 1940 may be drawn. Her experience with the San Diego Nursery led to her involvement with other nurseries across San Diego County, and she gained considerable fame for the plants she introduced in the region. She wrote articles for the newspaper and played a central role in the creation of the Park Improvement Committee in 1902.
Four years later, in 1906, Sessions co-founded California Garden. First produced in 1906 by the San Diego Floral Association, both the magazine and the organization continue to inspire and delight more than a century later. Fittingly, the headquarters for the San Diego Floral Association are located in Balboa Park. The public is welcome to visit the offices during open hours when in the park.
Sessions, who died in in 1940 at the age of 82, continued to be a major presence in both San Diego and the life of the park through much of the first half of the 20th century. In 1915, San Diego City Schools designated Sessions teacher and supervisor of agriculture and landscapes, and 14 years later in 1939, Sessions was the first woman to receive the Frank N. Meyer medal from the American Genetic Association.
George White Marston
George White Marston, another strong civic leader and successful businessman, also played a major role in the park’s early development, investing enormous amounts of time, money, and thought into its betterment. Born in Wisconsin in 1850 and transplanted to San Francisco in 1870, Marston traveled to San Diego in search of favorable climate. His first job in San Diego was at Horton House, a merchandise store, which provided the ideal experience for a man who destined to become a legendary merchant. Ultimately he became owner of the fabled Marston’s department store, a subject worthy of a book on its own.
Over his lifetime, Marston took up many civic causes, serving on the Library Board, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Benevolent Society of San Diego. He also established the city’s first YMCA, where he served as president for 24 years. In addition, he made the most of his membership on the planning committee for the park’s future. Marston left his prints all over San Diego and, as a Park Commissioner, he personally guided the process that would lead to what we now call Balboa Park, the Jewel of San Diego.
Marston played a major role in both the city and park’s development well into the 20th century, dying in 1946 at the age of 95. His huge influence on the park will be traced in the next segment. Darlene G. Davies
Sculptures & Plaque: Photography by Paul Marshall All other imagery courtesy of David Marshall, AIA
City Park/Balboa Park, 1893-1918
The evolution of Balboa Park as a place for recreation and renewal tells a powerful story. Add the structures built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the legacy of museums and cultural institutions they have housed in the century since and the results are remarkable. There have been many starts and stops along the way, with strong voices on every side. Still, in each case, from these powerful emotions pulling in different directions, a synergy developed. Whatever their exact vision, many people care deeply about Balboa Park.
San Diego Floral Assocation, 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, helping to transform San Diego from a town of dirt and sagebrush into one of gardens and groves. The Floral Association remains vibrant in 2018, 111 years after its founding. As mentioned in the first segment of this series, its headquarters are appropriately situated in Casa del Prado in Balboa Park.
The Parsons Plan, 1903 & The Nolen Plan, 1908
In 1902, civic leader and owner of the fabled Marston’s department store, George Marston, put up the money to underwrite a City Park master plan. Marston, whose earlier accomplishments were highlighted in the last segment, was a member of the City Park Commission, and along with that contribution, he hired Samuel Parsons, Jr. to create the plan. Marston met with and retained Parsons while in New York, where he was deeply impressed by the man, a former superintendent of Central Park and the City of New York park system. As a result, Parsons traveled to San Diego. He toured the area, and his reaction to both the city and park was highly enthusiastic. He saw tremendous potential in the mesas and canyons, noting the uniqueness of the region. People liked Parson’s vision, and in April, 1903, the Board of Public Works was authorized to begin work.
Next, Marston hired city planner John Nolen to produce a master plan for the city of San Diego as a whole. Nolen completed the plan in 1908, a plan so visionary it is still actively referenced in 2018. Nolen imagined a park-to-waterfront connection that would extend from Fifth Avenue to the bay. He advocated for what he named The Paseo, “a pleasant promenade, an airing place, a formal and dignified approach to the big central park…” At the other end, the waterfront, “The Paseo would spread out to a width of 1,200 feet, and in this perfectly splendid situation, commanding the grandeur of San Diego’s most characteristic scenery, the people could establish the proposed casino, art museum and aquarium, surrounding them with lovely parks and gardens…”
In the end, despite their influence, neither Parsons’ nor Nolen’s plan was implemented.
