It’s time to roll back the clock and celebrate one of the icons of San Diego’s cityscape, Balboa Park, and the lavish world’s fair that helped define it.
Balboa Park itself dates back to the late 1860s—it was initially known simply as “City Park”—but it really blossomed during the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. A hundred years later, San Diego’s remembering that iconic event—and feting the 1,200-acre park that hosted it—with a centennial celebration that kicked off last year.
San Diego held the Panama-California Exposition to mark the Panama Canal’s completion; the shindig wasn’t without controversy, given San Francisco was doing the same with its Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Exposition transformed Balboa Park—up till then mostly undeveloped—with the addition of spectacular Spanish Colonial-style structures such as the Cabrillo Bridge, California Tower, and California Building, which together formed the festivities’ regal gateway. Others Expo buildings still proudly standing in the park include the Botanical Building, the California State Building, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion.
Streetcar lines were installed to shuttle in the Expo’s visitors, who enjoyed plenty of rides, games, and displays amid the park’s gardens, aviaries, and animal enclosures. Among the attractions was the Painted Desert, which featured representatives of a number of American Indian tribes. The San Diego Museum of Man, housed in the California Quadrangle, owes its roots to the Exposition, as does one of the city’s best-known fixtures: the San Diego Zoo, founded during the Exposition’s second year. As the Balboa Park website explains, “Dr. Harry Wegeforth, a surgeon for the fair, conceived the idea of starting a zoo after hearing the roar of a lion, one of the few wild animals displayed in cages at the Exposition.” Wegeforth became the San Diego Zoo’s founding president.
In 2015, the Panama-California Exposition centennial celebration brought plenty of special events and exhibits to Balboa Park, and the fun continues in 2016. For instance, the San Diego History Center (housed in the Casa de Balboa, the Exposition’s reconstructed Commerce and Industries Building) is presenting “San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Expo” through July. It’s a must-see commemoration of the Exposition packed with priceless photographs, film clips, and mementos.
And speaking of historical treasures, you can browse a gallery of Panama-California Exposition photographs and keepsakes at the Balboa Park website, which also includes an interactive online map tracing the park’s heritage.
Come join the celebration of San Diego’s big, beloved greenspace and its formative century-old extravaganza with a visit to Balboa Park this spring. And don’t forget to reserve your room at the Sofia Hotel—another venerable landmark of San Diego, of course—for conveniently close accommodations!