Balboa Park Remembered
When the House of Hospitality’s Betty Peabody, a board member for 27 years, recently solicited comments from the citizenry on their memories of those early days, she was well rewarded.
“My first memory of the California Building was in the year 1915,” says Dr. Spencer Rogers of Point Loma. “I was 10 years old. I recall the prehistoric-man busts in the Science of Man hall and the candy vending machine at the entrance. As I look back over the decades, I guess I was most impressed by the busts of Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man, still well preserved.”
Hamilton Marston (a famous San Diego name—remember the Marston’s store?)—recalls being carried home over the Cabrillo Bridge as a sleepy 5-year-old “in the arms of a parent, under a night sky brightened by exploding fireworks and the lights of the bridge and the California Tower.”
Ellen Revelle Eckis (the late Roger Revelle, the “father” of UCSD, was her husband) remembers a cow made of butter. She recalls the Midget Village and being picked up and deposited in the midst of the midgets to show that the adult woman was the size of a 5-year-old child.
Later, during the second exposition (1935), came one of the more memorable attractions of the day—the nudist colony. “Many of the nudists seemed to us to be, perhaps, not really dedicated nudists,” says Eckis. “They all looked quite chilly in the typical evening dew and very uncomfortable as they cooked their meals, particularly with the sputtering bacon. But one elderly man seemed genuine and used to get very upset at the hoots of the sailors.
“We loved the performances of streamlined Shakespeare [As You Like It or Macbeth in less than an hour] and Queen Elizabeth appearing to watch the lively English dancers outdoors,” says Eckis. And who could forget Sally Rand and her famous nude dance with fans —or the day she replaced the large feathered fans with giant balloons and someone popped them with a slingshot?
Mary Steffgen of Point Loma recalls that as an 8-year-old in 1935, she was allowed to wander freely through most of Balboa Park—“something that could not happen in today’s social climate.” She felt particularly safe because her father, Dr. Rufus Schneiders, was on call at the House of Hospitality Emergency Hospital. There, he had the distinction of taping Sally Rand’s sprained ankle. “And this became my version of show-and-tell for at least a week,” says Steffgen. “Maybe all my life.
“But I spent most of my time in the Fun House,” she says, “or climbing three stories to ride a gunny sack down a waxed giant slide. In the Palace of Foods and Beverages, where the Timken Museum of Art is now, for a nickel I could buy a huge buttered scone filled with the most delicious strawberry jam. Twenty-five cents lasted all afternoon.
“I was fascinated by the Midget Village, where weddings frequently took place. Visiting the tiny houses and shops was the big step between playing with miniature dollhouses and living in the real grown-up world,” says Steffgen. Many of those midgets went on to costar as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz.
Bob Karrow, now 87, was a police officer in 1935 and was hired to work undercover to police all the girlie shows and game booths in Gold Gulch. “My assignment also included checking on the nudist colony and Sally Rand’s performances,” he says.
“Sally Rand, with her large feathered fans, covered her nudity quite well,” Karrow says. “There was no vulgarity to the act, but there was also no art. She was just a name from the [just-closed] Chicago exposition with a lot of publicity. The nudist colony was in an amphitheater at the entrance to Gold Gulch [where grizzled prospectors with sluice pans offered a chance to pan for real gold—for a price]. But there was no vulgar display, and the girls were at a distance from the viewers.” Another 1935 visitor guesses, somewhat regretfully, that they were not really nude but were wearing body suits.
Other highlights: John Dillinger’s escape car. Helen Keller, in person. The earliest television. The TV images, according to Mrs. Paul Minchin of Del Mar, who came down from Los Angeles with her family to attend the exposition, were not very good. “The horizontal lines on the screen were so wide, the picture could barely be made out,” she says.
Inside the Ford Building, automobiles were built from scratch on a working assembly line. An obstacle track around the Ford Building gave curious passengers an opportunity to ride the bumps in a newly assembled Ford.
Chula Vista’s Bruce Herms remembers taking that ride, which was landscaped to resemble different parts of the world. “On one visit, my sisters and brother were put in one car, but I was the left-over passenger. So they put me in the next car. I was so busy looking out the window at the scenery of the world that I didn’t realize, until I got off, that one of the other passengers was Jack Dempsey.”
In those days, formality was endemic. “I remember going often to the 1935 Exposition as a child of 6,” says Marilyn Brucker of El Cajon. “My mother and grandmother wore hats; my dad, a suit and tie.”
