Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Historic Trip through San Diego's Balboa Park

A Historic Trip through San Diego's Balboa Park

In June when Mr. History Girl and I had the opportunity to visit California, we drove south from Los Angeles and spent the day in San Diego. Our visit included the Whaley House, Old Town, and the Marston House at the northern edge of historic Balboa Park. After our late afternoon visit to the Marston House, we ventured deeper into the park, which is home to numerous museums, theaters, restaurants, gardens, and of course the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Although by the time we arrived, all of the museums and the zoo had closed for the day. Despite our late start and limited time, walking through the museum corridor allowed us to appreciate the architecture, much of which dates to the 1910s and 1920s. However, we only explored a small portion of this grand park.

California Building, circa 1920.
Balboa Park is a 1,200 acre urban cultural park in San Diego, named for the Spanish maritime explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. The park land was set aside in 1868 by city leaders but the land remained vacant and virtually barren for over twenty years. In 1892, Kate Sessions stepped forward with a unique proposal: in exchange for thirty-two acres of land within the park for her commercial nursery, she would plant 100 trees a year in the park and donate trees and shrubs to be planted around San Diego. Her request was granted and beautification of the park began. In 1935, Sessions earned the title of "The Mother of Balboa Park” and many of her original plantings still thrive throughout the park today.

Around 1900, a master plan to formally develop the park was initialized. From 1903 through 1910, additional trees and shrubs were planted, a water system was installed, and roadways were built.

The Cabrillo Bridge looking towards the West Gate and California Building, 1915.
For a period of two years, the park hosted the 1915 - 1916 Panama-California Exposition which commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal and was meant to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the canal. The Exposition necessitated the construction of many buildings, both temporary and permanent. These buildings were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival Style and were designed by Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow. Many of these historic buildings still stand today. The groundbreaking for construction of the exposition's buildings was held on July 19, 1911. Buildings built for the exhibition include the California Tower and dome, the Cabrillo Bridge (a historic 1,500-foot-long bridge) and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which is one of the world's largest outdoor pipe organs. Another structure built, the Botanical Building, is one of the largest lath structures in the world - a steel superstructure covered in twelve miles of redwood slats. The view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park. During the second year of the exhibition, the San Diego Zoo was established. When the Exposition concluded on January 1, 1917, attendance had reached approximately 3.7 million.

Botanical Building
The park also hosted the 1935 - 1936 California Pacific International Exposition. The Exposition was the brainchild of Frank Drugan, who saw the park and its buildings as an opportunity to promote San Diego and support its economy, which had slowed down during the Great Depression. Architect Richard Requa designed the new permanent buildings to be added for the 1935 fair. The Exposition took ten months to build and it attracted over 7 million visitors. A number of the original surviving 1915-1916 Exposition structures were reused, some were remodeled, and a number of new buildings constructed.

Some of the new buildings included the California State Building (now the San Diego Automotive Museum), Palace of Electricity (now a gymnasium), Palace of Water and Transportation (demolished), and the Old Globe Theatre, The original 1935 Old Globe Theatre building burned down in 1978 but was rebuilt and reopened in 1981. The circular Ford Building is now the home of the San Diego Air and Space Museum. The House of Pacific Relations, a collection of fifteen small tan red-tiled cottages which were dedicated to different foreign countries and are still in use by a consortium of groups from thirty-two countries as a focus of educational activities, outreach, and international festivals. These are just a sampling of the many buildings, museums, and organizations that are located in the park.

El Prado Arcade
During World War II, the United States Navy used buildings in the park as a Naval Hospital. The hospital site treated approximately 172,000 patients. In 1946 the Balboa Park grounds and buildings were returned to the city. The Navy still maintains a large hospital complex in the park.

The park and its historic Exposition buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark District in 1977, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the park is visited by over 6 million each year to enjoy its nature, historic architecture, museums, and cultural activities.

Museums along El Prado

San Diego Museum of Man
(originally the San Diego Museum Association), 1916.

The San Diego Museum of Art, 1926. Designed by architect William Templeton Johnson and architect and builder, Robert W. Snyder.

The Casa de Balboa formerly known as the Commerce and Industries Building, Canadian Building, Museum of Natural History, Palace of Better Housing, and Electric Building. It was originally built in 1915 but destroyed by an arson fire on February 22, 1978. A committee raised the funds to rebuild the building and today it houses the San Diego Historical Society, founded in 1928 and San Diego Model Railroad Museum, founded 1982.

The San Diego Natural History Museum, 1933. Designed by William Templeton Johnson.

After our day at Balboa Park, we realized that we only saw a small fraction of it - and only from the exterior! One could spend days there exploring the gardens, visiting each museum, and taking in the beautiful array of architecture. One final image I could not leave out is one of the most photographed areas of the park: La Laguna da las Flores, located in front of the Botanical Building, looking toward El Prado.

For More Information
Balboa Park

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