Iconic San Diego structure will soon be restored to its original condition…plus a few improvements
By Sandra Gramley, AIA, LEED NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, principal at Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Inc.
Restoration is underway on the Botanical Building in Balboa Park! If you’ve been following our news site, you know that we’ve written about this building before…and a time before that. But how can we not celebrate the kickoff of this historic restoration with a special article?
First, a review of the building’s history
The Botanical Building was originally built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition as part of an effort to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and to spotlight San Diego’s port. Bertram Goodhue was hired as site planner and architect for the Panama-California Exposition.
During this time, Goodhue and his team created the Botanical Building, the Cabrillo Bridge, the California Bell Tower, Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the buildings now known as The Museum of Us and the Balboa Park Club. Except for the Bell Tower and the Balboa Park Club, these were the few structures that were meant to remain indefinitely.
The Botanical Building itself was designed by team member Carleton Winslow to serve as an anchor for a botanical garden. It was the largest wood lath structure in the world when it was built and remains one of the largest to this day.
To remain indefinitely, a building needs some regular maintenance work. The Botanical Building has suffered from a lot of deferred maintenance and changes to the original structure, but the work underway will give it new life.
Thanks to the efforts of the Balboa Park Conservancy (now rebranded as Forever Balboa Park after a merger with Friends of Balboa Park) and government funding sources, the Botanical Building is receiving some TLC. The work will also address major termite damage, severe rust and those years of structural changes and deferred maintenance. Forever Balboa Park oversees the restoration project, along with the City of San Diego and the Parks and Recreation Department.
A team of RNT Architects, Spurlock Landscape Architects and Tres Fromme (horticultural designer) created architectural bridging documents for the restoration.
Now, our team, which includes EC Constructors, Platt/Whitelaw Architects, Michael Baker Intl, Estrada Land Planning, AB Court & Associates, Degenkolb, Turpin & Rattan Engineering, Recon, Meridian and Milford Wayne Donaldson, will work through construction to refine and implement the bridging documents’ vision.
What’s happening now
Can you imagine moving over 2,100 varieties of plants out of the Botanical Building? A handful of larger plants will stay through the construction, but the majority are now headed to the City of San Diego’s nursery for safe keeping.
In addition to working around the plants that must stay, our project team is figuring out ways to lower the soil level of the building’s planting beds, which has risen over time, without compromising the plants that have to remain in place. To do this, we’ll create planters within the planting beds, surrounding what would otherwise be exposed trunks and roots.
Our team will also restore this building to its original 1915 condition. In addition to some general sprucing up and structural repairs, the work includes reintroducing arched windows on the north and south sides of the structure to return the building to its original 1915 appearance. It will also include new restrooms, water- and energy-saving measures and improved visitor and educational engagement spaces.
A new public entry on the north side is also planned to provide better access for private events. Just outside the northeast corner of the building stands a Moreton Bay Fig tree that is over 100 years old. We’re adapting the design and construction methods to save this tree and accommodate its roots – some of which have grown into the building.
Right now, we’re putting final touches on the design. The construction trailer is in, plants are moving out and the team is looking forward to getting the permit to start construction. The building is closed, but visitors can still enjoy the koi pond out front and the surrounding lawn areas. Completion is expected for summer of 2023.
Our firm is honored to help restore one of San Diego’s most recognizable buildings, most serene spaces and most beloved destinations.