Panama-California Exposition, 1915-1916
supplementary information for the walking tour of Balboa Park

On New Year's Day, 1915, a fireworks display in Balboa Park concluded with a flaming sign, "The Land Divided -- The World United -- San Diego the First Port of Call." The Panama Canal, begun in 1905, had just opened, shortening by 8000 miles the sea route from the East Coast to California. To celebrate the event, San Diego staged the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park. The fireworks were a part of the opening ceremonies of an exposition that would continue for two years.

Led by famous New York architect Bertram Goodhue, the builders of the Panama-California Exposition had created an idealized walled Spanish town of the 17th Century. Inside the walls, along a narrow main road known as El Prado ("The Promenade"), they built Spanish plazas, arcades, courtyards, and buildings, based on famous buildings and gardens in Spain and Mexico.

The 400-acre exposition hosted exhibits from various industries, most California counties, seven States, and a few foreign countries. It also contained an amusement park, a model ranch, and a model Indian village. Today, all of these are gone. But that doesn't matter. The highlight of the exposition was its Spanish Colonial architecture, much of which remains.

In the 16th Century, Spanish buildings were influenced greatly by Moorish and Italian architecture. The 17th Century added rococo and baroque flourishes and the style became known as Spanish Renaissance. When Spanish architecture was then transported to New Spain, Indian craftsmen turned it into Spanish Colonial architecture by adding their own style of enthusiastic, individualistic decoration.

With few exceptions, the buildings were constructed of wood and plaster and not intended to last -- they were to be torn down at the end of the exposition. But their Spanish Colonial beauty won the love, and money, of San Diegans. For decades, they received periodic renovations and repairs. But eventually the deterioration made the original buildings beyond saving. So, beginning in 1968, the temporary buildings have one by one been torn down and replaced by permanent ones identical in appearance to the original ones. Consequently, many of the principal buildings of the 1915-1916 exposition still live on after three-quarters of a century. Along with some newer buildings, they form a string of museums, art galleries, and cultural centers along the main street of the park, El Prado. Unless otherwise stated, all the buildings on the El Prado walk were built for the 1915-1916 exposition.

Copyright © by Carol Mendel
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Walking tours in this series:

Balboa Park
Cabrillo National Monument
Downtown San Diego
The Embarcadero
La Jolla
La Playa
Mission Bay Park
Mission Beach
Old Town
Shelter Island
Sunset Cliffs

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