Celebrating Balboa Park – Part III: Work Begins
— Nan Sterman
By 1909, the park’s design began to take shape. The Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea to create a World’s Fair to celebrate the 1915 opening of the Panama Canal. It would help boost the city’s economy, which had been lagging since the Panic of 1893. Money raised would go to park development and attract more people and businesses to San Diego.
You might wonder why little San Diego, population 39,000 held this big event rather than Los Angeles where the population was already 300,000. It was a matter of geography. As ships came through the Panama Canal from the eastern US, San Diego was the fist port-of-call. It was an enormous promotional opportunity.
The Chamber of Commerce spun off the Panama-California Exposition Company. That group rebranded City Park with the more romantic “Balboa Park,” in 1913.
In 1910, the Company hired one of the country’s most famous landscape architecture firms– the Olmstead Brothers. The brothers designed Central Park. They designed Stanford University. They designed parks and park systems across the continent. Like Parsons the Olmsteads began with a study of the site so they could create a master plan. They did thousands of drawings for a 37-acre exposition, which they envisioned near the south entrance of the
park, near where today’s Park Blvd, Highway 163 and Interstate 5 intersect. That put the exposition within easy walking distance of town. And, by siting it on the edge of the park, the remaining 1300 or so acres would be left natural
to celebrate the beauty of the land, the views, and nature, just as Parsons had recommended.
In fact, leaving natural areas natural was a major trend in park design at the beginning of the 1900’s. That same approach was used for the master plan of Torrey Pines State Reserve by Los Angeles area landscape architect Ralph Cornell and plantsman Theodore Payne. They firmly resisted considerable pressure to transform Torrey Pines into a planted botanical garden. We owe these gentlemen a huge thank you for their foresight.
The Olmsteads, however, were not as successful but you’ll have to watch our show to find out why. Instead, the decision was made to move the exposition to the mesa where it was eventually built. At that point, the Olmstead Brothers quit the project. They didn’t want to be part of a design that would “ruin” the park.
Check back next week for Celebrating Balboa Park – Part IV: Farms and Gardens