Balboa Park History

Balboa Park is steeped in history.  A true labor of love to the City's leaders of the era, there was great effort to shape this rolling plot of land into the masterpiece it is today.  We have a Balboa Park New and Old Itinerary that showcases locations from the past and how they look today!

Park Beginnings 

Balboa Park began as 1400 acres of land set aside in 1868 by San Diego civic leaders. Known then as “City Park”, the scrub-filled mesa that overlooked present day Downtown San Diego sat without formal landscaping or development for more than 20 years. (Today the Park's total land parcel has been reduced to 1,200 acres.)

The first steps in Park beautification were made in 1892, largely due to the contributions of Kate Sessions. Sessions offered to plant 100 trees a year within the Park as well as donate trees and shrubs around San Diego in exchange for 32 acres of land within the Park boundaries to be used for her commercial nursery. Several popular species, including the birds of paradise, queen palm and poinsettia were introduced into the Park’s horticulture because of Sessions’ early efforts. In fact, many of her original trees are alive and visible today.  It is no wonder that Kate Sessions earned the title “The Mother of Balboa Park” at the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.1915 image of people walking on the Cabrillo Bridge

Just after the turn of the century, a master plan for Park improvements and beautification was formally introduced. Supported by a City tax levied in 1905, the process began in 1903 and continued through 1910. Water systems were installed, planting continued, roads were built, and the Park began to take on much of the familiar look of today.

San Diego was set to play host to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and “City Park” was a less-than memorable or distinctive name for such an internationally prestigious event. In 1910, Park Commissioners announced plans to re-name City Park and the public was eager to throw potential names into the hat, including: San Diego Park, Silver Gate Park, Horton Park and Miramar Park. After months of discussion and great public interest, the Park Commissioners decided on the name Balboa Park, chosen in honor of Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean while on exploration in Panama.

The Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive is a permanent Digital Archive of documents, images, audio, and video related to San Diego’s 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Learn more

Early Museums

The San Diego Natural History Museum was founded by a handful of citizen-naturalists in 1874; the museum is an active research institution and is the oldest scientific institution in Southern California. The Marston House museum (3525 Seventh Ave.) is a classic 1905 Arts and Crafts style home, which was built for noted civic leader and merchant, George W. Marston and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed by renowned local architects William Hebbard and Irving Gill, it sits on five acres of landscaped gardens.

First Fair: The 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition
Art and Culture, Gardens and Spanish-Renaissance Architecture

The 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal and provided a major impetus for the creation of the Park as it appears today—the first of two Expositions that created many 1915 Exposition Posterof the cultural institutions as well as the stunning architecture in the Park. Most of the arts organizations along Balboa Park's famous El Prado pedestrian walkway are housed in Spanish-Renaissance style buildings constructed for the 1915 Exposition. It was one of the first times that this highly ornamented, flamboyant architectural style had ever been used in the United States.

The California Tower and dome, which houses the Museum of Us, (formerly the San Diego Museum of Man), the Cabrillo Bridge (historic 1,500-foot-long bridge) and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion (one of the world's large fair. The San Diego Museum Association was established in 1915 as a museum of anthropology-its name changed in 1942 to the Museum of Man (with "San Diego" added in 1978).

The former Food & Beverage Building (today's Casa de Balboa, which houses the Balboa Art Conservation CenterMuseum of Photographic Arts, San Diego History Center & Archives and San Diego Model Railroad Museum), the Casa del Prado (San Diego Botanical FoundationSan Diego Civic Youth BalletSan Diego Floral AssociationSan Diego Junior Theater and the San Diego Youth Symphony) and the House of Charm (Mingei International Museum and San Diego Art Institute (now Institute of Contemporary Art, San Diego) were also built for the 1915 Exposition as temporary wood-and-plaster structures and have all since been reconstructed.

The extensive landscaping the Exposition brought to the Park has earned it the moniker, the "Garden Fair." The Park's landmark tree is the Moreton Bay fig growing north of the Natural History Museum. This tree, planted before 1915, is over 60 feet tall with a spread of 120 feet. Also built for the 1915-16 Exposition, along with the adjacent Lily Pond, the historic Botanical Building is one of the largest lath structures in the world. The view of the Botanical Building with the Lily Pond in the foreground is one of the most photographed scenes in Balboa Park.

