Spanish Colonial Architecture at San Diego’s Balboa Park

It was too big to miss, and yet I did when I last was in San Diego, I was not going to miss it again. Especially not when it is considered a must see on the city visit map, renowned for… er…

Why exactly was the Balboa Park a must see in San Diego again?

This park was build in 1868 after a group of city councillors (Board of Trustees of the city, as they were then called) called for a green lung to be built next to the growing and busy downtown San Diego, a group of business people led by the property developer Alonzo Horton studied the city map and decided on this site for a park. But instead of a small park, which included two plots, it was decided that a massive 9 plot park totally 1400 acres would be set aside.

The open space was all the people needed to feel in touch with nature and for a few decades, it remained this way. Wildlife native to the climate like bobcats, coyotes and rattlesnakes roamed the park, with humans occasionally coming into contact with them. A few items were installed, including a nursery run that ended up producing a large variety of plants that now populate the park.

This park would probably have remained a quiet, and slightly wild nature reserve for quite some more time. The 1915 happened.

A major construction was completed in Panama in 1915, the Panama Canal, the canal after it was cut opened access between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and allowed trade to flow in new directions. It was billed as a way to shorten and increase trade across both coasts on North and South America, journeys which were previously restricted by land to major cities. San Diego spotted an opportunity for itself as the first major US port of call, for ships that had crossed from the Atlantic into the Pacific and were swinging up north, and it was decided that a world exposition should be held in San Diego to market this idea.

The main site of the exhibition was to be in City Park, knowing that the canal would be opened in 1915, projects were launched in 1909 to redesign the whole park. A competition was launched to name the Park, and the name Balboa was chosen after the Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the first European (and Spanish) explorer to cross the Central America and see the Pacific Ocean. To make something truly spectacular in this park, a renowed architect from the East Coast was brought in. Bertram Goodhue was well known for his Gothic revival architecture in Boston and New York and went back to history to find a style that would fit this park well – he decided on a combination of Spanish baroque and Spanish colonial architecture for the park. Yes, the Spanish had a certain architectural design for their colonies the objective of which was to project power and insipire awe and obedience in the local populations.

It clearly worked in the colonies and it certainly did with the free people of San Diego, for this beautiful and imposing structures were a beauty to marvel at, even for us modern day visitors.

The park was used again in 1935 for a second major exposition, this time to boost the city’s economy after the Great Depression.

Into this period were new buildings such as the OId Globe Theater modeled after Globe Theatre that Shakespeare’s work was performed in.

It also housed some exhibits that would have been extremely progressive even in this day and age – Zoro Garden Nudist Colony for example.

The park was reposition for different use at different periods of history, housing (and still continuing to house) military installations. It is today also home to way too many museums that you can complete in a single visit. But even if you do not get to the museums, just gallivanting around the park and admiring the Spanish colonial architecture is a worth your time.



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