Born Again Balboa Park


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It was a stage set made to last 18 months, the run of a moderately successful Broadway play. The occasion: to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and all the prosperity that remarkable event promised for cities on California’s coast. The buildings, Spanish Colonial in design, were made of wood covered with a veneer of ornamentation, most of it made of staff —plaster laced with hemp (some say horsehair). The buildings were set on wood posts and sills with no foundations and decorated with arches and columns encircled with plaster vines.

It was a fantasy setting, a series of architectural wonders, mostly copied from churches and government buildings in Spain. It occupied a generous portion of San Diego’s Balboa Park. And it was the venue for a magnificent party to which all nations were invited.

The San Diego Panama-California International Exposition of 1915 was a clarion call to the world to take notice of this prosperous little city of San Diego. Stung by earlier put-downs, San Diegans were eager to show that their city had lost the frontier aspect Robert Whitworth complained of in 1846:

“It is a small place containing some tumbledown adobe buildings. Around the town and indeed in the town it is little better than a boneyard. It is strewn with skulls of cattle and their bones with a plentiful sprinkle of rags, old shoes and other combustibles.”

No longer. Half a century after Whitworth’s indictment, the city had grown to nearly 75,000 people. It was a viable commercial port; the railroad was on its way. As the closest western port of call to the new Panama Canal, San Diego felt the need to blow its own horn. And Balboa Park, still in its infancy, was chosen as the site.

But the exposition—though it lasted two summers and attracted millions of visitors—was essentially a fair. Most of the buildings were barnlike, affording space for exhibits calling attention to progress. The Electric Building, the Food Products Building, the Indian Arts Building—all were transient temples to art and commerce.

Of all the structures built for the 1915 exposition, only three were meant to be permanent: the California Building and Tower (now the Museum of Man), the Organ Pavilion (donated by sugar magnate John D. Spreckels) and the Botanical Building. While the other magnificent structures had the appearance of solidity, they were pure theater. (Many of the decorations were actually attached to the walls with twisted hemp.) It’s a miracle this fantasy city lasted all these years.

Well, not exactly a miracle. A succession of concerned San Diegans has kept a continuous vigil, time after time rescuing and repairing a building just as it was about to be demolished.

Many of the buildings presented a good case for demolition. But for a long time they were just patched. Today, San Diego is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious series of plans, begun in the mid-1960s, to restore or replicate every building along El Prado. With the completion of the House of Charm this fall and the expected completion of the House of Hospitality in 1997, the task will be concluded.

That, in itself, seems a miracle. Especially since new construction must meet modern building codes and earthquake standards. Yet because these buildings all have been declared historical landmarks, they must also comply with the demands of the National Historical Register and look exactly like the originals.

In the spring of 1933, a child was killed in the city by a toppling tree that had been eaten by termites. City inspectors, rightly so, went on a rampage to identify similar dangers—and when they got to Balboa Park, they were appalled. “The towers and façades leaned forward as though tipsy, and entire sections of cornices and parapets had broken away and lay in the shrubbery at their base,” writes Florence Christman in her book The Romance of Balboa Park.

The wreckers were put on alert, but the city hadn’t reckoned with its citizenry. Demolition was postponed for one week while committees were formed, a national work-relief program tapped and money raised. In the end, the buildings were spared.

The Old Globe Theatre, a copy of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre on the banks of the Thames, had been holding on by a thread for years and had been scheduled for demolition after the California-Pacific Exposition of 1935 (San Diego’s second big international fair). Once again, a committee was formed—somewhat belatedly: The leader of the committee, Mary Belcher Trapnell, found herself begging wreckers to stop attacking the stone fireplace of the Falstaff Tavern until she could negotiate a deal. At the wrecking company office, she wrote out a check on the spot to stop demolition.

In 1968, after a moderate earthquake rattled the Food Products Building (now Casa del Prado), the city sold the building to a wrecking crew for $25. It was at about that time the Committee of 100 was formed—a group of citizens that to this day (though they now number 2,000) act as watchdogs for the Spanish Colonial buildings in the park. They carefully removed the statuary on this splendid old building and put pressure on the city of San Diego to float a bond issue to provide funds for a new building.

During the 1915 exposition, the Casa de Balboa had been the Commerce & Industries Building. In 1916, it became the Canadian Building, replete with a colony of beavers constructing a dam in a real stream. In 1942, the Navy took it over as part of its World War II hospital complex. After the war, the Navy contributed $60,000 toward restoration and repair, but by 1978 the building was in deep trouble again. Ten days before it was scheduled to be demolished, a fire took out the crumbling Casa de Balboa—and a second fire 10 days later spelled grief for the Old Globe.