An Exposition Envisioned and a Renamed Park
In 1909, G. Aubrey Davidson proposed hosting an exposition to coincide with the opening of the Panama Canal, which was then under construction and scheduled for completion in 1915. San Diego would be the first U.S. Port for ships traveling west, and the following year, John D. Spreckels pledged a whopping $100,000 in support of the exposition. As a result, more than $1 million dollars in donations were gathered in only a few months. Bertram Goodhue would be the lead architect, but first, something had to be done about the park’s name. City Park, while accurate, was not especially inspiring. The park needed greater identity.
Historian Nancy Carol Carter has delved into the matter and her careful research disputes the often repeated story attributing the name Balboa Park to a contest. There was an unofficial contest, but Carter makes a strong case for crediting the City Park Commission itself. There were numerous suggestions, including Cabrillo, Junipero Serra, Marston, Del Mar, Panama, Roosevelt, and Silver Gate, but according to Carter, it appears the park was formally renamed Balboa Park by the commission in 1910, paying homage to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, thought to be the first European explorer to see the Pacific Ocean. With the new name settled upon, preparation for the exposition proceeded full steam ahead.
Exposition Groundbreaking, 1911
The 1911 groundbreaking festivities for the 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 a separate parade of elaborate floats topped with miniatures of California missions and historical figures.
Cabrillo Bridge, 1914
Dedicated in 1914, Cabrillo Bridge, which serves as the park’s grand western entrance, is an engineering marvel. Though it has a masonry facade, the bridge is actually hollow, and was the first multi-arched cantilever ever built in California. It cost more than $200,000, and the dedication ceremony was led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt sat in the first car to cross the bridge, and, 21 years later he would return for a second San Diego exposition, this time as president of the United States.
Panama-California Exposition, 1915-16
The Panama-California Exposition 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, horticulture, food, and all kinds of entertainment. Of the many splendid buildings, the park’s revered organ and Organ Pavilion should be singled out, with two men lauded for this magnificent addition. A legacy of the fair, this graceful space where millions have been enjoying free concerts for more than a century was envisioned and funded by brothers Adolph B. and John D. Spreckels. Touted as the “largest pipe organ in the world,” this renowned instrument had its first performance New Year’s Eve, 1914. Given the state of the world at the time — World War I would begin that summer — good news was definitely welcome, and the dedication ceremony and concert were marked by great jubilation. Indeed, the fact that Europe was in turmoil while this truly awe-inspiring musical machine was being introduced in San Diego, California was something to celebrate in itself.
In terms of legacy, there are many elements of the Panama-California Exposition that remain. One is the Alcazar Garden, an improvement on the 1915 Montezuma Garden in the same location. A century later, it remains filled with bountiful flowers throughout the year. Other gems from the 1915 Exposition include the California Building and Tower, the California Triangle, the Chapel of St. Francis, Casa del Prado, Casa de Balboa, House of Charm, House of Hospitality, the Plaza de Panama, and the Balboa Park Club. (Historically speaking, in 1915 Casa del Prado served as the Varied Industries and Food Products Building, while Casa de Balboa was the Commerce and Industries Building. The House of Charm was the Indian Arts Building, the House of Hospitality was the Foreign Arts Building, and the Balboa Park Club was the New Mexico State Building.)
And then, of course, there is the park’s extraordinary Botanical Building, a dream of Alfred D. Robinson, another founder of the San Diego Floral Association. Robinson described his dream in the August, 1911 issue of California Garden — a large lath house with an arched dome to be filled with thousands of vines, palms, and other vegetation. He believed lath houses, built of narrow strips of wood, made an excellent space for plant cultivation. The following year, the March, 1912, California Garden published another article by Robinson entitled “A Palace of Lath.” Robinson again addressed the upcoming exposition, highlighting San Diego’s unique climate, and proposals for the Botanical Building were met with much enthusiasm and discussion. The result was an aerie structure that would delight all who entered, its lattice roof allowing in light to the most pleasing effects. Begun in 1913, the building was completed in 1914, well ahead of the exposition’s grand opening in 1915, as was the case with Cabrillo Bridge. Designed by Carleton Winslow, with construction supervision by Frank P. Allen, Jr., the main portion of the building is composed of redwood on concrete and stucco, while the supporting trusses, painted to match the redwood, are made of steel. The lath house quickly became a popular attraction, and has remained a favorite with the public ever since.
