City Park…the words conjure up visions of a 100 or so acres of grassy hills with large shade trees, walking paths, a small pond with ducks…maybe a band shell for outdoor concerts. A place to picnic and relax. San Diego’s “City Park”, now Balboa Park, was anything but that. In 1868 when the land was set aside it was like a moonscape with desert brush and snakes. A lot like the vacant lot across from my childhood home in Tucson in the 1950s. It hardly said “Pack a lunch, bring a blanket!”
Balboa Park came to be largely as a result of the not so hidden agenda of a very successful real estate developer named Alonzo Horton and his good friend, E.W. Morse who was a Trustee of San Diego. In 1867, Horton, who was a successful businessman in San Francisco, heard that he could make a killing buying land in San Diego. Horton was reported to say to his wife before leaving San Francisco, “I am going to San Diego and build a city!”
When Horton arrived, he viewed Old Town, where he met E.W. Morse. Horton observed that, rather than Old Town, the waterfront was the obvious choice for San Diego’s booming metropolis of the future. That peaked Morse’s interest and they became fast friends. Horton discovered that no elections had been held recently and that the current Trustees might not be legally empowered to sell any of the land he was interested in. He proceeded to give $10 to the county clerk for a special election…and he provided three names for consideration…two acquaintances and his friend Morse. Within a few weeks, the election was held. Shortly after, Horton acquired most of downtown at auction…800 acres for $265! The auctioneer was, none other than Morse, his good friend and newly elected Trustee of San Diego.
Soon after Horton’s deal, a proposal was made by Morse to set aside 320 acres for a city park before all the available land went too quickly and too cheaply. Morse set about surveying the available plots to recommend a park location. He took his friend Horton along. Ultimately the two proposed, not 320 acres, but 1400 acres!!! Coincidentally San Diego’s proposed City Park would flank Horton’s newly acquired land on two sides! Amazingly the proposal was accepted, even though the population of San Diego at the time was about 2300 citizens…that’s over half an acre for every man, woman and child! New York City’s Central Park, the first major landscaped public park in the US, was purchased in 1853…it was just over 750 acres and the population of New York City was 750,000 at the time!
San Diego’s City Park languished for nearly 25 years, unimproved, with vultures (the human kind!) circling to pick it apart. Each attack was met with resistance. In 1892 after no action was taken in response to her pleas for an official landscaping plan, horticulturalist Kate Sessions (the Mother of Balboa Park) took matters into her own hands. She acquired a 10 year lease for 32 acres near her home at the edge of the park to serve as a nursery. Here she experimented with plants from around the world that would thrive in San Diego’s climate. In lieu of rent, she was required to plant 100 trees each year in the Park and provide 300 potted trees and bushes to adorn city streets. Each year, Sessions planted more trees than was required. But it was a daunting task!
In 1909, City Park finally started to receive the attention it deserved. President Taft announced that the Panama Canal would be completed by January 1, 1915. On July 9, 1909, G. Aubrey Davidson suggested San Diego host a World’s Fair to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. In 1910 San Francisco proposed a World’s Fair in their city with the same theme. Then New Orleans proposed the same. Sacramento awarded $5 million to San Francisco in order to keep the fair in California. Congress, who liked the idea of not needing to use federal funds, decided to officially declare San Francisco as the site for the 1915 World’s Fair.
San Diego, however, took an “opportunistic” leap of faith and continued to promote their own Panama Exposition, receiving donations, pledges and even approving special taxes (approved by 87% of voters) to raise the funds. The expo would outwardly be to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal (Yay, Canal!) while ultimately bolstering the economy still reeling from the Wall Street scare of 1907 (sound familiar!) The exposition would promote San Diego as the first US port of call on the West side of the Canal as well as entice people to move here for the opportunities the area offered, including land for farming. The exposition would also finance the development of City Park, renamed Balboa Park in honor of the first European to see the Pacific Ocean…and because the name, City Park, lacked the romance.
Acres of desert scrub still had to be removed, areas leveled to accommodate buildings and gardens and thousands of holes still had to be dug to plant more trees. Over the next 6 years Balboa Park was transformed into a fantasy land, complete with beautiful gardens and Spanish-Colonial style “Palaces”. And leading up to the exposition, across the canyon, was the newly constructed Cabrillo Bridge…a simple but massive 7 arch aqueduct-style bridge spanning from one side of the park to the other.
The Panama-California Exposition (San Diego-style!) opened at 12:01 January 1, 1915 to huge crowds crossing the Cabrillo Bridge on foot to the entrance of the fair grounds. President Wilson “triggered” the lighting from Washington…Balboa Park came to life with thousands of lights and a barrage of fireworks! Finally, Balboa Park had reached that long awaited moment…the “palaces” and gardens awash in light…crowded with thousands of people…in awe!
People took notice of San Diego. Not only did the expo receive world wide praise…so did Balboa Park! Past and future presidents, dignitaries, the rich and the famous came to the Exposition…3.7 million people in two years. Not bad for “party” hosted by a city of 40,000! Over $2 million in park improvements were made and San Diego’s attempts to attract military installations (and funds!) were realized. Visiting Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised reporters San Diego would become an important military port.
At the end of the expo there was a lot of discussion about the future of Balboa Park. All but four of the expo buildings were built as temporary structures. Some proposed leveling the buildings and turning the Park into a landscaped oasis. And, once again the vultures began to circle, trying to pick it apart…make it a military academy, civic center, military base, college!
But a funny thing had happened…San Diego was in love!!! In love with their “City Park” and all of its beautiful “palaces” and gardens! A park like no other! So the city said a resounding NO to the vultures once again.
Today Balboa Park is a National Historic Landmark, a cultural paradise, vacation destination, and a darn nice place to picnic! But it took a few questionable land deals, some highly “motivated” entrepreneurs, 47 years, a handful of visionaries, a few dreamers, a stubborn/nurturing woman, a Canal…and the love of a city to make it happen!
In reading about the history of Balboa Park, I realized that there is so much I haven’t seen! To celebrate the centennial, to appreciate everything that had to happen to make this “Jewel” of San Diego a reality, I plan to “explore” the Park more…to show it a little love. I hope you will do the same!!! Pack a lunch and bring a blanket! And while you are there…explore the art and the artists of Spanish Village Art Center…located between the Natural History Museum and the Zoo.
Thanks for Listening!
Spanish Village Art Center