Luckily, the Committee of 100 had removed all the ornamentation from Casa de Balboa in anticipation of getting the rebuilding money approved by President Carter. They were successful; the work went forward. The Casa de Balboa arose again.

When fire destroyed the Old Globe, yet one more fund-raising effort resulted in a new theater, which is now part of the Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts.

And so a pattern developed. With bond issues, grants and private donations, the treasured buildings along El Prado were, one by one, rescued as they fell on hard times.

But generous citizens performing last-minute rescues have always felt the need of an overall plan for the reconstitution of Balboa Park. A Plan—with a capital “P”—is sometimes a pious, complex and time-consuming exercise guaranteeing that nothing will be accomplished. But Balboa Park has been relatively lucky. After some initial plans in the Sixties that were only loosely adhered to, several recent plans seem to be accomplishing exactly what they were designed to do.

“ABOUT EIGHT YEARS AGO we began again,” says Balboa Park district manager Penny Scott. In 1989, after a series of public meetings, a master plan was adopted by the San Diego City Council. It was divided into four sections. First was the 1992 Central Mesa Precise Plan, focusing on the core of the park, the section between Route 163 and Park Boulevard and extending to Upas Street on the north and I-5 on the south. This area includes all the buildings on El Prado, with the House of Charm and the House of Hospitality targeted first.

“This moved very quickly for a bureaucracy,” says Scott. “It was amazing, and it’s exciting to see it near completion.” 1994 brought the East Mesa Precise Plan, aimed at Morley Field and the Golden Hill section. The Inspiration Point Plan is in the process of adoption, addressing what to do with the land parcel returned to the city by the Navy when Balboa Naval Hospital was torn down. And there is a plan called West of 163, looking at the Marston Point Loop and the land between 163 and Sixth Avenue.

The Central Mesa Precise Plan includes a blueprint for the funding and reconstruction (or replication) of the House of Charm and the House of Hospitality, the two projects currently most visible to San Diegans. For more than a year now, as park guests visited museums or attended the theater, they became aware of a gigantic hole in the ground where the House of Charm once had been. Then came steel reinforcements, scaffolding and the rising of a structure that now looks like an enormous sandcastle, complete with bell towers and dome.

The House of Charm had always been a sort of storage place—a big barn that housed exhibitions during both expositions. It boasted very little exterior ornamentation and almost nothing of architectural interest inside. Outside, the belfry towers and dome had disappeared sometime in the ’40s. With its flat roof, the building possessed very little charm.

But plans were afoot for an inspired reconstruction. The original “footprint,” as architects are fond of calling it, measured 20,000 square feet. The architectural firm of Carrier Johnson Wu—which also designed our new Hall of Justice, on Broadway—was instructed to increase the number fourfold, to 80,000 feet. How to do that? Go down two levels underground and split the original barn-like hall into two more levels.

Three tenants were identified for the new House of Charm: the Mingei International Museum of Folk Art, the Art Institute and the Old Globe for rehearsal space. Originally, the Children’s Museum was to be the major tenant, but it elected to go downtown, releasing to the Mingei a spectacular two-story space now brilliantly occupied by folk art from around the world.

From old photos, Carrier Johnson Wu replicated the missing towers and dome. Visitors will notice the two towers are different, one taller than the other. Likely, this was due to the whimsy of Carleton Winslow, the 1915 exposition architect, noted for his sense of humor. He also included blind arches on the El Prado side—arches leading nowhere.

Because the House of Charm was modeled on the Sanctuario de Guadalajara, it’s strange to see contemporary fittings inside, with glass brick walls, bleached oak flooring and a contemporary staircase. But that’s the way the new tenants, and the city, wanted it—a perfect art-gallery environment, with white walls and carefully controlled, recessed lighting.

Michael Johnson, a partner at Carrier Johnson Wu, is proud of the functionality of the new interior. “Before, there was no way people could relate to the inside of this building,” he says. Now, hundreds walk through each day, viewing the primitive sculptures, pottery and colorful stitchery at the Mingei. Downstairs, the exact dimensions of all three Old Globe stages will be replicated for rehearsal use. And the Art Institute, with two pyramid-shaped skylights at ground level outside, will provide instruction for the artistically endowed.

“We could have lost this building,” Johnson says. “When you preserve something like this—well, the Hall of Justice was good for the ego, but this was good for the soul.”