The exposition offered plenty of diversions, chief among them the attractions at the Isthmus, which was a fun zone that included a Deep Sea Aquarium, War of the Worlds, an Old West ’49er camp, a Hawaiian Village, a Pala gem mine, and rides with names such as the Toadstool and Climbing the Yelps. There was also a Ferris wheel and a roller coaster, and even a 250-foot replica of the Panama Canal, in case visitors forgot the reason for the exposition.
Visitors poured into San Diego from all over the country. Records show that on May 22, 1915, 2,000 Angelinos visited the Isthmus. On September 10 of the same year, the Isthmus’ Cristobal Cafe hosted silent film stars Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne on what was deemed Movie Day at the Expo. Bushman was a major film star and having him and Bayne serve as king and queen added a major touch of glamour. A parade through El Prado and an Organ Pavilion coronation preceded dinner at the Cristobal, which itself was followed by an evening ball on the Plaza de Panama. At the close of 1915, the fair was renamed the 1916 Panama-California International Exposition, though even with the name change, jollity continued on the Isthmus.
As a side note, visitors to the exposition enjoyed riding in Electriquettes, small wicker vehicles with a top speed of 3.5 miles an hour. Though slow by today’s standards, they were a smash with park goers in 1915 and ’16.
Birth of the San Diego Zoo
As he drove away from the exposition in 1916, Dr. Harry Wegeforth heard a lion roar and said to his brother, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego?” Later that year on October 2, Dr. Fred Baker opened his home for the first meeting of the newly formed Zoological Society of San Diego. A century later, the San Diego Zoo is not only the most famous Zoo in the world, it is a center for advanced scientific study and training. Now 102 years old and known as San Diego Zoo Global, this prestigious institution plays a major role in animal and plant conservation around the globe. 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” 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
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, there has always been a Naval hospital in Balboa Park, though the location has changed. Also in 1922, the park welcomed the beloved carousel. Sadly, and ironically, in 1925, the civic auditorium burned down on the night of the annual Fireman’s Ball. Reportedly, the cause of the fire was an overheated furnace. Then, as a result of a request by George Marston, the city council took another look at John Nolen’s visionary plan for the park from 1908. Indeed, the council voted to fund Nolen in the production of a second plan, committing $10,000 of city money. Marston, himself, had funded the initial plan.
The following year, 1926, the Fine Arts Gallery opened the doors of its magnificent new Spanish Renaissance home. Designed in Plateresque style by architect William Templeton Johnson and occupying the site that had served as the Palace of Fine Arts during the California Pacific International Exposition, the Fine Arts Gallery, now the San Diego Museum of Art, continues to proudly anchor the northern end of Plaza de Panama.
In addition to his enormous support for Balboa Park, it is worth noting that in 1928 George Marston founded the San Diego Historical Society, giving it a home in the Junipero Serra Museum, which, by the way, he also built. The Serra Museum is situated on Presidio Hill in Mission Hills, a site with enormous historical significance. Sitting high above Old Town to the south and Mission Valley to the north, Presidio Hill is where both San Diego and the State of California were founded. Marston gave the museum and nearby land to the city in 1929, where the Historical Society and Research Archives remained until 1982. That year, the museum and its collection moved to Balboa Park, though the original Presidio Hill building was retained for additional museum space and as an education center. In 2010, the entire institution officially became known as the San Diego History Center, in which capacity it serves as a repository for 2.5 million historical photos, 1,500 films, 15,000 artifacts, 1,700 oral histories, and a spectacular 7,000-piece historical clothing collection, regarded as one of the finest in the country.
The San Diego Natural History Museum, also designed by William Templeton Johnson, opened in 1933, only two years before the California Pacific International Exposition. The museum, now known as “The NAT,” actually dates to 1874 when the San Diego Society of Natural History was first formed. Naturalist Kate Sessions was a member as far back as the 1890s. The society had occupied several different location in the park when, in 1917, it purchased an empty building left over from the Panama-California Exposition. Still, its ever enlarging collections necessitated an even larger structure, and Johnson was just the architect for the project. He was widely admired for numerous San Diego buildings — most significantly the Fine Arts Gallery and the elegant and stately San Diego Trust & Savings Bank downtown. Ellen Browning Scripps donated $125,000 toward the building, and an appeal was put out to the public, but the money raised fell woefully short of the goal. This was at the height of the Great Depression and the plans had to be scaled back sharply. Many aspects of the beautiful NAT building we know today remained incomplete and in various states of construction for decades.
