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Desert garden
Old Globe Theater

National Historic Landmark Plaque

Balboa Park is a 1,200 acre (4.9 km²) urban cultural park in San Diego, Californiamarker, United Statesmarker named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Many of the trees here were planted by the famous Americanmarker gardener Kate Sessions. Placed in reserve in 1835, it is one of the oldest sites in the United States dedicated to public recreational usage. Besides open areas and natural vegetation, it contains a variety of cultural attractions including museums, theaters, gardens, shops and restaurants as well as the San Diego Zoomarker. Balboa Park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The park is managed and maintained by the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department.


Many of the park's attractions are along El Prado, a long, wide promenade running through the center of the park. Most of the buildings lining this street are in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, a richly ornamented eclectic mixture of Spanish and Latin American architecture. Along this boulevard are many of the park's museums and cultural attractions, including the San Diego Museum of Manmarker, the San Diego Museum of Artmarker, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the San Diego Art Institute the San Diego Model Railroad Museummarker, the Natural History Museum, the San Diego Historical Society, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the Timken Museum of Artmarker where admission is always free. Other features along El Prado include the Reflection Pond, the latticed Botanical Building, and the Bea Evenson Fountain. Adjacent to the promenade is the San Diego Air & Space Museum.

There are a number of gardens located in the park. These include Alcazar Garden, Botanical Building, Cactus Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, Marston House Garden, Palm Canyon and Zoro Garden.

Theatrical and musical venues include the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, featuring the world's largest outdoor pipe organ (free performances every Sunday at 2:00 PM year round, and on Monday evenings at 7:30 PM during the summer); the Old Globe Theatremarker complex, which includes a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatremarker as well as an outdoor stage and a theatre in the round; and the outdoor amphitheatre Starlight Bowlmarker. The Casa Del Prado Theater is the home of San Diego Junior Theatre, the country's oldest children's theatre program.

A collection of "international cottages" (with free shows during high season on Sundays at 2:00); the Botanical Building with its accompanying reflecting pool; bridge, chess, horseshoe, petanque, and lawn bowling clubs are also located in the park.

Located in the northeast corner of the park is the Morley Field Sports Complex. Included in this complex is the largest tenant of the park, the Balboa Park Golf Complex with an 18-hole golf course and a 9-hole executive golf course, the San Diego Velodrome, baseball fields, the USTA awarded Balboa Tennis Club, archery ranges, the Bud Kearn Swimming Pool, and a disc golf course.

Balboa Park is adjacent to many of San Diegomarker's neighborhoods including Downtown San Diego, Bankers Hill, Hillcrestmarker, North Park, South Park, and Golden Hill.

Among the institutions within the park's borders not administered by the city's parks department are San Diego High School, Naval Medical Center San Diegomarker (NMCSD), and the San Diego Zoomarker.


The city park was made manifest starting in 1835 when the newest breed of San Diego city officials from the Mexican government took office. One of the first things the city officials did was select a 47,000 acre (190 km²) tract of land to be used for recreational purposes, making the section of land within this area that is now Balboa Park one of the oldest sites in the United States dedicated to public recreational usage.

No further activity took place until 1845, when a survey was done by Henry D. Fitch to map the 47,000 acres (190 km²). The Mexican government was never able to make use of the area due to the Mexican-American War and the acquisition of the city of San Diego and the rest of Californiamarker by the United Statesmarker.

On February 15, 1868, a request was put forth to the city's Board of Trustees to take two 160 acre (0.6 km²) plots of land, and create a public park. This request was made by one of the trustees, E. W. Morse, who along with real estate developer Alonzo Horton had selected a site just northeast of the growing urban center of "New Town" (now downtown San Diego) for the nascent park's location.

Subsequently, a resolution to set aside nine plots of land instead of just two, amounting to , for a city park was approved by the city's Board of Trustees on May 26, 1868.

Then in 1870, a new law was passed, an "act to insure the permanency of the park reservation." The law stated that "these lands (lots by number) are to be held in trust forever by the municipal authorities of said city for the purpose of a park" (Christman 14). It was around this time that San Diego residents were acquiring a certain fondness for the park; this is illustrated by their strong desire to keep the park intact when in 1871, there was a documented conspiracy to disassemble and "grab" the park land (Christman 15). At the urging of would-be land speculators and the city attorney, a state senator quietly introduced a bill in the California state legislature to repeal the 1970 law. A San Diego resident learned of the plan and informed higher powers in Sacramentomarker. The conspiracy was leaked to the press thereby exposing the city officials involved. A "public safety committee" got together and collected signatures supporting the current existence of the park. Their plea was successful and the bill was killed in the legislature.

City Park: 1868–1909

The Museum of Man with the California Tower in Balboa Park.
For the first few decades of its existence, "City Park" remained mostly open space. Numerous proposals, some altruistic, some profit-driven, were brought forward for the development and use of the land during this time, but no comprehensive plan for development was adopted until 1902.