ACROSS THE STREET, the last major project on the books—the House of Hospitality—shares an arcade with the Casa de Balboa. But if you look carefully, the two are separate buildings. Most San Diegans remember the House of Hospitality as the former home of the Cafe del Rey Moro, for a long time the only restaurant in the area and the site of many weddings in the beautiful terraced gardens. (The terraces and gardens have been left intact.)

“The House of Hospitality is by far the most elaborate reconstruction ever done in the park,” says David Marshall, project architect for Milford Wayne Donaldson. As the Foreign Arts Building in 1915, its interior, like the House of Charm’s, was large and open, suitable for displays.

“But it was modified pretty substantially for the 1935 exposition [by famed architect Richard Requa],” says Marshall. “It was altered to become a reception area for dignitaries. Then a hole was cut in the roof and an interior courtyard created with a fountain in the center. And then they added a second floor.”

Some of the alterations were removed in the ’50s, which brings up a question: To what era should this complex and ever-changing building be restored?

To 1935, judged the “peak period of significance,” says Marshall. One of his jobs has been to remove more than 2,000 items from the building before razing it. All the ornamentation, railings, lighting fixtures, doors and windows had to be identified, labeled and stored in anticipation of reinstalling them, or their replacements, when construction of the shell is completed.

One discovery was that the original lighting fixtures were made of paperboard painted to resemble wrought iron. Each weighed only a pound or two. They are now being replicated in aluminum.

Along the way, Soltek, the contractor, made another discovery. Fifteen hundred square feet of decorative ceiling had once been painted in vivid geometric designs but was then covered over with acoustic tile and an inch of plaster. In removing the tile, which had been glued to the painted ceiling, most of the ornamentation was damaged and couldn’t be saved. And there was no record of this ceiling. But from certain small areas still visible, the architects were able to re-create the original design. The stenciled ceiling, in bright reds, blues and greens, will appear in the restored building.

The fountain in the central courtyard had to be removed in one piece—55,000 pounds of concrete. “It was the largest single feature,” notes Marshall. “We pulled it out with a crane.”

The Donal Hord statue in the center of the fountain, an Indian woman pouring water and titled Woman of Tehuantepec, is “the most artistically valuable item in the building,” says Marshall. Sculpted from limestone, it had suffered some deterioration. It is now being repaired and sealed by a team of seven experts and will soon be returned to its proper setting.

The new restaurant, to be called Terrace on the Prado, will be in the same south portion Cafe del Rey Moro occupied. It will open in mid-July with the official reopening of the building.

SO WHAT’S LEFT TO DO? An arcade in front of the Old Globe, which the Committee of 100 hopes to fund, reaching from the California Tower past the sculpture garden. A little more work here and there. Rehabilitation at Spanish Village and the International Cottages, and a complete electrical overhaul of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which now depends on its original 1915 wiring. Security lamps around the park are scheduled to change from yellow to white lights (with cheers from the citizenry). And an update of the informational signs.

Meanwhile, the museums continue in the same game of musical chairs they have established over the years. The Hall of Champions will move to the Federal Building. The Museum of Photographic Arts, which for a while was in the House of Charm but transferred to Casa de Balboa when that building was rebuilt, will expand into the space vacated by the Hall of Champions. Long ago, the Aerospace Museum moved from Casa de Balboa to a much-improved Ford Building, which previously had been used for storage. The Automotive Museum replaced a community area that, on occasion, accommodated 2,000 ballroom dancers. The Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater & Science Center is raising funds for its own expansion.

But one of the greatest ongoing needs in Balboa Park is maintenance and repairs. “The Organ Pavilion was in disrepair, and it was even rumored it would be leveled for a parking lot,” says Patricia DeMarce, president, for the past 20 years, of the Committee of 100. “We were most disturbed. We went to the [City] Council and offered $375,000 if there could be matching grants for federal and state money.” Extensive repairs on the Organ Pavilion began in 1993.

“The Casa del Prado needs work,” she adds. “The ornamentation needs to be cleaned—and the other day I saw a piece cracking off the top. The Casa del Prado is the most heavily used ‘people’ building [for meetings, with a theater].

“The main thing is to see there’s enough money to maintain,” DeMarce explains. “We’ve pushed for a long time, and we’re thrilled with the way things are going now. But our greatest problem is that when the city puts together a budget, everybody else comes up with their own desperate needs.”

Her mission is to make sure Balboa keeps its turn at bat.

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