Land was set aside here for public use in the 1830s and 1,400 acres were legally declared “City Park” in 1868, making San Diego one of America’s first towns to have a park. But the scrub mesa of City Park remained completely undeveloped; not the kind of park where you would see joggers and baby strollers on winding paths today but rather the kind of park where you would meet rattlesnakes and coyotes.
The first steps towards taming and landscaping City Park took place in 1892 when a botanist named Kate Sessions made a deal to plant 100 trees every year in exchange for 32 acres she could use for her commercial nursery. Sessions introduced a variety of native and exotic plants to the park and many of her trees are still growing. She became known as the “Mother of Balboa Park” but surely even she harbored no dream of what the park would shortly become.
To celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, San Diego staged the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 to announce its geographic position as the first American port of call on the Pacific coast for ships exiting the Panama Canal from the Atlantic Ocean. It was an audacious undertaking for a city with a population of 39,578. Los Angeles and San Francisco were both ten times as large. In fact, no city as small as San Diego had ever attempted to put on a world’s fair.
The fairgrounds would be in City Park and one of the first tasks organizers undertook was changing the park name. A contest yielded the name of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European to cross Central America and see the Pacific Ocean. The architect for the Exposition came from the East Coast, Bertram Goodhue who was celebrated for his Gothic Revival churches. In California, however, Goodhue re-interpreted historic Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture into what became known as the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. Goodhue advocated and it was accepted that all but a handful of structures for the World’s Fair would be disposable and were constructed of plaster and wood. The Exposition was so successful it remained open for an extra year and the assembly of Spanish-flavored buildings was so striking and so popular that San Diegans could not tear the fair down completely when it was over.
When San Diego put on the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935 many of the original buildings were back in uses as exhibit halls. This time around the fair had a more practical and less visionary motive - jumpstart an economy ravaged by the Great Depression. Still, it was also successful enough to win a year’s extension. In the decades to follow there would be no more international get-togethers in Balboa Park and the fair buildings gradually fell into disrepair. Balboa Park, and the historic Exposition buildings, were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and plans were hatched to make many of the “temporary” buildings permanent after so many years.
Our walking tour of Balboa Park will begin at its western boundary on 6th Avenue near a statue remembering Kate Sessions and walk along El Prado, the same path used by wide-eyed fair-goers almost a century ago...
El Prado east of 6th Avenue
The Cabrillo Bridge was constructed in 1915 to provide a dramatic pedestrian entrance to the Panama-California Exposition. Architect Thomas B. Hunter spanned the Cabrillo Canyon with an imaginative multi-arched cantilever bridge unlike anything seen in California to that time. A million board feet of redwood were required to frame out the forms for the concrete supports. Originally those pillars rested in a lagoon created on the canyon floor, but since 1948 the Cabrillo Freeway, lauded as one of America’s most beautiful parkways, has flowed underneath. Remember to look south (your right) over the side to view the San Diego skyline as you cross.
The barrel-vaulted entrance to Balboa Park served as the ceremonial gateway for visitors to the 1915 world’s fair. Symbolic sculptures surmount the arch - looking up to your left is a female figure representing the Pacific Ocean and staring across at her is a male figure playing the part of the Atlantic Ocean. Each is spilling water that will mingle in the Panama Canal. Uppermost in the composition is the crest of the City of San Diego.
PASS THROUGH THE GATE INTO THE PLAZA DE CALIFORNIA. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
California Building/San Diego Museum of Man
1350 El Prado
The dome and tower of the California Building were intended as permanent structures to live on beyond the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Celebrated architect Bertram Goodhue dipped deep in his bag of trick to create San Diego’s most memorable Spanish Colonial facade, mixing Baroque, Gothic and Rococo influences into his design stew. The intricate stone carvings of historic San Diego figures were executed by the Piccirilli Brtohers, master Italian stone carvers who came to the United States in 1888. Among the legion of admirers of the California Building was Orson Welles who used the exterior to depict the Xanadu castle in his classic Citizen Kane. The Exposition’s collection was assembled into a museum after the fair and is on display here, heavy on anthropology.
LEAVE EL PRADO AND WALK PAST THE CALIFORNIA TOWER TO SEE BEHIND IT THE...
Old Globe Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way, north of El Prado
London’s original Globe Theatre was owned by six actors, including William Shakespeare, and assembled in 1599 from timbers from an earlier stage. It burned in 1613, was quickly rebuilt and closed forever in 1642 after rabblerousing Puritan protest. It was dismantled and no one knows what its actual size was or exactly what it looked like. Recreations such as this, constructed as part of the California Pacific International Exposition, represent the best guess from scholarly detective work. San Diego’s Globe Theatre suffered the same fate as the original - it burned in 1978 and was rebuilt. Today the Globe anchors an award-winning professional theater complex.
