Balboa Park (San Diego, California)

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Desert garden
Desert garden
Botanic building
Botanic building

Balboa Park is a 1,200 acres (4.9 km²) urban cultural park in San Diego, California. Unlike some city parks, such as New York's Central Park, which is mostly free of buildings in favor of open space and recreational fields, Balboa Park is a cultural complex. Besides open areas and natural vegetation, it contains a variety of cultural attractions including museums, theaters, gardens, shops and restaurants as well as the world-renowned San Diego Zoo.

Many of the park's attractions are along El Prado, a long, wide promenade running through the center of the park. Most of the buildings lining this street are in the Spanish Revival style, a richly ornamented eclectic mixture of Spanish and Latin American architecture. Along this boulevard are many of the park's museums, including the Museum of Man, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Museum of Photographic Arts, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and Museum of Fine Art.

Other attractions include the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which includes the world's largest outdoor pipe organ; The Old Globe theater, a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; a collection of "international cottages"; and the Botanical Building with its accompanying reflecting pool.

The park is managed and maintained by the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department.

Balboa Park has been declared a National Historic Landmark.

Among the private institutions within the park's borders not administered by the city's parks department are San Diego High School, a naval hospital and the San Diego Zoo.



A resolution to set aside 1400 acres (6 km²) for a city park was approved by the city's Board of Trustees on May 26, 1868. The resolution had been put forth by one of the trustees, E.W. Morse, who along with real estate developer Alonzo Horton had selected a site just northeast of the growing urban center of "Newtown" (now downtown San Diego) for the park's location.

City Park: 1868-1909

For the first few decades of its existence, "City Park" remained mostly open space. Numerous proposals, some altruistic, some profit-driven, were brought forward for the development and use of the land during this time, but no comprehensive plan for development was adopted.

Nevertheless there was some building done. This included an orphanage and women's shelter (later burned down), a high school (San Diego High School) and several gardens maintained by various private groups. One of the most celebrated of these early developments was a nursery owned and maintained by local horticulturist and botanist Kate Sessions. Although owned by Sessions, by agreement with the city the nursery was open to the public, and Sessions donated trees and plants to the city every year for its beautification.

Other developments from this time include two reservoirs, an animal pound and a gunpowder magazine.

The Panama-California Exposition: 1910-1916

Much of the park's look and feel today is due to the development done for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, set to open in 1915, and to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for vessels traveling north after passing through the canal. Planning began in 1909 and City Park was soon selected as the exposition site.

It was decided that the buildings were to reflect the early history of San Diego, being done in Spanish Mission and Indian Pueblo styles. New York architect Bertram Goodhue was chosen as supervisory architect (replacing Irving Gill). Goodhue was fascinated by Spanish Colonial architecture, and took the exposition as an opportunity to create a fantasy city, richly ornamented with influences from throughout Spanish history with Muslim and Persian influences. This was a contrast with most previous expositions, which had been done in Neo-Classical style.

Some of the buildings built for the exposition still standing include:

  • Administration Building (completed March 1912) (Now holds offices of the Museum of Man)
  • Botanical Building
  • California State Building and Quadrangle (Completed October 2, 1914) (now part of the Museum of Man)
  • Cabrillo Bridge (completed April 12, 1914)
  • Spreckels Organ Pavilion (Dedicated December 31, 1914)
  • California Bell Tower (completed 1914)

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