Nevertheless, there was some building done. This included an orphanage and women's shelter (later burned down), a high school (Russ High School, later San Diego High School) and several gardens maintained by various private groups. One of the most celebrated of these early usages was a nursery owned and maintained by local horticulturist and botanist Kate Sessions, who is often referred to as "the mother of Balboa Park." Although owned by Sessions, by agreement with the city the nursery was open to the public, and Sessions donated trees and plants to the city every year for its beautification. Sessions is responsible for bringing in many of the different varieties of exotic plants in the park. Her work was so progressive that she was in fact the first woman awarded the Meyer Medal for "foreign plant importation" given to her by the American Genetic Association.

Other developments from this time include two reservoirs, an animal pound in Pound Canyon (later Cabrillo Canyon), and a gunpowder magazine in the area now known as Florida Canyon.

The earliest recreational developments in the park were in the "Golden Hill Park" area off 25th street. The National Register listed rustic stone fountain designed by architect Henry Lord Gay is the oldest surviving designed feature in the park. Other attractions in the area included a children's park (probably the first in San Diego), walking trails, and a redwood bird aviary.

The Panama-California Exposition: 1915–1916

Much of the park's look and feel today is due to the development done for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canalmarker, which opened in 1914, and to tout San Diego as the first U.S.marker port of call for vessels traveling north after passing through the canal. Planning began in 1909 and City Park was soon selected as the exposition site. The name Balboa Park was adopted in 1910 as the result of a naming contest. Groundbreaking began in 1911.

The head architect was New York architect Bertram Goodhue, previously known for his Gothic revival churches. For the fair Goodhue adopted a highly ornamented Spanish Revival style, which proved influential in and around San Diego and elsewhere in the American southwest. Goodhue's associate architect was Carleton M. Winslow, who is solely credited with the lattice-work Botanical Building and other structures. Goodhue's team won out over local contender Irving Gill.

One of the most significant improvements to the park made at that time was the construction of the Cabrillo Bridgemarker across a canyon. The bridge connects the main portion of the park with the western portion and with Laurel Street.

On December 31, 1914 The Panama-California Exposition opened. Balboa Park was crammed full of spectators. All of the guards, workers, and supervisors were dressed in Spanish and Mexican military uniforms, and the entire park was filled with different and foreign plants. Yellow and red were the themed colors of the event and they were everywhere. Over 40,000 poinsettia flowers were used, all of them in full bloom. The event seemed successful in attracting national attention. Even Pennsylvania's Liberty Bellmarker made a brief three-day appearance in November, 1915. The attempt to put San Diego on the map had worked. The event was a success and was extended through 1916. Over the next two years over 3.8 million visitors would attend and witness the hard-sought magnificence that was Balboa Park.

Botanical building
Some of the buildings built for the exposition still standing include:
  • Administration Building (completed March 1912) (now holds offices of the Museum of Man)
  • Botanical Building
  • California State Building and Quadrangle (completed October 2, 1914) (now houses the Museum of Man)
  • Cabrillo Bridgemarker (completed April 12, 1914)
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion (dedicated December 31, 1914)
  • California Bell Tower (completed 1914)
  • New Mexico Building (now Balboa Park Club)

California Pacific International Exposition: 1935–1936

Balboa Park’s second big event came in 1935 when it hosted yet another world’s fair. The 1935–1936 California Pacific International Exposition was intended to promote the city and cure San Diego’s post-Depression ills. Balboa Park was reconfigured by San Diego architect Richard S. Requa who also oversaw the design and construction of many new buildings. Facilities added at that time and still in use include the Old Globe Theatremarker, the International Cottages and Spanish Village. The second exposition left behind a legacy of colorful stories with its odd and controversial exhibits, such as a nudist colony and a Midget Village, and sideshow entertainment including fan dancer Sally Rand. America’s Exposition also provided visitors with early glimpses of a walking silver robot named Alpha and a strange electrical device known as a “television.”

Like the first exposition, the 1935 fair was so successful it was extended for a second year. Opening ceremonies for the second season began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a gold telegraph key in the White House to turn on the exposition’s lights. When the final numbers were tallied, the 1935–1936 event counted 6.7 million visitors – almost double the total of the 1915–1916 exposition. The buildings from both expositions now make up a National Historic Landmark District which is perhaps the most intact exposition site remaining in the nation.

Cultural References


  1. and
  2. Christman, Florence, The Romance of Balboa Park, San Diego Historical Society
  3. Montes, Gregory E., San Diego's City Park, 1868–1902, Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1977
  4. Montes, Gregory, Balboa Park 1909–1900: The Rise and Fall of the Olmsted plan, Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1982
  5. San Diego Historical Society
  6. Balboa Park Trust website
  7. San Diego Magazine, December, 1997
  8. Marshall, David, San Diego’s Balboa Park, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-7385-4754-1

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