The world-famous San Diego Zoo was established in the second year of this exposition (1916). Dr. Harry Wegeforth, a surgeon for the fair, conceived the idea of starting a zoo after hearing the roar of a lion, one of the few wild animals displayed in cages at the Exposition. Wegeforth became the San Diego Zoo's first president and remained in office until his death in 1941 Today the Zoo is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species and subspecies—a world famous conservation organization where visitors view exotic animals in habitat environments.

The San Diego Museum of Art

Early image of the San Diego Museum of Art Building at Balboa ParkIn 1926 the San Diego Museum of Art, the region's oldest and largest art museum, was founded. The Museum of Art's renowned holdings include a fine selection of European old masters, 19th-20th -century American art, an encyclopedic Asian collection, and growing collections of contemporary and Latin American art. Its beautiful building was designed by architect William Templeton Johnson and architect and building, Robert W. Snyder.

The San Diego Historical Society, whose San Diego History Center is now housed in the Casa de Balboa, was founded in 1928 by George W. Marston.

In 1933 The San Diego Natural History Museum opened its doors in the Park. Its building was also designed by William Templeton Johnson.

Second World's Fair: The 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition - More Art, Culture, Architecture and Gardens

The 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, held to boost the local economy during the depression, added other cultural organizations, structures and landscaping. Many of the buildings around the Pan American Plaza at the southern end of the Park were created for the 1935 Exposition and present a fascinating architectural history of the Southwest, from earlier Aztec influences through Mexican pueblo style to art deco and arte moderne.

The Palisades Area (southern end of Balboa Park)
The Palisades building (today housing the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, a Recital hall and some offices), the Municipal Gymnasium and the House of Pacific Relations delightful cottages are some of the buildings from 1935. Also, the California State Building (now housing the San Diego Automotive Museum), the Ford Building (San Diego Aerospace Museum) and the Federal Building were added at this time. The Starlight Bowl  was also constructed for the second exposition.

The renowned Old Globe
The internationally acclaimed, Tony Award-winning Old Globe, one of the most esteemed regional theaters in the country, was founded in 1935. Today The Old Globe boasts three unique venues: the historic Old Globe Theatre (originally built for the 1935 exposition); the intimate Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (formerly the Cassius Carter Centre Stage); and the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

The House of Hospitality Building
The National Historic Landmark House of Hospitality, built to be the centerpiece of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, was remodeled to add the inner courtyard for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Ladies dining in the House of Hospitality in 1935 at Balboa ParkIt is a magnificent example of Spanish-Renaissance architecture. The delightful courtyard and fountain, with its beautiful centerpiece, Woman of Tehuantepec, was created by acclaimed San Diego sculptor, Donal Hord, and is one of the most photographed sites in the Park. There is a free self-guided House of Hospitality history tour on the second level of the building.

Spanish Village Art Center
Also built for the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition, the Spanish Village Art Center now houses 35 working art studios in a charming setting that re-creates the feeling of a town square in Spain.

1935 Gardens
Zoro Gardens located just east of the San Diego History Center and now butterfly garden, was an adult-only attraction in 1935-a nudist colony. Alcazar Garden, named because its design is patterned after the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain, lies adjacent to the Mingei Museum. It is known for its ornate fountains, exquisite turquoise blue, yellow, and green Moorish tiles and shady pergola. This formal garden, bordered by boxwood hedges, is planted with 7,000 annuals for a vibrant display of color throughout the year. The garden has been reconstructed to replicate the 1935 design by San Diego architect Richard Requa.

World War II Era

Most of the buildings on the Central Mesa were taken over by the U.S. Navy-extensions of Balboa Naval Hospital. For example, the House of Hospitality became a nurses' dormitory; the Lily Pond (in front of the Botanical Building) became a rehabilitation pool; 400 beds were placed in The San Diego Museum of Art.


