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1915 expo

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aerial view of the 1935 exposition

Aerial view of the California Pacific International Exposition. (San Diego Historical Society)

opening day parade

Opening day parade in 1935. (San Diego Historical Society)

San Diego's second and last successful attempt at holding a world's fair occurred in the middle of 1935. In the midst of a worldwide depression, Balboa Park's doors were once again thrown open for the California Pacific International Exposition. This new exposition was no longer a lighthearted whitewashed look into the past. The marketable history of the region had shifted from Spanish to almost entirely American. California state history also influenced the exposition's direction, but was controlled by exposition committees and not the people of San Diego. One reason for this shift was due in large part to the inclusion of government and national commercial interests instead of local business. The result was a change in iconography evident when the 1915 exposition is juxtaposed with the new California Pacific International Exposition. The United States Marine Corps replaced the conquistador, the 49er replaced the Spanish friar and a nudist colony took the role of Ramona. The newer exhibits and themes built for the 1935 exposition eclipsed the original structures. The trend of Spanish friars and explorers defining the region slowly began to fall away, replaced by national and corporate interests and their theme of progress. The contemporary looking Ford building, with its emphasis on progress and consumerism, outshone the anachronistic California Quadrangle. The operation and function remained a top down approach, the memories and myth of the Park began to transform as another generation made its way to the exposition.

mrs emma mcgovern

Mrs. Emma McGovern, the first visitor to the California Pacific International Exposition. (San Diego Historical Society)


In May of 1935, Mrs. Emma McGovern was the first visitor to enter the California Pacific International Exposition. What awaited her and the other 25,000 visitors that first day resembled very little of the 1915 exposition's Spanish theme. An article in the Los Angeles Times recalled that "Spanish dons" still stood at the entrance collecting tickets, but their uniforms seem muted compared to the conquistador costumes of twenty years earlier. The article continues that, once past the gate, fourteen miles of exhibits and attractions presented the visitor with a seemingly endless array of opportunities and entertainment.

view of the palisades with standard tower in background

View of the Palisades with the Standard Tower in the background. (San Diego Historical Society)

The Mayan themed Standard Oil tower was a short walk away from a replica of a California mining community of the mid nineteenth century called Gold Gulch. Next to Gold Gulch was the Zoro Gardens, home to a nudist colony. Much to a reporter's delight, "You actually can see the nymphs in the sylvan surroundings."

peeping in on the nudist colony

Peeping through to knotholes to see the nudist colony. (San Diego Historical Society)

the other side of the knotholes, the zoro gardens nudist colony

The other side of the knotholes, the Zoro Garden nudist colony. (San Diego Historical Society)

robot and the queen of the nudists

The two themes of the exposition were progress and beauty. This photo of a man dressed as a robot kidnapping the queen of the nudist colony neatly ties them together. (San Diego Historical Society)

view of the midway

View of the Midway. (San Diego Historical Society)

The $1,500,000 Midway played host to numerous amusements, a relief after a day of walking through exhibits.

shell oil building in 1935

Shell Oil Building located on the Palisades. (San Diego Historical Society)

Contrasted with previous world's fairs, expositions during the 1930s went in a different direction. Mostly a consequence of the worldwide depression, they no longer explored the economic and cultural achievements of countries around the world. Instead, fairs focused on the future of the United States as a nation, emphasizing government and national corporations' ability to lift the country out of the economic crisis. In short, fairs began to popularize the potential of American progress.

view of the palisades

View of the Ford Building. (San Diego Historical Society)

National corporations and the government invested heavily into exhibits promoting the improvement of the American economy. The federal government alone spent upward of $40 million on expositions by the late 1930s. Corporations were not far behind in expenditures as they sought to demonstrate to the American people their ability to weather the current economic storm. Historian Roland Marchand notes that the Ford Motor Company spent over $2.5 million on their 1934 exhibit in Chicago, "the largest sum ever invested in a fair exhibit." Corporate exhibits were so successful that scholar Paul Mason Fotsch notes approximately 30,000 people attended Futurama at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It was a diorama, created by General Motors, that envisioned what cities and transportation would look like in 1960 and was the most visited exhibit for that fair. Fotsch goes on to argue that, "It was expected that new technology would help to bring on this better future, and the progress of technology was embodied in the rapid progression of cars in the Futurama." The rallying cry, demonstrated by almost every exposition during the 1930s, was progress and San Diego's California Pacific International Exposition was no different.

Interactive Google map of the original exposition grounds.

interactive google map of the existing 1935 expo buildings

Click the link above to see where the original buildings are located.

YouTube video and more pictures from the exposition.

Ken Kramer's "About San Diego Series" on the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. (YouTube)

workers crossing the cabrillo bridge in 1934

Workers crossing the Cabrillo Bridge in 1934. (San Diego Historical Society)

plaza de panama in 1935

Plaza de Panama in 1935. (San Diego Historical Society)

aerial view of balboa park in 1937

Aerial view of Balboa Park in 1937. (San Diego Historical Society)

firestone fountain

Firestone Fountain in the Palisades section of the 1935 Exposition. (San Diego Historical Society)

aimee semple mcpherson giving a sermon

Aimee Semple McPherson giving a sermon. (San Diego Historical Society)

natural history museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum in 1934. (San Diego Historical Society)