That same year, 1933, Balboa Park saw the opening of the John Morley Recreation Center, named in honor of the park’s longtime superintendent. There was great hope for an economic surge as a result of the upcoming exposition. Times had been flush during the ’20s, but they turned ominous with the crash of ’29 and the onset of the Great Depression. The 1935-36 exposition was a major effort to invigorate the San Diego economy during those difficult times.
California Pacific International Exposition, 1935-1936
Conceived as a way to give the local economy a shot in the arm when it needed it most, the 1935-36 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 a strong Art Deco representation, along with Mexican and Southwest influences. The lead architect, Richard Requa, envisioned inclusion of Pre-Columbian motifs. There was extensive landscaping and elaborate colored lighting, with scene enhancements 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 Standard Oil Tower, the California State Building, the Streamlined Moderne circular Ford Building, and the Ford (now Starlight) Bowl. The Firestone Singing Colored Fountains provided spectacular sounds and hues, while north of the Palisades, Requa redesigned the interior of the Foreign Arts Building, now the House of Hospitality, to include an inviting patio. It remains a very pleasing space.
The 1935-36 exposition also saw the addition of Spanish Village and the Old Globe Theatre, both of which were extremely popular, as was the nudist colony at Zoro Gardens. There was also an early television display, a Hum-a-Tune man with his homemade instrument, and a place where visitors could buy trick decks of cards, white mice, and an assortment of other items. One could even take part in a parachute jump. The exposition featured performances by its own chorus, too. The writer Christman tells readers “At the Food and Beverage Building one was given a stick of Beechnut gum, free samples of Junket, and hot Fischer scones smothered with raspberry jam could be purchased for five cents. There were other goodies about for a hungry teenager.” An adult pass was $5, and students could obtain passes for as little as $2.50.
The Globe Players, brought from the Chicago fair, offered abbreviated performances of Shakespeare productions, while the Ford Motor Company brought in illustrious orchestras from around the nation to perform in the Ford Bowl, along with the San Diego Symphony. Among the groups to visit were the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Portland Symphony. At the same time, there were a number of unusual attractions, including Alpha the Robot, a Midget Village, a beaver dam exhibit, Gold Gulch, and — oh yes — Sally Rand, the fan dancer, also performed. These were all popular, particularly Sally Rand.
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. A Time Magazine article entitled “California: Miracle of 1935” described the exposition this way: “Under the soft glow of colored lights playing on bowers of palm and eucalyptus trees, a comfortable but by no means spectacular crowd of 25,000 began to see the fair sights in earnest.” Those beckoning attractions included “‘the Gold Gulch mining camp,’ complete with an old time saloon, ogling dance hall gals and some bearded characters in hickory shirts splashing in muddy wallow with pans. Tabloid versions of Shakespearean drama were playing at ‘Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theatre,’ an old-time Chicago attraction.”
Long-time San Diegan Charlotte Erwine Albrecht described the exposition as “kind of thrown together in the beginning. Buildings and amenities were only partially completed.” Her large family frequently attended the fair and was very enthusiastic about both the Globe performances and symphony concerts, spending the entire day and evening whenever they visited. “There was so much to do,” Albrecht recalled. “The first thing we did after we entered…was hurry to the food and beverage building, where free sticks of gum were given to everyone.” In one man’s words: “It was a wonderful world inside those gates,” while Dr. Sue Earnest most remembered “the agile dancers on the green by the Globe Theatre presided over by Queen Elizabeth. They danced with youthful abandon. The trumpet was sounded. Queen Elizabeth waved her fan and a page barked sharply ‘Curtain Time.’”
People had fun, enjoying both the high- and low-brow. There was something for everyone, and the exposition fulfilled its mission, employing thousands of San Diegans while attracting approximately seven million visitors.
Life After The 1935-36 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 save the Old Globe Theatre and adjacent Falstaff Tavern from the wrecking ball. The San Diego Community Theatre moved into the Globe 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. There were other plans under consideration as well, but they had to wait as the Navy once 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.
Naval Hospital & Exposition ticket: Images courtesy of David Marshall AIA, all other images courtesy of Darlene G. Davies
Momentum After The War, 1943-1968
Speeding Into The Future
The Navy returned the Exposition buildings to the City of San Diego in 1946, the year after World War II ended. 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 in the Old Globe Theatre was a highlight of 1947. The green light was also given for construction of a war memorial building. 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 well-known vision that has since become synonymous with Balboa Park. In that same year, Dr. Frank Lowe gave new chimes to the Tower, ensuring beautiful music throughout the park.
