Balboa Park, San Diego

Exhibit by: Katharina Von Ow

city park and palm trees

Balboa Park Landscape

San Diego boasts a city park that includes many of the city’s major cultural institutions. In Balboa Park architecture is as important as nature.

Already in 1868, when San Diego had barely 2,000 inhabitants, 1,400 acres (567 ha) were designated for the development of a city park.

The park is named in honor of Vasco Nunez de Balboa who was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.

Two World’s Fairs were held in the park, and the Panama-California Exposition (1915-1916) was an important milestone for the further development of the park.

Most of the buildings constructed for this event were not built for long-term use. However, the population of San Diego embraced the Spanish Colonial architecture and many of the original buildings were renovated or reconstructed and therefore, can still be enjoyed today.

The subsequent California-Pacific International Exposition (1935-1936), held on the grounds of Balboa Park, aided San Diego’s economy during the Great Depression by providing structure-building jobs for the Exposition. Now many of these buildings house museums or other cultural organizations.  There are countless attractions to visit and landscaped gardens to enjoy.

statue of Kate Sessions

Statue of founder Kate Sessions

The horticulturalist Kate Sessions (1857-1940) is considered to be the “Mother of Balboa Park.”  In 1892 she agreed to lease a parcel of land in Balboa Park from the city of San Diego to establish her nursery and in return she would plant 100 trees each year in the park for ten years and 300 elsewhere in San Diego. Because of this, thousands of trees and shrubs from all over the world now grow in the park.






photo of george marston

George White Marston


George White Marston (1850-1946), a department store owner, commissioned two master plans for the park and was also involved in saving the exhibition buildings from being torn down at the end of the two World’s Fairs.  His house near Balboa Park now belongs to the park and is a museum.

The Panama-California Exposition (1915-1916) was held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and San Diego saw a promising future in being the first U.S. port for ships passing through the Panama Canal. Visitors then and now cross the imposing Cabrillo Bridge and enter the Park through the West Gate.



world's fair catalogue, 1915

Guide Book of the Panama-California Exposition, 1915


gate to San Diego Fair

San Diego Fair West Gate

arched bridge

San Diego el Puente Cabrillo


The New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and his associate Carleton Winslow were the lead architects for the exposition.  Goodhue created a new style drawing from California’s Spanish history.

The buildings of previous world’s fairs had all been designed in the Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style.  Goodhue’s style for the buildings, later called Spanish Colonial, became widely popular in California and today is seen as typical for California.

Except for a few buildings, the structures were built as temporary buildings out of wood-and-plaster with decorations made out of cardboard.

Among the exhibits at the 1915-1916 exposition was a full recreation of a Native American pueblo village, including Native Americans posing as inhabitants.



San Diego Fair entrance

gothic entrance wall

indian exhibit at San Diego Fair

Zuni Exhibit, 1915







large rectangular pond

Lily Pond

large spanish-styled building

Botanical Building & Lily Pond, main entrance & gardens

Since the first exposition had created a big boost in the further development of San Diego, another World’s Fair was undertaken to promote San Diego and create economic opportunities during the Great Depression.

For the California Pacific International Exposition (1935-1936) the local architect Richard S. Requa added structures in the styles representing pueblo, Mayan, Mexican, Spanish and 1930s-modern.

During both World Wars many of the buildings left over from the two expositions were then used by the military which caused them significant damage.

Since most buildings were not built to be permanent, the city government wanted to tear them down. However, the citizens of San Diego were able to prevent the their destruction and had them renovated or reconstructed.

In 1977 Balboa Park and its exposition architecture were declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places.

West Gate to San Diego Fair

West Gate to San Diego Fair

gothic building entrance

Entrance through the California Building



The California Building was built for the 1915-1916 exposition and was one of the few buildings intended to be permanent.  It is one of the best known structures in Balboa Park with its high tower and tiled dome and a landmark of San Diego.  The southern facade is decorated with sculpted figures important in the history of California.  Today the building houses the anthropological Museum of Man.







gothic architecture building entrance

Casa del Prado entrance

courtyard in spanish building

Casa del Prado in the Courtyard

gothic building entrance - think old Hollywood

South wing of the Casa del Prado








The beautifully ornate Casa del Prado was erected for the 1915-1916 exposition as the Food and Beverage building.  It served many purposes over the years but had to be torn down in the 1960s.

