Courtesy of BalboaPark.org / Spreckels Organ Society
A page from a souvenir booklet, "Panama-California International Exposition, 1916," shows visitors walking across the Cabrillo Bridge to the Plaza de Panama.
For an epic, marquee event, San Diego leaders booked the country’s marquee landscape firm. The Olmsted brothers’ dad had, after all, designed Central Park in New York City.
The Olmsteds hoped to put the city’s planned 1915 exposition on the edge of Balboa Park, where the naval hospital is now, leaving much of the interior land wild.
As the expo got closer, the architect on the team, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, began to dream of a different location for the exposition grounds than the place close to downtown. He wanted to send people across a grand cement bridge into the center of the park, over Cabrillo Canyon, from Laurel Street.
But that didn’t sit well with the landscape architects. “Olmsted Brothers replied that their decision was final and that they could not be a party to a deep, massive, permanent encroachment on Balboa Park’s existing and potential natural landscape,” wrote historian Gregory Montes.
They resigned, and the team went with Goodhue’s central location, where the park’s iconic museums and theaters are today.
We’re pulling out tales like the Olmsteds’ resignation as part of a series looking at the big changes that have happened to Balboa Park since its inception, and the passionate disagreements that have followed it since the land was set aside.
A big plan to remake the park’s western entrance gained City Council approval two weeks ago, over cries that a new bypass bridge off that same Cabrillo Bridge and a paid parking structure would irreparably mar the park and its natural landscape.
Much of the iconic architecture that has so captivated ardent supporters of the park was originally intended to have little more durability than a movie set.
Central pieces of what we now have in Balboa Park weren’t always intended to be permanent. Many of the buildings were formed with the kind of plaster you’d use in an interior design rather than one meant to withstand the elements.
Correspondence and newspaper articles collected by Richard Amero reveal the century’s first 15 years leading up to the park’s Panama-California Exposition weren’t smooth.
The whole idea for the exposition was bold.
In 1910, San Diego was more of a town than a city. Fewer than 40,000 people lived here. But city leaders dreamed of an exposition that would draw the world’s attention to California’s southwesternmost destination. They’d put forth a giant effort in what was then called City Park to announce San Diego’s existence with “human progress” as the theme.
Panama Canal was opening, and the city thought it’d be a perfect event to celebrate. But San Francisco wanted to have an expo, too. Delegates from the larger city — more than 400,000 people — told San Diego to stop its plans. San Francisco won the right to have the official international expo.
That just fired everybody up.
Voters eventually approved close to $2 million in bonds to fix up the park and make the expo happen. Exposition leaders hired renowned planners who’d worked on other cities’ expos and who’d landscaped and designed parks all around the country. They decided to style the buildings as a Mission City, with Spanish-Colonial flourishes.
A reporter from the San Diego Sun sat with Goodhue at a café in 1912, and the architect swept his dishes out of the way to sketch his vision on the tablecloth.
Here is the main entrance and the bridge across the canyon at Laurel street. Whether the visitor looks at the exposition grounds from this entrance or from any other point, uniformity is to be the keynote and nothing is to disturb the general harmonious outline.
“The group of permanent buildings at the east end of the bridge is naturally my pet work, and the structures are going to be the very best I can make them. The walls of the tower, for instance,” and he indicated with his pencil a point on tablecloth drawing, “these walls are to be nine feet thick, built to last indefinitely. This tower and the big dome of the auditorium, also one of the permanent group, will be large enough to be seen for forty miles.”
Here’s a film from 1915, titled “A Glimpse of the San Diego Exposition”:
It’s the impact to Goodhue’s original view, from across the canyon, that many historical preservationists are upset about. The addition of a new planned road jutting off from the Cabrillo Bridge impacts the historical visual arrangement of the buildings.
But it’s also clear that the city has already tweaked Goodhue’s vision since the day at the café with the tablecloth sketch.
Many of the buildings built along El Prado were always intended to be temporary.
“It must be remembered that exposition architecture differs from that of our everyday world in being essentially of the fabric of a dream — not to endure but to produce a merely temporary effect. It should provide, after the fashion that stage scenery provides, illusion rather than reality,” Goodhue wrote in 1916, as cited in a 1960s article.
The buildings that should remain permanent, Goodhue said, were the Cabrillo bridge, the California dome and tower building and the “low-lying” Fine Arts Building across the Prado from it.
“The rest was to be swept away utterly,” he wrote, adding: “and only by thus razing all of the temporary buildings will San Diego enter upon the heritage that is rightfully hers.”
That didn’t happen.
Next up: What happened to those supposed-to-be temporary expo buildings in the years following 1915, and how the city added to its park with another exposition and began an arrangement that has yet to end to yield a chunk of parkland with the U.S. Navy.
Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs, who’s led the Plaza de Panama remodel, is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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