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 as park land was only supposed to be used 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, replaced by the freeway that now runs under the Cabrillo Bridge, its four lanes making for a snug fit passing through the bridge’s arches. There were, of course, opponents to the incursion, and to allay fears, hundreds of thousands of plants of numerous varieties were provided by the State Division of Highways, and the median dividing the highway was transformed with imposing trees. Still, while some trees were gained, others from the 1915 Exposition were destroyed. Nevertheless, most San Diegans still view the highway, now route 163, positively. When visiting the city in 1963, President John F. Kennedy reportedly said it’s “the most beautiful highway I’ve ever seen.” U.S. 395 was the first freeway in San Diego County and one of the first in the state. It was designated a “California Historic Parkway” in 2002.
Our Children in Balboa Park
Going back in time, as now, Balboa Park has played an enormous role in providing education and training for the area’s children. The Girl Scouts established its headquarters in Balboa Park in 1921, where it has remained an important resource for girls and a valued park tenant ever since. Many upgrades have been made to the grounds and buildings over the decades, while thousands of girls, as both Brownies and as Scouts, learned valuable life skills, earning badges of accomplishments along the way. As for the Boy Scouts, it wasn’t until 1957 that it signed its original lease, recognizing the park as the perfect setting for camp and leadership experiences.
San Diego Civic Youth Ballet was born in 1945, initially offering free ballet classes and student recitals sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department. A woman by the name of Maria Fielding conducted the classes, free of charge, in the Recital Hall. On Saturdays, beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes were put through their paces by Fielding, and a number of her students went on to careers in ballet and the entertainment field. Many of them performed in Starlight Opera productions in the Ford Bowl. Eventually, the Youth Ballet found a stable home in the Casa del Prado building. Also in 1945, as the Navy was getting set to leave Balboa Park, the San Diego Youth Symphony was founded by Leo Scheer, again under the auspices of the Parks and Recreation Department. It is now the region’s oldest youth orchestra and the sixth oldest youth orchestra in the nation. The organization developed orchestral groups, including an acclaimed international orchestra that performed in China. Ultimately, the San Diego Youth Symphony, like the Youth Ballet, found a place to call home in Casa del Prado.
In 1947, two years after the founding of the Youth Ballet and Symphony, Irma Fraser Macpherson was asked by San Diego Community Theatre artistic director Craig Noel to form a children’s theatre, which she did in 1948, initially naming it the Community Theatre’s Junior Theatre Workshop. It was renamed the San Diego Junior Theatre Wing of the Old Globe Theatre three years later in 1951, and the names could be confusing. According to its 1937 incorporation, it was the San Diego Community Theatre that performed in the Old Globe Theatre, saved and restored following the 1935 Exposition. And though it was true that between 1945 and 1948 there were a few children’s plays produced and directed by Lois De Lannoy and Beth Masterson, there was no firm arrangement. Plays were performed in different venues throughout the park since neither the Junior Theatre Wing or the San Diego Junior Theatre had a permanent performance venue. Whatever its name, the organization owed its existence to the generosity of the Old Globe Theatre and the San Diego Park and Recreation Department, making do with any space available. The group rehearsed and performed wherever it could — the Puppet Theatre, Recital Hall, Roosevelt Junior High School auditorium, the Federal Building, even an outside patio or park lawn. The one criterion was that it be in Balboa Park. Its office space and storage areas were located on the lower level of the Balboa Park Club, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was assigned a reliable home, again in the the historic Casa del Prado. More about that in a future segment.
A Use for Ford Bowl
In its earliest years, 1946 and 1947, the Starlight Opera performed at the Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl, but it found a permanent home in the Ford Bowl, built for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition in 1948. The handsome Art Deco amphitheatre was a great fit for Starlight. In fact, over time, it came to be referred to as Starlight Bowl. The sight of Ford Bowl next to the iconic and dramatic Art Deco Ford Building, now the Air and Space Museum, made a strong impression — and it still does. The symphony concerts of the 1935-36 Exposition gave way to wonderful productions of light opera and Broadway musicals that continued for decades. There was a hiccup on the forward path in 1968 due to financial concerns, during which time Starlight performed in the San Diego State College amphitheatre, but returned to the park bowl in 1974. Then following successful seasons, it fell on hard times, with constant airplane noise overhead figuring as one of the major factors in its loss of popularity. Nevertheless, the bowl has now fallen into disrepair and there are currently no performances there.
