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Balboa Park: Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

The 1915 Panama California Exposition turned a desert into exquisite gardens, as Balboa Park was transformed into a gardener’s delight. Indeed, the Exposition was sometimes referred to as Garden Fair. The park was embellished with thousands of glorious plants of many varieties. There were hundreds of trees and shrubs and myriad vines and roses. Within each fair district, a master gardener incorporated distinctly appropriate flowers to blend with the shrubbery. Visitors marveled at huge eucalyptus, palm, and pepper trees, which though recently transplanted, appeared as if they had been present for decades. Naturally, there was food, entertainment, and fun, but the Exposition was also a celebration of nature’s beauty.

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition
Rose arbor

Differing shades of cypresses beckoned visitors, as did the adopted California state tree, the eucalyptus. There were vivid fuchsias and bright orange lantana to greet visitors as well.


Moving east along El Prado, stately rows of formal blackwood acacias were embedded in verdant lawn along the street. Various vines covered the iron railing of arcade posts, the most vivid of which was the boisterously crimson bougainvillea.


A notable feature of the Exposition’s design was the subtle placement of garden areas throughout the grounds. The Gardens of Montezuma (Los Jardines de Montezuma), now known as Alcazar Gardens, were located west of the Indian Arts Building, currently the Mingei International Museum.


A re-creation of a Spanish formal garden, the design provided a riot of color, including red geraniums, white marguerite, various columbines, and a melange of other florals. Red and yellow, as in acacia trees, poinsettia, and bougainvillea, were emphasized throughout the Exposition.

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

Further east along El Prado, one encountered the Laguna de la Flores (pool of the flowers). This and the magnificent Botanical Building enormously enriched the landscape of the Expo and will be discussed on their own later in the series. Further east, and north of the Southern California Counties Building, was a five-acre Formal Garden and Citrus Orchard. From there, the “Isthmus” amusements area could be seen in the distance. In 1925, the Southern California Counties Building was destroyed by fire and was replaced by the Natural History Museum in 1933.

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

The overall effect of the fair buildings and imaginative horticulture was transfixing. The Exposition was said to have been imbued with mystery and enchantment. Long, low-ceilinged arcades with seemingly endless arches fascinated visitors, while flowers, vines, shrubs, and trees of all types added to the sense of enchantment.


The results were magical and we continue to share in that magic today. The Panama California Exposition made an enormous difference in San Diego. The city’s future was enhanced and redirected by a grand and courageous vision.   DARLENE G. DAVIES

Imagery courtesy of Darlene G. Davies and Paul Marshall




The Great Panama-California Exposition

1915 Panama California Exposition

Plaza de Panama

Spreckels Outdoor Organ Pavilion

Legacy of the Foreign Arts Building

Botanical Building

Lily Pond

Preserving the Past

Tales of the 1915 Exposition

Japanese Teahouse & Garden

Return of the Electriquette

The Painted Desert

Panama-California Sculpture Court

The Isthmus

New Mexico State Building

Commerce and Industries Building

Tales of the Panama-California Exposition

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition



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