RETURN TO EL PRADO AND TURN LEFT, HEADING EAST. ON YOUR RIGHT THE BUILDING IS...
House of Charm/San Diego Art Institute
1439 El Prado at southwest corner of Plaza de Panama
The master plan was for most of the buildings constructed for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 to be torn down after the fair. This was the Mining Building and the Spanish Mission-style showplace for the region’s mineral wealth won favor with the populace and was not dismantled. It continued to be used as an exhibit hall for several more years and then popped up as a refreshment stand and host of flower shows. When the California Pacific International Exposition was staged in 1935 this building was used to sell souvenirs and trinkets and it acquired the House of Charm tag. After nearly 80 years the temporary building could be trusted no more and it was torn down and replaced with a near copy, but permanent this time. Its main tenant is the gallery for the San Diego Art Institute that was founded in the 1940s to promote the town’s living arts community.
WALK THROUGH THE BREEZEWAY IN THE HOUSE OF CHARM AND INTO THE...
south side of El Prado, through breezeway
The original formal garden was created for the 1935 Exposition by designer Richard Requa who took his inspiration from the royal gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain. Trimmed boxwood hedges frame the ornate tile fountains and gardens colored by thousands of annuals through the year.
CONTINUE OUT THE BACK OF THE ALCAZAR GARDEN AND ACROSS THE PARKING LOT. TO YOUR RIGHT, FOR EXPLORATION, IS THE...
1549 El Prado
The plantings in this ravine boast more than 450 palms, representing 58 species, in a two-acre tropical garden. It all began with a cluster of Mexican fan palms in 1912. A wooden footbridge and staircase provide access to the canyon.
CONTINUE ON THE WALKWAY TO THE PAN AMERICAN PLAZA.
Spreckels Organ Pavilion
1549 El Prado # 10
John D. Spreckels came by his money the old-fashioned way - his father was one of the wealthiest men on the Pacific Coast - Claus Spreckels, the Sugar King. John started out working in Hawaii in the family business but he would make his own name in transportation and real estate, so much so that when he died in 1926 at the age of 72 he would be eulogized as “one of America’s few great Empire Builders who invested millions to turn a struggling, bankrupt village into the beautiful and cosmopolitan city San Diego is today.” His interest in the town started in 1887 when he brought his yacht Lurline into the harbor to stock up on supplies. Spreckels thought enough of the town to construct a wharf and coal bunkers at the foot of Broadway but he was just getting started. He gobbled up the Coronado Beach Company with its hotel and surrounding land and then acquired the San Diego street railway system, put the horses out to pasture and installed electric street cars. He managed his burgeoning San Diego empire from San Francisco until the earthquake in 1906 which drove him to bring his family permanently to Coronado Island, which he owned all of. John Spreckels was the wealthiest man in San Diego and it is estimated that at one time he paid 10% of all property taxes in San Diego County. John and his brother Adolph, who ran the sugar empire after their father, donated one of the world’s largest pipe organs - 4,530 pipes from a few inches to 32 feet in length - to the City in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. The City has a had an organist on staff since 1917, performing free concerts every Sunday.
FOLLOW THE WALKWAY TO THE RIGHT INTO THE PAN AMERICAN PLAZA.
United Nations Building2171 Pan American Plaza
This Spanish Colonial building from the 1935 exposition housed displays from the Christian Science Monitor and in 1956, at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, it was presented to the United Nations Association of San Diego. Today the red-tile roofed building serves as an international gift shop.
House of Pacific Relations International Cottages
2191 Pan American Road
This covey of red-tile roofed cottages was constructed for the 1935 Exposition and they have found enduring use promoting goodwill and international fellowship. Some 32 multicultural groups present workshops, stage festivals, dish out ethnic food and otherwise raise awareness for national traditions across the globe.
Balboa Park Club
1549 El Prado
The new state of New Mexico footed the bill for this building used to house its exhibits in the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The price tag for the 15,000-square foot hall came to less than $20,000. Isaac Hamilton Rapp, who pioneered the Pueblo Revival style of architecture, provided a similar design for this space featuring open courtyards, vigas (exposed beams) and smooth adobe textures. After the fair New Mexico sold the building to the City of San Diego for $3,200. The City quickly demolished the neighboring Mission-style buildings used by Montana and Washington but recognized the quality of architecture here and let it stand. For the next fair in 1935, however, San Diego architect Richard Requa performed an unsympathetic expansion that obscured the Pueblo-style uniqueness. A 1990s restoration brought much of it back. The Club’s bragging point these days is a wooden dance floor with 13,000 square feet of twirling space.