Bartholomew Master Plan, 1960
In 1960, a restoration plan for Balboa Park was authored by Harland Bartholomew, a city planner with experience in New York, New Jersey, and St. Louis. According to Bartholomew, the park had “become neglected,” and his plan was loaded with suggestions such as razing 13 structures, including the Ford Building, 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, 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 original 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 motif, 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 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 nothing less than dazzling.
Junior Theatre: photos courtesy of San Diego Junior Theatre Ballerinas: Photo courtesy of San Diego Civic Youth Ballet All other images courtesy of David Marshall, AIA
Balboa Park Braves On, 1968-1993
The quarter century between 1968 and 1993 was crammed with significant issues, tragedies, and bold steps forward. It also provided a portent of future dilemmas that would confound city and park leaders, as various solutions to mounting problems were explored.
Jubilation, Tragedy, Rebirth, 1968-1980
Bea Evenson was the powerhouse founder and president of The Committee of One Hundred, which was formed in 1967. The group raised funds to reproduce the ornamentation for a reconstructed Palace of Food and Beverages, originally built as the Varied Industries and Food Products Building for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. There was also public money for the project, with San Diegans supporting a bond measure in 1968, but Evenson’s work was essential. The consulting architect, Sam Hamill, knew Balboa Park well, having been heavily involved in building projects for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Renamed Casa del Prado, the reconstructed building was dedicated in 1971, and has since been home to numerous organizations and performing groups. In recognition of Evenson’s many preservation efforts, the commanding east fountain at Plaza de Balboa, designed by modernist architect Homer Delawie and completed in 1972, was dedicated to her in 1981.
During this same period, the Cassius Carter Centre Stage was introduced in the Old Globe complex. It was a remodel and expansion of Falstaff Tavern, which was built along with the theatre, again for the 1935 Exposition. It was not a new building, but beginning in 1968, it was rebuilt as a permanent structure, not a temporary one as the Falstaff Tavern had been. Designed as a 225-seat, arena-style theatre, the new stage opened in January 1969 with a production of The Unknown Soldier and His Wife. There was great jubilation regarding the new theatre, which provided space for experimental and avant-garde productions. Previously, unusual fare had to find alternative venues, such as the chapel at the Museum of Man and Sherwood Hall in La Jolla.
The Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center opened in 1973, two years after the restoration of Casa del Prado and a year following the unveiling of the nearby fountain. The park was getting a lot of attention. In keeping with surrounding buildings, the exterior of the Fleet museum is in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Named for Reuben H. Fleet, a giant in the aviation industry, the museum later shortened its name to the Fleet Science Center. Home to the world’s first IMAX Dome Theater among other attractions, it has been a major destination of park visitors from the start.
Across Park Boulevard, the exquisite Inez Grant Parker Rose Garden was dedicated two years later in 1975. Featuring specimens of nearly every size and color, it has earned its rank as one of the finest rose gardens in the world.
In February 1978, the Electric Building, home to the Aerospace Museum and later renamed the San Diego Air and Space Museum, was destroyed by fire. The next month, the beloved Old Globe Theatre also caught fire. As a result, the Aerospace Museum moved to the Ford Building and the Old Globe performed in downtown movie houses, but both structures were soon rebuilt. The Electric Building reopened in 1981 as Casa de Balboa, and the following year, the “new” Old Globe Theatre was also reborn from the ashes. After the fire, the Old Globe erected a temporary outdoor theatre, the Festival Stage, for summer Shakespeare productions. Environmentalists, however, strongly opposed building in a park canyon, and following much public debate, the City Council restricted the Globe’s use of the temporary stage to one season. Nevertheless, because of the venue’s popularity, the time frame was extended, though, unbelievably, that structure burned down as well, in 1984. Three devastating fires within six years! Happily, the summer stage was also rebuilt and reopened in 1985, this time as a permanent theatre.
