Celebrating Balboa Park – Part II: Planning a Park
— Nan Sterman
The land we call Balboa Park today, was set aside as “City Park” in 1868. It was 1,400 acres located about a half-mile outside the city of San Diego. It was coastal sage scrub decimated by grazing cattle and it was not pretty. For decades, the city
did nothing to create a vision for the park.
In fact, there was a notable contingency of the community that objected to the scale of the park. The city of San Diego’s population at the time was about 2,300 people, 5,000 in the entire county. Some accused park promoters of doing a land grab. In retrospect, they may not have been totally incorrect but that is another story.
Between 1868 and 1900, community groups conducted a few park planting projects but the only successful long-term planting happened in the park’s southeast corner adjacent to the fancy homes on Golden Hill. For the most part, City Park languished.
The Chamber of Commerce grew increasingly frustrated with the City’s inaction. By 1902, it established its own Park Improvement Committee to take on park development. Community booster George Marston put up $10,000 to hire Samuel Parsons Jr., a renowned New York landscape architect and former superintendent of the famous Central Park. Parsons visited City Park and toured the region with Marston and Kate Sessions, then created a master plan for the park. Parson’s design celebrated the land’s natural beauty, the wide views of the ocean and mountains, and the native plants. He envisioned a peaceful oasis as an antidote to the chaos of urban life.
Within ten days, Parsons designed a basic layout with location for roads and park entrances.
Historian Nancy Carol Carter told me that Parsons’ design was intended “to
enhance the natural beauty of an area, rather than to insert artificial effects. … Parsons proposed restrained planting, taking into account San Diego’s climatic realities” she said. After consulting with local horticulturists, “he left the mesas unadorned, but specified denser landscaping to define park entrances and to highlight the park’s dramatic canyons. Public buildings in the park were to be discouraged, but if absolutely necessary, they should be kept to the southern end of the park. Likewise, any formal gardens of seasonal flowers would be located in the same area, near to the downtown.”
As an aside, one of the most exciting things to happen while we were
shooting our episode about Balboa Park gardens occurred in the office of Park ranger Kim Duclo. Duclo has worked in Balboa Park for years and over time, has amassed an impressive collection of historical documents, many from dumpster diving (no kidding).
When I met with Duclo, he had a cardboard box sitting on his desk. He removed the cover and handed me a black, leather-bound book with onionskin pages, each carefully typed. It was one of the original Parsons 1905 reports.
I opened the cover and started reading. What I read, gave me chills.
Celebrating Balboa Park – Part II: The Beginning is the second in a five part series about the history of the gardens in San Diego’s Balboa Park, written by Nan Sterman, garden writer, designer, and host of A Growing Passion. This series accompanies the episode “Balboa Park – The Garden Faire.” To watch the show, follow this link.
Check back next week for Celebrating Balboa Park – Part III: Work Begins