Pigeons and soldiers, sailors and peacocks, ladies in parasols and men dressed as Spanish grenadiers — these were all daily sights at Balboa Park’s gorgeous main plaza during its glory days.

But decades after its moment in the sun, the Plaza de Panama is home to cars, cars and more cars, plus a fountain surrounded by a vehicle roundabout. Now, there’s talk, once again, of getting rid of the automobiles and restoring the plaza to its former splendor.

While history suggests that the plaza may not have been a pristine pedestrian paradise — a 1936 photo shows vehicles in it — it was definitely a grand place where people both famous and obscure came to see and be seen.

Celebrity visitors included Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a scandalously bare — or was she? — fan dancer. Even the Liberty Bell made an appearance while on leave from Philadelphia.

In the beginning, the original Plaza de Panama was designed to look like a plaza in a Spanish town. It encompassed the space between the Plaza de los Estados in front of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to the south and the Fine Arts Building (where the San Diego Museum of Arts now sits) to the north.

In a report for the Committee of One Hundred, which supports the park’s preservation, local historian Richard Amero writes:

What finally emerged in San Diego was a blend of architecture, open space and landscaping that was unlike anything that had ever been seen. So it seemed and so it was praised by visitors who had been to Mexico and Spain, including a viceroy from the King of Spain and merchant prince and philanthropist George W. Marston.

The plaza debuted at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915 and 1916. Amero described it in a 1990 article for The Journal of San Diego History:

On special occasions, such as the opening night ceremony, a sea of humanity filled the entire area. When it was not being used by dignitaries for speeches, by the armed services for drills, by acrobats and athletes for sports; by bands for concerts; by soldiers, sailors and civilians for dances, or by exhibitors for shows, the Plaza was filled with strolling Spanish musicians … and electriquettes going in all directions.

An electriquette was a motorized chair. Here’s a photo of one from an exposition guidebook:

The electriquette, a kind of motorized wicker chair, was all the rage in Balboa Park in 1915. | Source: Official Guide Book of the Panama-California Exposition

Bands would play in the north part of the plaza, where the San Diego Museum of Art now sits, and a reviewing stand allowed the officers of the exposition and visiting celebrities to watch military exercises in the plaza, Amero said. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps called the park home at some points during its history.

Regiments of soldiers and sailors regularly appeared in the Plaza de Panama, including in 1918 when it served as a parade ground for the Naval Training Station. | Source: The Committee of One Hundred

Birds — peacocks, doves, pigeons — were in residence, too.

“A great flock of pigeons has its home in the Plaza de Panama and the birds perch on the visitors who feed them with seeds purchased from a gayly clad Mexican,” wrote a visitor in a magazine called The Outlook. “When they are startled there is a vision of wings.”

You can see the pigeons — along with some adorable children — at the end of this brief 1915 film about the fair. We pointed you to this video earlier this fall.

One of the plaza’s most famous visitors made an appearance in 1936 during the park’s second major party, the California-Pacific International Exposition. Her name was Sally Rand, and she was a fan dancer — “she did this fan dance in such a way that people thought they saw things that they didn’t see,” as Amero put it.

San Diego Magazine says that one day Rand “replaced the large feathered fans with giant balloons and someone popped them with a slingshot….”

The plaza got a temporary new name — Plaza del Pacifico — during that second exposition, and a large “Arch of the Future” appeared in the plaza along with two shallow, north-to-south reflecting pools that pedestrians had to walk around.

In 1935, officials temporarily added an arch and two reflecting pools to the Plaza de Panama. | Source: The Committee of One Hundred

“I don’t think that was such a hot idea,” Amero said. “After the exposition, they got rid of those reflecting pools.”

While cars were banned on the plaza during the initial Panama-California Exposition, cars began taking over the plaza as the 20th century went on. A photo of Rand posing in the plaza in front of the Place of International Art (now the Mingei International Museum) shows two cars that appear to be parked in the background.

Over time, cars took over the plaza. “People came, and they occupied the spaces, and no one prevented them,” Amero said. “I don’t think there was any official action. It was just a case of squatters’ rights.”

Amero said he supports restoring the plaza to its original appearance and preserving Balboa Park as a whole. “It’s not only part of our history but it represents a time when this city, which was really nothing more than a frontier town with a small population, went all out to create what they called the City Beautiful.”

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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