The San Diego Zoo, long a landmark tenant in Balboa Park, began there in a pinch.

The zoo began as an answer to what to do with all the animals leftover from the Panama California Exposition — or, as Balboa Park archivist Richard Amero put it, the “mangy and diseased animals in cages left over from the 1915-16 exposition that nobody else wanted.”

Many of the buildings constructed for that exposition weren’t supposed to be permanent, either. They’d been built without foundations, as stage-set-style shells for exhibition space, meant to be torn down when the fair wrapped up.

But something gave the city more time to procrastinate tearing down the temporary buildings: World War I. The Navy converted the exposition buildings and site to a training center in 1917. San Diego had been working to woo the military, and here was a suitable place for housing and training recruits. The city shared the space for free.

These war years represent a period of extremes — celebration and public expression in two expositions, sandwiched with military takeovers.

The park, set aside in 1868, had long sat uncultivated. Trees and flowers and the 1915 expo had finally invigorated the city to see its park as a public jewel.

Then the military took it over, training soldiers to swim in the lily pond in front of what’s now the Botanical Building and hosting dances in the Plaza de Panama.

Then the city threw another expo in 1935.

Then the military took it over again.

We’ve been surveying the park’s history, digging up controversies and big changes to the park since its inception. The City Council approved a major plan to remake the park’s western entrance with a new bridge and parking structure earlier this month after two years of passionate argument over the park’s historic character.

The Park’s Second Exposition

When the Navy first left after WWI, the city made plans to tear down the temporary buildings because rehabbing them to be safe cost too much. But civic leader George Marston and music maven Gertrude Gilbert pleaded with officials to save them.

“At a public meeting, Miss Gilbert likened the plan to raze the buildings to letting a loved one die because it wasn’t convenient to raise money to pay the surgeon,” her biography at the San Diego History Center reads.

And a silver-tongued Marston added:

You may prove what you will in facts and figures about the shaky old buildings; the only answer is “They shall not pass.” Somehow, without knowing how to explain it, we are instinctively, subconsciously, incurably in love with them and will not give them up. It’s the grand emotion and is founded, I think, on something real and vital.

They succeeded, even figuring out a way to bring the cost down for the city. City leaders soon began dreaming of another exposition to bring people to the city and spend money in the local economy. San Diego was the first American city to receive funds from the federal Works Progress Administration — a federal stimulus program to try to pull the country out of economic recession. The expo stretched over 1935 and 1936, and many more buildings — designed to complement the 1915 style — by Richard Requa sprang up to join their predecessors.

“They really did pull San Diego out of the Depression with all of the revenue it generated,” said Will Chandler, a former curator at the San Diego Museum of Art and a park historian.

Balboa Park at War

But the Navy exerted even more control with its next takeover.

The federal government used war-time powers to commandeer the city park. Two days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a naval commander wrote the city and named a handful of buildings. The Navy was looking for spaces to erect hospital beds for servicemen, and it needed more space than the existing naval hospital the city had deeded land for in the 1920s.

The military sent the buildings’ clubs, guilds and organizations packing from the House of Hospitality.

“Balboa Park, San Diego’s great 1400-acre cultural and recreational asset has gone to war along with the nation,” read the San Diego Union on Dec. 12, 1941.

A few years later, by 1943, the Navy needed even more buildings. It took over the Museum of Man, the Museum of Natural History and the Fine Arts Gallery, the predecessor to the San Diego Museum of Art. They’d soon be filled with thousands of beds for hospitalized servicemen. The museums packed away their exhibits and collections, taking some offsite and putting some in storage.

The city took the park over from the Navy on Oct. 1, 1946. But it would take months — and hundreds of thousands of dollars — to reclaim the park for public use after offering it to the military for the war years.

You can see historical photographs of the park’s military occupants on graduate student Jonathan Bechtol’s 2009 website at Cal State San Marcos.

Next up: Midcentury decades brought big new footprints in the park: freeways and a garbage dump.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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