On Christmas Day, 1946, the California Tower carillon was installed. The chimes are still heard across the Park on every quarter hour. In 1948 the San Diego Junior Theatre, the oldest youth theatre program in the United States, was established and the Starlight Theatre began performing Broadway musicals in the former Ford Bowl.

The 1960s and '70s

In 1965 the Timken Museum of Art opened in a building designed by Frank Hope. Centro Cultural de la Raza was established in its Park Boulevard home in 1970. The original Food & Beverage Building (1915/16 Exposition) was rebuilt and reopened as the Casa del Prado in 1971. In 1973 the Fleet Science Center, (then called the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center), named for the San Diego aircraft manufacturing pioneer Reuben H. Fleet, opened its doors, featuring the world's first and San Diego's only IMAX® Dome Theater.

In 1978 two devastating fires struck Balboa Park. On February 22, fire destroyed the entire San Diego Air & Space Museum (then called the Aerospace Museum) collection when the Electric Building on the Prado burned down. Workers moving the Woman of Tehuantepec fountain at Balboa ParkTwo weeks later the Old Globe Theatre (the original 1935 building) burned down. Through private and public support from the San Diego community, both institutions were able to continue. The San Diego Air & Space Museum moved into the renovated Ford Building in the south Palisades area and The Old Globe built a temporary outdoor theater to accommodate their 1978 summer season. This temporary structure was upgraded and made permanent as the Lowell Davies Festival Stage, hosting the annual The Old Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival.

Also in 1978, Christmas on the Prado (now called Balboa Park December Nights) was founded by ten Park cultural organizations. That year nearly 3,000 visitors squeezed into the center of the Park and were treated to a two-evening event filled with ethnic crafts, museum store shopping, Elizabethan dances and music.

The 1980s

The Casa de Balboa was constructed on the site of the old Electric Building and opened in 1981. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum, incorporated in 1980, opened to the public in 1982 in the Casa de Balboa. The Museum of Photographic Arts officially opened its doors, also in the Casa de Balboa, on May 1, 1983 as one of the few museum facilities in the United States designed exclusively to collect and present the world's finest examples of photographic art. In 1988 the San Diego Automotive Museum took over the former Conference Building in the Palisades area. The Veterans Museum and Memorial Center was formed in 1989. It is located in the former San Diego Naval Hospital Chapel at Inspiration Point in the Park.

The 1990s

The beautiful Japanese Friendship Garden made its new home on the land between the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the House of Hospitality in 1990. In 1996 Mingei International Museum (founded in 1978, and dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of 'art of the people' (mingei) from all cultures of the world) and the San Diego Art Institute (SDAI has produced the "Annual," a juried art show since 1955) both came to Balboa Park and opened in the newly reconstructed House of Charm. Also in 1996, the WorldBeat Center opened in a colorfully painted former water tower. In 1997 the award-winning reconstruction of the National Historic Landmark House of Hospitality was completed and the building opened in October. A statue of Kate Sessions was dedicated (across from the Cabrillo Bridge) in 1998. The Hall of Champions Sports Museum opened in the reconstructed Federal Building in the Palisades area in 1999, and closed in June of 2017, to make way for the Comic-Con Center for Popular Culture, slated to open in 2018.

The 2000s

In 2000 Balboa Park was host to San Diego's millennium celebration with Expo 2000 (harkening back to the two Expositions held in the Park). In 2001 the San Diego Natural History Museum opened its doors after a major reconstruction to the original building—with The Spreckels Organ Pavilion from the Plaza de Panama at Balboa Parka 90,000 square foot addition more than doubling the facility's size. In 2003 Balboa Park was ranked as one of the Best Parks in the World by the Project for Public Spaces (rank of 13 out of 24 international parks). Also in 2003, The World Federation of Rose Societies (WFRS) voted the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden as one of the top 12 rose gardens in the world-The Award of Garden Excellence recognizes exceptional rose gardens throughout the world. The most recent formal Balboa Park garden dedication took place on November 11, 2005 as the new Veterans Memorial Garden was opened to the public. The Veterans Memorial Garden is situated on a one-acre parcel of land in the Park honoring all veterans.