San Diegans were excited when the Panama Canal was being built. It meant San Diego would be the first U.S. port-of-call on the western side of the canal and, because of this, city and business leaders expected an economic boom once ships sailed through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific. To celebrate their good fortune and announce to the world this small port city was ready to grow and prosper, the city hosted the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. In order to create space to house the expo, the leading architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, designed the grounds to reflect the romance of a 16th Spanish City on 1,200 acres of relatively unused land on a hilltop squeezed in between Cabrillo and Florida Canyons just above San Diego proper at the time.
City and park leaders, unlike most other cities holding massive expositions around the turn of the 20th Century, saw value in preserving what were mostly temporary structures for aas long as they could. Over time, though, many of the buildings had to be razed due to safety concerns over the state of deteriorating to ornaments and structure. In those cases, many of those demolished were reconstructed and renamed.
In 1915, when the Panama-California Exposition opened, the only way to get to the grounds was to walk up Sixth Avenue and El Prado and over the newly built Cabrillo Bridge. El Prado was the equally new road running through the expo grounds from Sixth to Florida Canyon. I like to start the walk while imagining what it was like walking up the hill while looking at this beautiful new city across the canyon. So much was new then, including controlled electricity to lighten up what was otherwise a dark world at night. Then you get to the start of the bridge and you walk toward these magnificent structures across a bridge and into another world from another time.
The nearly 1,500-foot bridge stands roughly 125 feet above U.S. Route 163 passing through the arches of the bridge below. Water stood where the highway is now when people first crossed the bridge to attend the expo, but the swampy water proved to be a haven for mosquitos and was drained after a few years. Eventually, the highway was put in.
The pillars of the bridge are actually hollow. The bridge was constructed using about a million feet of Redwood to build the inner part of the structure and 270,000 pounds of concrete were used to make the walls. It was originally a pedestrian-only bridge for the first two years before regular vehicular traffic was allowed to cross it after the exposition ended.
Fires set by vandals or those seeking warmth inside the hollow openings caused a few fires over the years in the pillars. In the mid-2010s, the redwood was replaced and the structure stabilized against earthquakes. Lights shining up beneath the bridge were also added to help notice what might be happening around the base of it at night.
I stayed on the path to the right as I passed through the gates to the expo grounds. It snaked around until I came to the Craig Noel Garden, named in honor founding director of the Old Globe Theater next to the park. The garden makes a nice place to sit and absorb the beauty around you while waiting for a show to start at one of the neighboring theatres or just relaxing while taking a stroll around the exposition grounds.
Walking over the bridge on El Prado, the main avenue passing though the center of the exposition grounds, you’ll first enter the California Quadrangle. Here you’ll find California Tower. It was originally built to house the administrative and ancillary offices, but now is home to the “Museum of Us“.
The mission of of the museum is to “inspir(e) human connections by exploring the human experience”. It does this, in part, by presenting interactive exhibits and displays to increase the understanding of cultures and how they function – including ours.
The museum has retrofitted the building to make it LEED Gold Certification compliant.
The Old Globe
The Old Globe is a complex of several theatres: Old Globe, Conrad Prebys, Harvey White, and Lowell Davies Festival Theatres. Lowell Davies is an outdoor venue and home to the Shakespeare Festival during the summer. The theatres typically provides about 600 performances per year featuring classic and contemporary pieces. The complex also features Lady Carolyn’s Pub where you can grab a light snack and a drink before the show and during intermissions.
A loggia is a covered exterior corridor. There’s one running along the exterior wall of the sculpture garden on the northern side of El Pardo and another along the House of Hospitality and the Museums of Photographic Arts and San Diego History buildings on the southern side of El Prado.
Plaza de Panama
In the spirit of the expo, the main plaza was named Plaza de Panama. The plaza serves as the central location for gatherings and festivities – although, by no means, is it the only area. All along El Prado are vendors and activities.
There have been a couple of new buildings added to the plaza since its creation. The first one you come to after leaving the loggia is the brutalist-styled entrance building to the May S. Marcy Sculpture Garden. While this building doesn’t really fit into this historic place, it also doesn’t detract from the plaza. I think that has more to do with the earthly color tone than anything else. Even the pillars are more reminiscent of Roman-architecture than it is of Spanish architecture.
Across the plaza from sculpture park’s entrance building is the modernist-style Timken Museum of Art building and is an insult to work of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. who took great care trying to recreate the illusion of 16th-Century Spain. This building serves as a stark reminder you aren’t actually in a 16th-Century Spanish City. The architecture of both the plaza and this building would have been better served by putting it somewhere were clashing architectural styles aren’t so profound in an historical setting. One can only presume artistic arrogance led to this calamity. The museum wasn’t open during my visit.
My problems with the architecture should be put aside when discussing what’s inside. The museum has a superb collection of paintings by Spanish, French, and Dutch artists. It also offers an artist-in-residency program where participants works are also displayed,
Botanical Gardens & Lily Pond
After Timken Museum, you’ll come to Lily Pond in front of the Botanical Building.
At the lily pond, you can sit on one of the benches and watch koe and turtles swim around or colorful lilies in full bloom during late summer and early fall. An interested tidbit of history, the pond has also been used as a swimming pool when the park was used by the U.S. Navy during World War I & II as a training center and hospital.
Over 2,100 plants can be found on permanent display inside the botanical garden when it’s open. Among those on display are fantastical green ferns, gentle orchids, and bright impatiens.
A major attraction for adults and children is the Venus Flytrap. There’s also a plant that smells like chocolate in the Touch and Smell Garden!
