Balboa Park’s origin story
Just outside downtown San Diego are 1,200 acres of land dedicated as park space by the City of San Diego. Known as Balboa Park, the space includes many natural and planted areas as well as buildings that represent some of San Diego’s most iconic architecture.
Central Park in New York City was the first large-park dedication by a U.S. city. In 1868, Balboa Park became the second.
It was actually in 1835, when the land was still part of Mexico, that authorities set aside 1,400 acres for public recreational use, most of which would eventually become Balboa Park. Once the land was ceded to the U.S., the City of San Diego’s Board of Trustees created a public park using this land.
Shaping the buildings
While the park was built in 1868, with multiple architects involved, most of its buildings sprung up later – because of two major events: the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exposition, both hosted at Balboa Park. Today, Spanish colonial revival, mission revival and pueblo revival architectural styles dominate the park.
According to its Wikipedia page, “The park and its historic Exposition buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Landmark District in 1977, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Bertram Goodhue was hired as site planner and architect for the Panama-California Exposition which was to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and to spotlight San Diego’s port. He and his associate Carleton Winslow combined several styles of architecture to create the Spanish Colonial Revival style used for designing the buildings in the park.
For landscape design Goodhue’s team also included Kate Sessions and Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.
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.
Later, for the California Pacific International Exposition, which boosted the region after the Great Depression, San Diego architect Richard Requa led design and oversaw the addition of the Old Globe Theatre (later rebuilt after a fire), the International Cottages and the Spanish Village.
From temporary to permanent
Many of these iconic buildings survived repeated calls for their demolition, including from Goodhue himself.
Structures built for the Panama-California Exposition were not constructed with durable materials, because organizers expected they would not be necessary beyond 1916. After the City of San Diego determined that they could be restored for slightly more than the cost of demolition, restorations started thanks to private donations and funding from the federal government for the labor.
A similar effort to raze most of Balboa Park’s structures that surfaced after the California Pacific International Exposition was squashed again.
The need for restoration remains an issue for many of Balboa Park’s buildings, including the Botanical Building.
Designed by Carleton Winslow, it was the largest wood lath structure in the world when it was built and remains one of the largest to this day.
Thanks to Alfred Robinson, the world’s leading begonia breeder of his day, the idea behind including the building in the park was to serve as an anchor for a botanical garden. The Botanical Building is now home to more than 2,100 plant varieties.
When originally built, it was one of only four Balboa Park structures that were meant to remain indefinitely (along with the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the Museum of Us building and the Cabrillo Bridge).
Balboa Park Conservancy leads the charge
Remaining indefinitely, however, requires significant restoration, and San Diegans have the Balboa Park Conservancy (now rebranded as Forever Balboa Park after a merger with Friends of Balboa Park) and government funding sources to thank for efforts currently underway to restore the Botanical Building. The Conservancy made the building a priority and raised or secured all the funds for planning and design. Forever Balboa Park oversees the restoration project, along with the City of San Diego.
The 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 Engineers, 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. Construction will likely begin early next year.
The work will repair termite damage, deferred maintenance issues and more, in addition to returning the building to its original 1915 appearance. It will also include new restrooms, water- and energy-saving measures and improved visitor and educational engagement.
Our firm is honored to help restore one of San Diego’s most recognizable buildings, most serene spaces and most beloved destinations.