2130 Pan American Plaza
The Women’s Palace echoed the Pueblo Revival style of the Balboa Park Club when it was raised for the 1935 fair. Today it is an entertainment center with a multipurpose recital hall and a stage for the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater.
San Diego Automotive Museum
2080 Pan American Plaza
This imposing building with Mayan influences was constructed as the Conference Building for the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition. A million dollars was poured into its restoration in 1988 for the San Diego Automotive Museum. Included in the permanent collection of classic cars are a 1967 Austin –London Taxi that belonged to Frank Sinatra and a tribute to Steve McQueen.
San Diego Air & Space Museum
2001 Pan American Plaza
The Ford Motor Company built this circular Art Deco showplace to highlight the innovations of tomorrow for the 1935 Exposition. Today the space has been commandeered for a different type of transportation that explores the history of flight from an actual working replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, which was designed and assembled by San Diego’s Ryan Aircraft, to Apollo spacecraft. Out front is a Lockheed A-12, one of 15 ultra secretive reconnaissance aircraft built for the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1960s. Details on the plane were not released until 2007, almost 40 years after the plane’s final mission.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP PAN-AMERICAN PLAZA TOWARDS EL PRADO. ON YOUR RIGHT IS...
Starlight Theatre and Starlight Bowl
2005 Pan American Plaza
Ford used this outdoor venue to present free symphonic concerts during the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition. The Starlight put on its first production here in 1948. More than 1,000 performances later it is one of America’s oldest running musical theater companies.
2111 Pan American Plaza
Architect Richard Requa drew on ancient Mayan and Aztec design principles for this substantial 1935 fair building that featured a 300-seat theater. The occupant was the Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries that introduced fair-goers to the wonders of electrification. Stripped of its ornamentation, the building was converted to indoor recreational facility for the park.
San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum
2131 Pan American Plaza
This was the Federal Building during the 1935 Exhibition, designed as a permanent reinforced concrete structure expected to be converted into a post-fair theater. Richard Requa again went looking for design inspiration on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and came back with an interpretation of the Palace of the Governor from the Mayan city of Uxmal. The beefy decorative frieze dominates the entranceway. It took 70,000 square feet of exhibition space to contain the twenty departments of the United States Government that showed up at the Fair and today those three levels comprise America’s largest multi-sports museum.
Japanese Friendship Garden
2215 Pan American Place
A teahouse was sited here during the 1915–16 Panama-California Exposition and nearly a century later the sloping two acres of landscaped grounds are a place for quiet contemplation.
THE STATUE AT THE SOUTH ENTRANCE OF TH EPLAZA DE PANAMA, AT EL PRADO IS...
El Cid Campeador
south entrance to Plaza de Panama
This homage to El Cid Campeador, 11th century Castilian nobleman, military leader and subject of the oldest Spanish epic poem in existence, was created for neither world’s fair but installed in 1927. The bronze was sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington, known for her animal and equestrian statues. Another of her works, Horse Trainer, is located in the park as well.
House of Hospitality
1549 El Prado at southeast corner of Plaza de Panama
The park visitor center is a reconstruction of the Foreign Arts Building from the 1915 Exposition. Like most of its fellow Spanish-Renaissance structures it was scheduled to be torn down but San Diegans decided to keep them once they had seen them. In 1997 the building was demolished but some 1000 architectural pieces were saved to use during the reconstruction. That included coats of arms that decorated the exterior of the fair building. Some of the shields were completely made up as many poor countries from Latin America did not attend the world’s fair as hoped.
TURN RIGHT ON EL PRADO.
Casa del Balboa
1649 El Prado
The romantic-sounding Casa del Balboa has weathered some less glamourous names through its history, including its name on the drawing board it never carried - the Domestic Liberal Arts Building. It opened the World’s Fair in 1915 as the Commerce and Industries Building but in its second year Canada took up most of the space with its commanding exhibit and it became the Canada Building. When the fair came around again in 1935 the building, based on the 17th century mansion of the Marques de la Villa del Villar del Aguila in Queretaro, Mexico, became the Palace of Better Housing. By the 1970s it was known as the Electric Building when it was torched by teenage arsonists, negating a planned restoration. It was rebuilt and now houses three museums, one for photography, one for San Diego history and one boasting the world’s largest operating model railroad.