The Committee of One Hundred, a citizens’ organization formed in 1967, fought for preservation and collected money for the building to be completely reconstructed.  This group is still active and very much involved in the preservation of the Spanish Colonial architecture in Balboa Park


building at balboa park

BP House of Hospitality

The House of Hospitality, originally designed for the 1915-1916 fair and remodeled for the 1935-1936 exposition, is the home of the well-stocked Balboa Park Visitor Center and also houses the large Prado Restaurant which is very popular with wedding parties celebrating at Balboa Park.


Woman with water jug fountain

Woman of Tohuantepec

The lovely tiled fountain in the courtyard with its statue showing an Aztec woman called the “Woman of Tehuantepec” was carved by the local artist Donal Hord for the 1935-1936 exposition and is one of the most popular photo spots in the park.



big pool in front of a building at balboa park

Lily Pond

The Botanical Building was constructed for the 1915-1916 exposition.  The most striking feature about this structure is the gigantic wooden beam roof construction.  San Diego’s perfect climate allows it to be such an open construction.

The Lily Pond was also built for the 1915-1916 fair.  During World War II the pond was used as a rehabilitation pool for wounded soldiers.  The lawns around the Lily Pond are very popular for sitting on the grass and relaxing.  The pond is home to water lilies as well as large and colorful koi fish.

The Botanical Building houses more than 2,100 permanent plants, among them palm trees, ferns and a large variety of orchids.  Throughout the year additional plants are planted as seasonal displays.

Besides the Botanical Building there are many other gardens to visit, among them the Cactus Garden, the Palm Canyon, and the Rose Garden.

There are fifteen museums in the park, such as the San Diego Natural History Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Museum of Art, and the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

The World-Famous San Diego Zoo is also located within Balboa Park.  The exotic animals on view during the 1915-1916 exposition created the basis for the now world-renowned zoo.

Many recreational opportunities can be enjoyed in the park; among them a golf course, tennis courts, a baseball field, a velodrome, a swimming pool, walking and jogging trails, playgrounds, chess tables, and picnic areas.

The Spanish Village Art Center was constructed for the 1935-1936 exposition to represent a typical Spanish village.  It contains gallery-studios where artists can be seen at work and artwork can be purchased.

The Old Globe Theatre (modeled after Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London) was built for the 1935-1936 fair and is used for theater productions.  The Spreckels Organ Pavilion, constructed for the 1915-1916 exposition, contains the largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.  There are free public concerts every Sunday.

The possibilities for spending time at Balboa Park are endless.  There is something for everybody, and every day this urban oasis is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike

Natural History Museum: San Diego Natural History Museum

Spanish Village: Spanish Village Art Center


▪ Balboa Park Expositions 1915 – 1936: The Magic City, A Book of Days. San Diego: The San Diego Historical Society, 1982.

▪ Bartholomew, Harland. Master Plan for Balboa Park, San Diego, California. St. Louis: Harland Bartholomew and Associates, City Planners–Civil

Engineers–Landscape Architects, June 1960.

▪ Clark, Ellen and Ray Riegert. Hidden San Diego. Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2005.

▪ Crooks, Pamela. Discover Balboa Park: A Complete Guide to America’s Greatest Urban Park. La Mesa, CA: Ridgway Park Publishing, 2000.

▪ Goodhue, Bertram Grosvenor. The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company Publishers, 1916.

▪ Hendrickson, Nancy. San Diego Then and Now. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2003.

▪ Hudson, Andrew. The Magic of Balboa Park. La Jolla, CA: PhotoSecrets Publishing, 2000.

▪ Johnson, Marael and Joe Yogerst. National Geographic Traveler San Diego. Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2003.

▪ Marshall, David. San Diego’s Balboa Park. Postcard History Series. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

▪ Puplava, Kathy and Paul Sirois. Trees and Gardens of Balboa Park. San Diego: Tecolote Publications, 2001.

▪ Wurman, Richard Saul. Access San Diego. 5th ed. New York: Access Press, 2008.