During our vacation in 2022 to San Diego, my wife and I spent a morning strolling around Balboa Park. Named for the Spanish-born explorer and perhaps the first European to witness the Pacific Ocean, this 1,200-acre site has a long, rich history going back to 1868 when San Diego’s leaders set aside the scrappy undeveloped area for public use. It didn’t really begin to take shape as a recognizable park until 1892 when a schoolteacher turned botanist and entrepreneur named Kate Sessions leased 32 acres of the property for her growing nursery’s propagation. She also agreed to plant trees annually in the park and in other public spaces around the city. The species included cypress, pine, oak, and eucalyptus. Some of the oldest specimens in the park today were part of the original plantings. She also introduced exotic plant species such as bird of paradise, Queen palm, and poinsettia. Her efforts eventually earned Sessions the honorary title “The Mother of Balboa Park.”
By the early 20th century, the City of San Diego had installed water systems, roads, and other infrastructural elements to Balboa Park. The origin of the elaborate Spanish Colonial architecture dates to 1915 when the park was selected as the site for the Panama-California Exposition. The Cabrillo Bridge and the buildings along El Prado date to this event, along with the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. More buildings were added for the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36, especially in the Southern Palisades area. These structures have a much more Southwestern look in the tradition of Pueblo Indian architecture and even Mayan designs.
After World War II, several of the main buildings were converted to museums and other cultural institutions. Today, visitors to the park can enjoy the San Diego History Center, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego Natural History Museum, Fleet Science Center, Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Photographic Arts, Women’s Museum of California, Veterans Museum, WorldBeat Center, Museum of Us, San Diego Air and Space Museum, San Diego Mineral and Gem Society, San Diego Automotive Museum, San Diego Model Railroad Museum, Mingei International Museum, the Marston House (early 20th-century Arts & Crafts design), Comic-Con Museum, and Timken Museum of Art.
There are fountains and gardens throughout the park, along with the Japanese Friendship Garden (subject of an earlier post). There are restaurants and coffee shops. There are statues (especially in Sefton Plaza), the impressive California Tower, the Spanish Village Art Center, a beautiful carousel, and a miniature train. The park’s visitors center is the best place to start exploring the site. If we return to San Diego, I plan to devote more time to wandering through some of these museums. The Botanical Building and Lily Pond were undergoing major renovation work when we were there, so I definitely want to see those if we go back to Balboa Park, and I hope we do.