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Large city parks were the newest fashion trend for urban planners in the middle of the 19th century. Alonzo Horton, developer of the Downtown waterfront, decided that since New York and San Francisco now had parks, San Diego should have one too— never mind that the population was less than 3,000. In 1868 he persuaded the city’s Board of Trustees to set aside 486 hectares north of Downtown for what was originally called City Park. The park was a rather undistinguished grassland until the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition put it on the map.
“World’s Fairs” and “Expositions” were immensely popular in the early 20th century. San Diego officials correctly figured that a two-year Exposition tied to the opening of the Panama Canal would attract plenty of visitors (and revenue). Exposition organizers renamed City Park to commemorate Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 to “discover” the Pacific Ocean. It didn’t matter that Balboa never got anywhere near California. Then they hired New York architect Bertram Goodhue to design the Exposition grounds. (He would later design the Los Angeles Central Library.) Taking his inspiration from San Diego’s history as the first Spanish settlement in California, Goodhue created an idealized 18th century Spanish Colonial promenade.
The immensely popular Exposition gave San Diego a collection of distinctive museum buildings (which later expanded for the California-Pacific International Exposition in 1935). It also popularized the “Spanish Colonial Revival” architectural style. With its idealized re-creation of Spanish missions in white adobe, Spanish Colonial Revival became ubiquitous and practically obligatory for public buildings throughout California in the 1920s and ’30s. (The style arguably reached its apotheosis in 1929, with Santa Barbara’s County Courthouse.) The Exposition’s other enduring legacy are the fanciful Spanish street names that continue to proliferate in Southern California.
Goodhue laid out the Exposition grounds along an east-west walk called El Prado, after Madrid’s Paseo del Prado with its famous museum. The California Building, at the west end of El Prado, is the architectural signature of Balboa Park— and perhaps of San Diego as well. Goodhue mixed, matched, sliced, and diced a variety of Spanish and Mexican architectural styles he had studied during extensive travels in Mexico. The most notable feature is a 61-meter three-stage bell tower visible (and audible) throughout the park, inspired by church towers in Spain and Mexico.
The Alcazar Garden offers a view of the tower favored by artists and photographers. First planted with flowers for the 1915 Exposition as the Montezuma Garden, the organizers of the 1935 Exposition renamed it to invoke the gardens of the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain.
The south facade of the California Building (the main entrance) was apparently inspired by a church in Tepotzotlan, Mexico. Its ornate stone carvings in the Spanish Baroque “Churrigueresque” style include statues of nine figures from the Spanish and Mexican history of San Diego. There are also the coats of arms of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Ruffles and flourishes fill in any gaps to leave no bit of stone uncarved. (The facade is actually made of cast concrete. A 1975 restoration made the crumbling facade permanent with epoxy resin.) The California Building now houses the Museum of Man, an anthropology museum that was obviously named in the days before political correctness.
As if the tower and south facade weren’t enough, Goodhue outfitted the California Building with a dome. Inspired by the Byzantine dome of the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, it provides an eclectic break from El Prado’s Spanish theme. But it’s not a complete break, since the covering of mosaic tiles includes a starburst design borrowed from a church in Taxco, Mexico.
The words written in tiles along the bottom of the dome are Mosaic in all senses of the word. It’s the Latin Vulgate version of Deuteronomy 8:8— A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey. That text originally referred to the Promised Land of Israel, in what might be the prototypical real estate agent’s spiel. But here it’s promoting California, a promising land where those crops also grow in a similar Mediterranean climate.
The Foreign Arts Building on El Prado was one of several temporary
structures built for the 1915 Exposition. For the 1935 Exposition it was
renamed the House of Hospitality and extensively remodeled with a
courtyard inspired by the State Museum in Guadalajara, Mexico. The
courtyard’s centerpiece is a fountain built around Donal Hord’s Woman
of Tehuantepec sculpture. Demolished and completely rebuilt in 1997,
the House of Hospitality contains Balboa Park’s visitor center and an
upscale restaurant. That rebuilding project was funded with an increase
in the city’s hotel tax, as San Diegans consistently vote down bond
issues to pay for historical restoration.
The Botanical Building off El Prado is reputedly the most photographed (and painted) subject in San Diego. 76 meters long, 23 meters wide, and 18 meters high, it was the world’s largest wood lath structure when it was built in 1915. A steel infrastructure holds the lath in place.
Goodhue had planned a building inspired by a Spanish Renaissance palace, but for reasons now lost he ended up with a much simplified design. A reflecting pool with water lilies, inspired by similar pools Goodhue had seen on a trip to Persia (now called Iran), provides a foreground for untold millions of pictures.
Inside the Botanical Building are some 2,100 permanent tropical plants,
along with floral displays that change with the seasons. Since the
building is an open redwood lattice that is at least partially exposed
to the elements, I have no idea how they keep the tropical plants like
this pitcher plant comfortable during the winter. Despite what Hollywood
and tourist offices would like you to believe, winter nights in Southern
California can get quite chilly.
The most popular part of Balboa Park has no Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. But the San Diego Zoo did get its start with a collection of foreign animals left over from the 1915 Exposition. It has since grown to include more than 800 species of animals, many of them rare or endangered, and a botanic garden with 700,000 exotic plants.
The Zoo does have its theme-park aspects to keep human larvae suitably entertained, including performing animal shows, rides, and humans dressed as cute animal characters. But it’s also a serious institution devoted to research on conservation and captive breeding of endangered species. This is one “family attraction” that adults can enjoy, although it’s more enjoyable at times other than the crowded summer.
The Zoo isn’t the only place to find animals in Balboa Park. On sunny
weekends all sorts of people— and their dogs— gather to
picnic, watch street performers, visit the museums, and enjoy the