Casa del Prado
Casa del Prado is a reconstruction of the original Varied Industries and Food Products Building. Created as the largest of the temporary structures, the building lasted for years before weather and time broke it down. It was reconstructed in 1971 and opened as Casa del Prado. It consists of a courtyard sandwiched between north and south wings. In the south wing are offices for the San Diego Botanical Gardens Foundation and San Diego Floral Association and in the north wing is a stage theater serving youth and civic groups.
Panama-California Sculpture Court
The sculpture court was created in 1973 after the completion of the Casa del Prado building. The statues are what remains of the Varied Industries and Food Products Building built for the exposition. These original statues were taken off the old building and used as casts to make new ones for the replacement building erected in 1971. The old statues were then discarded at the Chollas Landfill where people jumped the fence to collet pieces of them.
The “Committee of One Hundred” and the City of San Diego rescued what was left of the statues and brought them back to the exposition grounds for restoration and display.
Spanish Village Arts Center
Art Lovers, you have to come here. The village was created in 1936 and currently houses over 200 local artists working on sculptures, paintings, carvings, and much more. You can freely walk around, talk to the artists, and peruse what they have to offer. What a great way to bring something of quality home for lasting memories.
This is one of the last miniature train rides left in the country. Coincidentally, the Miniature Train Company was sold to the Allan Herschel Company who made the 1910 carousel a few feet away in 1956.
The carousel has been one of the last ones left where riders can grab a ring while going round and round – a brass ring meant a free ride!
You can ride on it 11am – 5:30pm Sat. & Sun. It is also open on school holidays.
San Diego Zoo
The zoo takes up much of the northern part of the original exposition rounds and the buildings in this area have pretty much all been removed.
I didn’t go into the zoo because things were still in the process of opening and I wasn’t sure how open all the exhibits would be to make paying the $65.00 entry fee worthwhile. So, I didn’t go in; plus, one must stay money conscious to make budget-traveling work.
After visiting the Spanish Arts Village, you should make your way back to El Prado to finish the tour around it.
Plaza de Balboa
TheNAT (San Diego’s Natural History Museum), Rusen H. Fleet Science Center, and the Bea Evenson Fountain are Plaza de Balboa.
Bea Evenson Fountain
Bea Evenson (1900-1981) found her calling once she turned 65. Through her efforts, a strip of land along N. Harbor Drive by the airport is now Spanish Landing Park. She also formed the “Committee of 100“, a group dedicated to preserving the Spanish architectural gems on the expo grounds. After helping to reconstruct many of the buildings along El Prado, her last efforts were saved for restoring Spreckels Organ Pavilion. She passed away in 1981, three years before her last project was completed. The fountain was named for her and the memory of all the work she put in to save these cherished grounds for generations to come.
San Diego Natural History Museum, referred to as TheNAT, came to the expo grounds in 1917 when they purchased an empty unused building from the city. The current building replaced the old on in 1933. Less than a decade later, the U.S. Navy took over the building for use as a hospital and infectious disease center during World War II.
The museum has displays on the diversity of life in Southern California and Canyoneer hikes to teach people first-hand. The hikes are provided by trained and knowledgeable people of the natural surrouding in San Diego County.
Rueben H. Fleet Museum
Rueben H. Fleet (1887-1975) came to San Diego just before the start of World War I. He was chosen to be one of the first students at the aviation school on Coronado Island. Within a short time, he was in Washington, D.C., directing aviation training. The U.S. Army assigned the development of the first air mail service to him as well.
Fleet left the army and settled in Buffalo, New York, for a few years building planes and buying up companies. He moved hos operation to San Diego to establish a company building training and sea planes.
The museum has numerous exhibits, permanent and temporary, exploring the universe around us and inside our bodies. It also has an IMAX Theater.
South Side of El Prado
The first part of El Prado running on the southside goes from Ruben H. Fleet Center to Presidential Promenade. The bulk of this stretch is a building I can’t find the name for, but it houses some cool stuff. This building has two wings connected by a loggia.
Museum of Photographic Arts
The Museum of Photographic Arts is in a building on the north side of El Prado across from Casa del Prado. The museum permanent collections include daguerreotypes from the 19th Century to photojournalism photos.
The building also houses the San Diego History Center and the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
San Diego History Center
The San Diego History Center is dedicated to preserving the history of the San Diego region. The center was started in 1928 by George Marston, one of the founders of Balboa Park and houses large collections of oral-histories, historic objects, historic clothing, and artworks.
San Diego Model Railroad Museum
The largest model railroad museum in North America is an attraction drawing kids of all ages. There are several model setups in the museum representing rail lines throughout Southern California.
House of Hospitality
The House of Hospitality has plenty of stuff to check out. Inside the building is The Prado Restaurant, which is a higher-end establishment serving seafood, steak, and pasta meals. The visitor center is also located here where you can get maps and buy t-shirts, hats, and other items. Public bathrooms are also located in the building.
Heading south on the promenade from the House of Hospitality is Spreckels Organ Pavilion where outdoor concerts are held. I saw the U.S. Navy Band play here in 1993.
Behind the doors of the pavilion lies the world’s largest pipe organ made for an outdoor venue in 1915!
House of Pacific Relations
The grounds of the House of Pacific Relations are made up of small cottage representing 32 countries and cultures from around the world. The goal is the promote understanding, respect, and cooperation between countries and people. Countries not having a cottage are hosted inside the Hall of Nations building across the street from the cottages.
Japanese Friendship Garden
The garden was a gift from the people of Yokohama, Japan, to the citizens of San Diego, and by extension, the United States. The garden is a favorite spot to escape from the crowds on the promenade to sit by koe ponds on stone arrangements
Mingei International Museum
The Mingei International Museum in on the left hand side as you walk out of the park and over the Cabrillo Brige back to the hostels. The museum focuses on artifacts on art depicting the daily lives of people throughout the world. The museum shares the building with the San Diego Art Institute. Behind the museum is Alcazar Garden.