Celebrating Balboa Park – Part V: The Exposition and Its Legacy
— Nan Sterman
On January 1, 1915, 50,000 bright red poinsettias welcomed visitors to the Panama-California Exposition. The choice of plants was a bit prophetic since San Diego County would soon be known as the epicenter of the poinsettia industry.
The extensive landscape gardens earned the Exposition the nickname “The Garden Fair.” Over two years 3.7 million visitors walked the grounds. One has to wonder how a city of 50,000 people managed the influx.
Ironically, for all the work done to prepare the gardens for the Exposition — thousands and thousands of trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, fruit trees and vegetables — very little still exist. In fact, just a fraction of the gardens’ designs remain.
This is another urban myth about Balboa Park. While a number of buildings survived (including some that have been rebuilt), the gardens today – the flowery, colorful and mostly tropical looking gardens we know — are largely from the 1935 remake of the park by San Diego architect Richard Requa. During WWI, Balboa Park was occupied by the U.S. Navy and Marines. Sailors learn to swim and row in the lily ponds. Jeeps were stored in the Botanical Building. Buildings were converted to Marine barracks and gardens suffered.
When Requa was tasked with reclaiming and remaking the grounds after the war,
he drew upon his experience visiting the gardens of Spain in the 1920s. In fact, when I visited Alcazar Castle gardens in Seville last fall, I was stunned by how familiar it looked – just like Balboa Park!
The Balboa Park gardens we see today are both remnants and re-imaginings of what originally was. They hearken back to a time when San Diego was a small town. It was a time filled with promise and enthusiasm for what was new and exciting, including the future for a city about to explode onto the scene with its very original “Garden Fair.”
Please see previous blogs for the entire five-part history of the gardens in San Diego’s Balboa Park.