In 1978, ten park organizations banded together to present a two-day holiday celebration, Christmas on the Prado. The event was an immediate success. Attended by some 3,000 people, this grand tradition later became known as December Nights and continues to this day, as does free admission to park institutions during the weekend celebration. Christmas on the Prado was originally created to stimulate business for the park’s museums and organizations. It was born the same year in which two horrible fires destroyed the Aerospace Museum and the Old Globe Theatre. During Christmas on the Prado, visitors were encouraged to shop in museum stores, view crafts, see exhibitions, and watch Elizabethan dancers. The Globe added a special element, two evening performances of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, delivered in the remains of the burned-out Old Globe. A highlight of the celebration, the Dylan Thomas classic, was, unintendedly, the first production on the site of the theatre following the fire. In the meantime, productions continued on the temporary Festival Stage and the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, while shows scheduled for the Globe itself were transferred to the Spreckels Theatre downtown. No doubt, the experience of seeing and hearing A Child’s Christmas in Wales within the charred remnants of the Old Globe was an eerie and emotional experience. Writer Bill Swank alludes to this extraordinary occasion in his 2015 book Christmas in Balboa Park.
Preservationists at Work, 1980-1993
A major restoration of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion was completed in the 1980s, and once again The Committee of One Hundred led the way. There had been public suggestion the pavilion be turned into a parking lot, but preservationists would not let that happen.
While additions to the old Naval Hospital lengthened its life, increased demand mandated an up-to-date facility. In 1988, a new Naval Hospital opened in Florida canyon, replacing the graceful Spanish Colonial Revival-style building that stood south of the new medical facility. Of the former hospital, only a few structures were spared. The new, larger hospital complex was state of the art in every way. Old land was swapped for new, and, as expected, there was some controversy over the Navy’s use of any park land, but in the end, the federal government triumphed.
San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor declared 1989 “The Year of the Child,” delivering her declaration at the Fleet Science Center. It was her third State of the City address, and instead of presenting the customary litany of past accomplishments, she devoted her speech to thoughts about the well being of San Diego children. O’Connor was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “The city need not justify its alarm when our [children] can’t find France on a map, can’t cross the street without meeting a pusher, can’t reach the age of 16 without bearing a child, or 18 without witnessing a shooting…It profits the city nothing to save our beaches and lose our children.” The Mayor chose Balboa Park for her speech, a fitting setting, in keeping with the park’s long tradition of supporting educational and artistic programs for the young.
That same year, 1989, Mayor O’Connor heralded the opening of the “San Diego Arts Festival: Treasures of the Soviet Union.” A three-week celebration, the international festival was a massive undertaking, kicking off with Super Powers Sunday. Mayor O’Connor had made known her intention to host the festival two years earlier, and she and other city officials traveled to the Soviet Union several times, along with representatives from various park institutions. Countless meetings ensued, but, in the end, tens of thousands of visitors saw such attractions as the Georgian State Singing and Dancing Ensemble, the Tbilisi State Marionette Theatre, Georgian Folk Dancers, Soviet muralists, and two Soviet prodigies, one a violinist, the other a pianist. There were also U.S opera singers from the cast of the Russian opera Boris Godunov, as well as a few Mexican and American artists. The Georgian cuisine included grilled lamb, marinated beef, sturgeon, and pomegranate ice cream. Another major attraction was the American premiere of a production of the Maly Theatre of Leningrad, presented by the park’s Old Globe Theatre. The drama was Brothers and Sisters, which settled in for a multi-week run, garnering great admiration in San Diego, just as it had at home in the Soviet Union.
Of course, the lavish display of Faberge eggs dominated the publicity, and those eager and willing to pay to see for themselves formed long lines outside the San Diego Museum of Art. Again, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the puppeteer Marie Hitchcock also performed in the park during the festival, presenting a show in which four Faberge eggs meet Humpty Dumpty.
In 1989, looking to take steps with regard to the park’s accumulating challenges, the City Council adopted the Balboa Park Master Plan. Estrada Land Planning acted as project consultant for the plan, which has been amended several times since. The Central Mesa Precise Plan, presented three years later in 1992, was a compromise, and has also served as a helpful guide. While many of the goals set out in the two plans have yet to be achieved, some projects have been completed, most notably the rebuilding of the House of Charm and House of Hospitality, both major accomplishments. Still, other expensive studies would be commissioned, and future decisions would only become more difficult.
The Next Quarter Century
Stay tuned for the next segment of this series, which will be published next month
Bea Evenson: Photography courtesy of The Committee of One Hundred Old Globe: Photography courtesy of The Old Globe Naval Hospital addition: photo courtesy of David Marshall, AIA