The foregoing scattered memories of San Diegans were collected in an informal publication called A Tapestry of Time, edited by Betty Peabody. But an even more detailed account of the 1935 era appears in a small paperback book called Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego’s Exposition: 1935 by the architect of that expo, Richard S. Requa. The reissue of Inside Lights was arranged by Parker H. Jackson, Requa’s historian.
In this account we find what Requa described as a “behind-the-scenes narrative of what took place during the all too few months between the day when orders were given to start work and May 29, 1935, when the turnstiles began clicking.”
If the Exposition of 1915 was planned to showcase San Diego as a young and blossoming city, the Exposition of 1935 was in response to the Great Depression—an effort to put laborers to work under government subsidies and to give San Diegans a new economic lease on life. But first the buildings had to be saved.
By 1933, it was generally understood that the 1915 Exposition buildings, designed to last only 18 months, were in such a sorry state they must come down. Yet on an evening in May 1935, the president of the United States, from Washington, D.C., gave a radiocast signal that flooded a renovated Prado with lights and opened the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935—using many of the previous expo’s buildings. How did this turnabout happen?
Hearing that the buildings must be demolished, “the beauty-loving citizens of the city of San Diego did not, or would not concede it,” wrote Requa. “Cast down these exalted palaces that had made Balboa Park the showplace of the West? Sweep to oblivion these monuments to the courage of men who had dared to focus here the attention of the world?”
As ever in a crisis, a champion rose to the occasion. Requa (who would be chosen as architect of the “new” Balboa Park) credits Miss Gertrude Gilbert, “a cultured and energetic woman,” with leading the restoration forces to victory: “In a voice vibrant with emotion, she likened the destruction of the beautiful buildings in the park to the decease of a dearly beloved, allowed to die for want of a life-saving operation because it wasn’t convenient to raise money to pay the surgeon.”
The city agreed to allow one week’s time for an investigation. Requa called in
a contractor, and they went to work. To their amazement, they discovered that for one-quarter of what the city had estimated, the buildings could be restored. Some citizens were elated; others were skeptical.
At this critical juncture, George Marston (Hamilton’s grandfather), a champion of city planning and park beautification, stepped up. The federal government was about to launch a nationwide work-relief program, he pointed out. Under Marston’s leadership, the Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign to raise the remaining funds. And work began.
By the spring of 1934, the renovation was nearing completion. But why, asked a visitor named Frank Drugan, not find a use for these buildings? Why not create another World Fair, like the one in 1915? The great Century of Progress Fair in Chicago was nearing the end of its two-year run, he said. Exhibitors might be persuaded to ship their displays to San Diego.
At this point, a rising young San Diego businessman, Frank Belcher, entered the picture. With his guidance, the necessary funds for new buildings to house displays were ready by September 1934—and oversubscribed by 100 percent. Under Belcher, Requa and a team of dedicated construction experts, the work began.
“There were, of course, some dissenters, the ultraconservatives,” wrote Requa, “who muttered over their breakfast coffee, ‘It can’t be done.’ But we did not hear. We were too busy. The clatter of typewriters, the clanging of hammers, the grinding of concrete mixers and the roar of motor trucks drowned out the cries of the malcontents and the chicken-hearted.”
Requa credits the success of this hastily conceived project to heated weekly pow-wows. “We cussed and discussed every item,” says Requa. “We were too earnest for rhetoric or polite conversation. We simply thought out loud. These conferences were certainly ‘not for ladies,’ but they did tap hidden sources of courage and energy that built the exposition.”
But not without obstacles and crises. The toughest crunch was time. “Just remember that the actual construction of many of the new buildings was not started until March or later, less than three months before the opening day,” wrote Belcher.
“By the middle of April, there were 8,000 men on the grounds, working in shifts the full 24 hours. We forgot everything but the exposition. There were no holidays, no rest periods. Saturdays and Sundays were just two more nameless days to give to this vitally important job,” Belcher wrote. “There were daily changes, corrections and additions. It was almost like a newspaper or stock market report.”
The most traumatic change came when the Ford Company, which had signed for space as late as February, suddenly demanded a tower be reduced in height and the interior of the building rearranged. “Only then did I see our organization stagger, as from a knockout blow,” wrote Requa. “But we staged a quick comeback. That evening there was another gathering of the clan. We went back to our work with dogged determination ... and since then I have believed in miracles.”
Postcard courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society