Casa del Prado
1650 El Prado
The exuberant Casa del Prado is a mostly faithful recreation of the Agriculture and Horticulture Building from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It was known as the Food and Beverage Building after the 1935 Exposition and was used by county fairs that were regular features of Balboa Park. It was the first of the “temporary” fair buildings to be torn down and replaced, beginning in 1968. The lavish Spanish baroque facade came back and the building now services various community organizations.
CONTINUE INTO VILLAGE PLACE. AHEAD TO YOUR RIGHT IS...
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
1875 El Prado
With a planetarium, Southern California’s only IMAX? Dome Theater, and over 100 hands-on science exhibits, this is the most visited of Balboa Park’s museums. It was started in 1961 with a donation from Reuben Hollis Fleet, an aviation pioneer who was instrumental in the creation of the United States Air Mail service.
TURN LEFT AN WALK UP INTO VILLAGE PLACE.
San Diego Natural History Museum
1788 El Prado
James Scripps built one of America’s greatest newspaper fortunes in Detroit, Michigan and a good chunk of that money wound up in San Diego civic institutions thanks to his daughter Ellen Browning Scripps. She built a home in La Jolla in 1897 when she accompanied her brother to town while looking after his health. She was 61 and would live another 35 years in San Diego during which time she became the town’s leading philanthropist. She provided $100,000 for the core of this building - it was doubled in size in 2001 - after the burning of the 1915 Exposition’s Nevada Building in 1925.
Moreton Bay Fig Tree
1549 El Prado
The Moreton Bay Fig is a native of eastern Australia and in a crowded forest environment will grow tall and narrow. But plant it in an open area - like this one was in 1914 in preparation for the Panama-California International Exposition - it will spread out to a canopy width of 150 feet. Having grown over 80 feet tall during the last century the Moreton Bay Fig is a California Big Tree as a state champion of its species.
Spanish Village Art Center
1770 Village Place
Hundreds of local painters, sculptors, metalsmiths, jewelry designers, clay artists, gourd artists, photographers, printmakers, fiber artists, basket weavers, mixed-media artists, glass artists work daily in the tile-roofed studio/galleries. The pathway to the west of the arts village, your left, leads to the San Diego Zoo, or more accurately The World Famous San Diego Zoo as it is almost invariably announced, home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals.
TURN AND WALK BACK A FEW STEPS ON EL PRADO. TURN RIGHT AND WALK THROUGH THE CASE DEL PRADO TO REACH...
1549 El Prado
This unique structure raised for the 1915 Panama California International Exposition began with an iron frame salvaged from what was supposed to be a Santa Fe Railroad station. It was then skinned with over twelve miles of redwood laths to create one of the largest lattice structures in the world. The Botanical Building, and its Lily Pond out front, display a smorgasbord of over 2,000 permanent plants.
CONTINUE TOWARDS THE PLAZA DE PANAMA. ON YOUR LEFT IS...
Timken Museum of Art
1500 El Prado
Jacob Timken bought his family of seven children from Germany to America in 1838 and settled outside of St. Louis where a large contingent of fellow Germans had put down roots. His son Henry apprenticed to a master wagon and carriage maker and was making carriages on his own by the time he was 24 in 1855. Timken patented numerous improvements in the buggy trade and was able to retire to San Diego in the 1880s. Henry Timken was restless in retirement, however, and traveled widely before his imagination was captured by the new horseless carriages that were appearing on American streets. In 1898 he patented the tapered roller bearing, a discovery that would earn him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He formed the Timken Roller Bearing Axle Company in Canton in 1901 and was soon providing 90% of the axles used in the nation’s exploding motor vehicle industry. With the company established and in the control of his sons, Henry Timken again retired to San Diego, this time for good. The Timken family donated monies that helped open this museum, designed in gleaming white Italian travertine marble by San Diego architect Frank Hope, Jr, in 1965.
AHEAD ON THE RIGHT ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE PLAZA DE PANAMA IS...
The San Diego Museum of Art
1450 El Prado
The San Diego Museum of Art represents the expectations of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition realized. The temporary exhibition building here was dismantled as planned and the fair did stir enough up cultural awareness that a permanent art gallery was created. Go-to architect William Templeton Johnson provided a Spanish Renaissance building and the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego opened to the public on February 28, 1926. The alcoved figures above the entrance are sculptures of 17th century Spanish painters Bartolomew Murillo, Francesco de Zurbarán and Diego Velásquez.
WALK BACK TO THE MAIN STREET, EL PRADO AND TURN RIGHT. PASS BACK THROUGH THE WEST GATE AND ACROSS THE CABRILLO BRIDGE TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.