city park link

1915 expo

1935 expo

world war 2

1950's to the 1960s

1970s to the 1980s

visual essay link


works cited link

City Park

San Diego's City Park was originally dedicated in 1869. Originally pueblo lands, the Park would not see a unified use until the early 1900s. Its early uses were a hodgepodge of individual needs. An early proposition was to grow tobacco on the land in an effort to make a profit for San Diego. Although it was only 60 acres, worries arose about the rest of City Park being used by private enterprises to cultivate other crops. (Los Angeles Times Mar 25, 1897 pg 11) Another use was an orphanage, which burned down in 1897 but rebuilt. (Los Angeles Times May 11, 1897 pg 11)


entrance to Balboa park in 1906

Entrance to Balboa Park from 6th and Date Street in 1906. (San Diego Historical Society)

planting of balboa park

Men preparing the land for planting in 1912. Before any improvements, much of City Park was covered by brush and native plants. (San Diego Historical Society)

One of the first San Diegans to help improve City Park was Kate Sessions (1857-1940). According to the Los Angeles Times, she was school teacher by trade, but plagued by illness. In order to get fresh air, she decided to take up gardening in San Diego. (Los Angeles Times Oct 24, 1894 pg 7) Known as the "Mother of Balboa Park," Sessions originally asked to use the grounds of the Park for her nursery. Part of the agreement was that she plant trees along the borders and within the Park for future generations. She became very prominent in San Diego, and nationally, for her horticultural acumen. Sessions was on either deferred to or sat on committees that dealt with any changes or improvements to City Park. (Los Angeles Times Sep 2, 1899 pg 15)

young kate sessions

(San Diego Historical Society)

old kate sessions

(San Diego Public Library)

A statue was erected in her honor in Marston Point, the southwestern section of the Park. Below are pictures of both the statue and plaque.

statue of kate sessions

plaque dedicated to kate sessions

The first major improvements in City Park closely followed the common approach to American parks. Their designs were dominated by landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted, who encouraged passive use of parks. Olmsted also believed that buildings and other man-made structures should be discouraged. In 1902, the first funding for proper improvements was approved. It was then that $16,000 was spent on "landscape features and plants" in what the Los Angeles Times described as "The greatest step San Diego has ever taken in the way of city improvement." (Los Angeles Times Nov 12, 1902 pg 11)

a view of a valley looking east from the prado

A view of a valley looking south from the Prado.

By 1904, San Diego increased the amount spent on City Park to $50,000. Arbor Day was also celebrated by children planting trees around the Park. As a result President Roosevelt telegrammed:

Hearty greetings and congratulations on the establishment of Arbor Day. Your love of trees now will make you as men and women lovers of forests, both for their natural beauty and economic value. Let your motto be to preserve and care for them as permanent factors for the production of work, as storage places for the water which is needed in irrigation, and as playgrounds for young and old. (Los Angeles Times Mar 18, 1904 pg 11)

California Governor Pardee also telegrammed to express his support of Arbor Day and of the children's efforts to beautify their city:

To My Dear Young Friends, the School Children of San Diego: I am glad to know that you are going to spend today in the noble occupation of planting trees. You could not do a better thing for your city, for yourselves, and for those who will come after you. These trees will love as long as you do and longer, and every year they will make San Diego more beautiful and inviting. I hope every child will take part in the good work. (Los Angeles Times Mar 18, 1904 pg 11)

In 1910, San Diego's Chamber of Commerce began asked local taxpayers for money in the form of bonds to support the construction of an exposition. The world's fair was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. $1,884,500 worth of bonds were proposed "for the purpose of improving City Park to include the proposed Panama Exposition grounds." The bond measures were approved in early May, 1910. (Los Angeles Times May 1, 1910, pg I11) In October of that year, City Park's name was officially changed to Balboa Park. "The choice was made from a dozen illustrious or poetical names, the commissioners yielding to the points advanced in favor of the daring explorer and discoverer of the Pacific." (Los Angeles Times Oct 29, 1910 pg I5) It was during this time that the newly renamed Balboa Park would shift from the Olmsted approach of American park design to be dominated not by nature, but by city within a city.

Almost a year before the Panama-California Exposition was to open its doors, San Diegans were already becoming enamored with the additions to their Park. Among the most beautiful and prominent was the Cabrillo Bridge. In January of 1914 the Los Angeles Times reported:

Balboa Park, in fact, has already become the principal attraction of this vicinity. Thousands swarm among the splendid white structures along the Prado every Sunday, and with the completion of the great viaduct of the Cabrillo Canyon next month, the number of visitors to the exposition site will be greatly augmented. The viaduct itself, with its enormous arches and its gleaming white span, is one of the striking features of the entire exposition plan and in a structural sense, at least, this 'Puente Cabrillo,' as it is called, will be one of the wonders of the fair. (Los Angeles Times Jan 25, 1914 pg VI 1)

The photos below illustrate the process of preparing Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition. Unlike other exposition buildings, many of the Panama-California Exposition's were built as permanent buildings:

The San Diego exposition will be particularly notable from that fact that so many of its buildings are of permanent construction. After the fair is over Balboa Park is to remain for all time a city playground and showplace... All of the main buildings along the Prado are of enduring material In the future these structures are to be used as museums, art galleries and auditoriums. (Los Angeles Times Jan 25, 1914 pg VI 1)

As a result, many of the buildings remain today and are registered historical landmarks by the National Park Service. It is one of the few places where a cluster of world's fair buildings are still intact.

ground breaking ceremony 1911

Groundbreaking ceremony for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in 1911. (San Diego Historical Society)

groundbreaking ceremony in 1911

Groundbreaking ceremony for the 1916 Panama-California Exposition in 1911. (San Diego Historical Society)

construction of cabrillo bridge ca. 1911

Construction of the Cabrillo Bridge in 1911. The land below the bridge was dammed and filled with water creating a lagoon. Today, Highway 163 runs beneath the bridge. (San Diego Historical Society)

cabrillo bridge construction ca. 1914

Construction of Cabrillo Bridge in 1914. (San Diego Historical Society)

construction of el  prado

Construction of El Prado in 1913. (San Diego Historical Society)

construction of the california tower

Construction of the California Tower and Quadrangle on the east side of Cabrillo Bridge in 1913. (San Diego Historical Society)

california tower near completion

The California Quadrangle near completion in 1914. (San Diego Historical Society)

the prado nearing completion in 1915

The Prado nearing completion in 1915. (San Diego Historical Society)