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Balboa Park: The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition

The Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16 bestowed a great gift on San Diego. That gift included buildings, gardens, plazas, an outdoor organ, a majestic tower, and a magnificent bridge. The Cabrillo Bridge is an iconic image synonymous with Balboa Park. Yes, at one time there was water under the bridge. Built of concrete, yet hollow, it was the first multiple arched cantilever ever built in California. In 1915, that grand entryway led to a fair that promised unimagined delights. This series looked back at that time and began with this exquisite bridge, which has now survived more than a century, but recently had been in dire need of repair. Worn and weathered after a hundred years of exposure to the elements, the concrete was cracked and deteriorating due to rusting reinforcing steel. In addition, there were major problems in terms of access for maintenance.

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition
Cabrillo Bridge via 1915

Fortunately, the City of San Diego and Caltrans came to the rescue with a $38 million renovation just in time for the 100th birthday party, making the bridge stronger and even more beautiful with lighting from below. Officially known as the Cabrillo Bridge Retrofit and Rehabilitation Project, Caltrans reinforced the structure from the interior so all new work would be concealed. In so doing, it also created openings and catwalks so that workers can now reach the enclosed spaces within the hollow supports. At the same time, there were electrical improvements, and measures were taken to counter water erosion. The bridge was stabilized and rendered earthquake resistant. Finally, the entire bridge was power washed to present a brighter, fresher look for the anniversary celebration. This massive undertaking preserved a beloved landmark for generations to come, and new lighting is the finishing touch.

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition

In addition to Cabrillo Bridge, the park retains many other jewels from the 1915-16 fair. One is Alcazar Garden, an improvement on the 1915 Montezuma Garden in the same location, which is constantly filled with bounteous flowers. The blooms are planted and replanted frequently by Park and Recreation staff. Fountains and colorful tiles were added to the space for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Other gems, Casa del Prado (1915 Varied Industries and Food Products Building) and Casa de Balboa (1915 Commerce and Industries Building), were rebuilt in 1971 and 1982, respectively. The House of Charm (1915 Indian Arts Building) in which Mingei International Museum and the San Diego Art Institute reside, stands proudly, having been reconstructed in 1996. The House of Hospitality (1915 Foreign Arts Building) was meticulously rebuilt in 1997. Building names have changed, but their appearances linger.


Still, while many of the original temporary structures were reconstructed as permanent buildings, a number of the Exposition buildings have been lost, and there have been many changes to existing ones through the years. The good news is that cars were recently removed from most of Plaza de Panama after decades of formal studies, plans, and much wrangling. So this year, along with restoration of the bridge and the semi-hidden Sculpture Court, the plaza was cleared and turned into a welcoming open space, much like the one in 1915.

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition
Plaza via 1915

Looking ahead to 2015, the Balboa Park Conservancy is conducting a fundraising campaign to restore the great Botanical Building. There is also exciting news from the Museum of Man, which is opening its prized California Tower to visitors. Tours of up to 12 people at a time are planned.


Today, Balboa Park is world-renowned for its collection of outstanding institutions and gardens. Visitors from around the world marvel at its beauty, and much of that beauty is a legacy of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. But that legacy carries with it great responsibility as well. Constant vigilance is needed on the part of both current and future generations to maintain Balboa Park as a place where people come together to share common experiences and bask in its splendor. We have great leaders from a century ago to thank for that and many wonderful people since who have followed in their footsteps.   DARLENE G. DAVIES




» Lights and More Lights

The Spreckels Organ Pavilion was unique among the structures built in 1915 because 1,734 exterior bulbs emblazoned the building in brilliant white light. The 15-watt bulbs in porcelain sockets are spaced 9 inches apart and ring the entire building, both front and rear. The lighting and entire electrical system had fallen into disrepair and were restored and upgraded in 2005.   David Marshall, AIA

The Legacy of the Panama-California Exposition
Spreckels Outdoor Organ Pavilion via 1915

» A Home for the Animals

Seeds of the world-renowned San Diego Zoo were planted in the 1916 Panama-California International Exposition. Historian Richard Amero states that on September 16 “…while driving down Park Avenue, Dr. Harry M Wegeforth heard the roaring of lions at the Isthmus and remarked to his brother Paul, ‘Wouldn’t it be splendid if San Diego had a zoo!’ Later, on October 2, Dr. Fred Baker, a physician, opened his home for the first meeting of the newly organized Zoological Society of San Diego.”   DARLENE G. DAVIES


Images Courtesy of Darlene G. Davies





The Great Panama-California Exposition

1915 Panama-California Exposition

Plaza de Panama

Spreckels Outdoor Organ Pavilion

Gardens of the Panama-California Exposition

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



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