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Balboa Park:
The El Prado Area

a walking tour by Carol Mendel

MAP of the walking tour

Distance: A mile. Time: Several hours or more, depending on how many museums and galleries you visit.

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The El Prado area of the park is known for its museums and Spanish Colonial architecture. The architectural style was adopted for the Panama-California Exposition held here in 1915-1916. (More about the 1915-1916 exposition...) The self-guided walking tour begins at what was the exposition's main entrance, off Laurel Street.

lawn bowling
Lawn Bowling
On the northeast corner of Balboa Drive and El Prado are the large, flat, greens of the San Diego Lawn Bowling Club, where club members play up to sixteen simultaneous games of "bowling on the green." Games are played on most days. For details, consult the schedule on the club's website. Sitting down to watch some lawn bowling is the perfect way to relax before beginning your walk. (More about lawn bowling...)

Now you are ready to begin the walking tour.

Laurel Street Bridge
Laurel Street Bridge
Visitors approach the exposition buildings by a long bridge leading to a low entrance gate. At the time of the exposition, Laurel Street Bridge spanned a lagoon. Today, to the benefit of motorists but the detriment of beauty, a freeway has replaced the lagoon.

Walk across the bridge on the right side, which gives you a better view of the buildings behind the gate. The architectural effect is intended to suggest the Spanish city of Toledo, which also has a long bridge leading to a low entrance gate. As you approach the gate, the building on your left was the Exposition Headquarters.

West Gate
West Gate
Turn your attention to the West Gate. On the entablature above the archway recline sculptures of a female "Mare Pacificum" and a male "Mare Atlanticum." The waters flowing from the vases they hold represent the joining of the oceans by the Panama Canal. Between them is the date, 1915, and above them, the City of San Diego crest.

Above the gate on the left you can see the California Tower and the dome of the California Building, both decorated in inlaid blue, green, gold, black, and white ceramic tiles.

Walk under the arch on the right side, into the Plaza de California. Except for the Organ Pavilion, the buildings of the Plaza de California were the only exposition buildings built to be permanent. On your left is the California Building, built by the State of California. The design of its facade is taken from that of the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City. View it from the shade of the arcade across the plaza. In true Spanish Colonial style, it juxtaposes plain flat facades with areas of elaborate ornament.

Walk under the arch on the right side, into the Plaza de California. Except for the Organ Pavilion, the buildings of the Plaza de California were the only exposition buildings built to be permanent.

California Building
California Building
On your left is the California Building, built by the State of California. The design of its facade is taken from that of the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City. View it from the shade of the arcade across the plaza. In true Spanish Colonial style, it juxtaposes plain flat facades with areas of elaborate ornament.

The statues and busts of the facade are figures from the early history of San Diego. (More about the facade...)

To the right of the California Building, the California Tower rises 200 feet. At its top is a weather vane in the shape of a Spanish ship similar to Cabrillo's. Inside the tower, a 100-bell symphonic carillon plays the standard Westminster chimes every quarter hour and a five minute recital at noon. The bells are operated from two keyboards on the third floor of the California Building. Usually they are played automatically with reels similar to those of a player piano. Occasionally, however, a carillonneur presents a live recital.

With the help of the Smithsonian Institution, the School of American Archaeology, and other groups, the State of California provided the California Building with exhibits ranging from the pueblos of the Southwest to the Aztec and Mayan ruins of South America. Expeditions to these places returned with over 5000 specimens of pottery, clothing, and religious and decorative items. After the exposition, these collections became the foundation of the San Diego Museum of Man, which now occupies the building. The museum's collections have grown over the years and specialize in the anthropology and archaeology of the Indian cultures of the Americas.

Adjacent to the museum is a gift shop that carries jewelry and imported goods from countries all over the world.

Across the plaza from the California Building, the City of San Diego built a low building in the style of the missions set up in California by Father Serra. You are currently standing in its arcade. To see the building better, you need to cross the plaza and look back at it by standing in front of the Museum of Man. To cross the plaza safely, return to the pedestrian crosswalk you passed just before you walked under the arch of the West Gate.

Alcazar Garden
Alcazar Garden
Return to the arcade, continue along it out of the Plaza de California, and turn right, into the Alcazar Garden. The gardens were patterned after the gardens of the Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain.

Returning from the gardens to the arcade, you are at the House of Charm, reconstructed to duplicate one of the buildings put up for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. The original, "temporary" building lasted almost eighty years, although by then it was seriously deteriorated. It was torn down in 1994, to be replaced by a nearly-identical, permanent one. Later, from the other side of the Plaza de Panama, you will be better able to see its simple Spanish Mission style of architecture. (Its present name, the House of Charm, comes from its use during the 1935-1936 exposition, when souvenirs and gifts were sold there.)

Today the building houses two major tenants. The San Diego Art Institute features the works of San Diego County artists. The Mingei International Museum features traditional and contemporary folk art, craft and design.

Follow the arcade around to the right along the west side of the Plaza de Panama. At the end of the arcade you have an excellent view of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. (More about the Spreckels Organ...)

On your way across the Plaza de Panama to the arcade on the opposite side, stop at the 1927 bronze sculpture of El Cid Campeador ("The Valiant Military Leader") by Anna Hyatt Huntington. El Cid, otherwise known as Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar, was a legendary medieval hero of the 11th Century. An ardent supporter of Christianity, he helped to drive the Moors from Spain. Two other statues of El Cid were made from the same mold -- one stands in the court of the Museum of the Hispanic Society in New York City; the other is in Seville, Spain.

House of Hospitality
House of Hospitality
While standing near the statue, turn and look at the facade of the House of Hospitality, another of the "temporary" buildings from the 1915-1916 exposition. Then it was known as the Foreign Arts Building, and housed exhibits from many countries. The building resembles the Hospital of Santa Cruz in Toledo, Spain. High over the central arch you can see the seal of the Pan American Union, many of whose members displayed their exhibits in this building.

This building was torn down and reconstructed in 1995-1996. As part of the process, more than 1000 of the original doors, windows, fixtures, and other architectural pieces were removed, restored, and eventually reinstalled on the new building.

Enter the arcade of the building, follow it to the left, and soon you will come to the entrance to a courtyard in the center of the building. Designed after the Museum of Guadalajara, Mexico, the courtyard is surrounded by Spanish arcades.

sculpture of Aztec woman
Aztec woman
In its center, a limestone sculpture of an Aztec woman of Tehuantepec gracefully pours water from an urn into a tiled pool. The woman is the work of noted San Diego sculptor Donal Hord.

Behind the arcades are numerous meeting rooms that are rented to the public. On the north side of the courtyard, the Balboa Park Visitors Center contains brochures and information about attractions in both Balboa Park and the San Diego area.

On the south side, you will find a restaurant, whose dining room overlooks a patio and small formal garden behind the building. In the summer months, meals are served on the patio. The garden closely resembles the one at a palace in Rhonda, Spain.

As you come back out of the courtyard, the arches of the arcade frame a fine view of the House of Charm across the Plaza. The House of Charm recreates the Franciscan style of the Basilica de Guadalupe in Guadalajara, Mexico. Spanish missionaries worked in Lower California long before they came to Upper California in 1769. In Spanish Mission architecture, the bells hang in a pierced wall, or campanario, instead of in a bell tower. The campanario is unique to Spain and Mexico.

Continue along the arcade, turn right, and proceed along El Prado.

Casa del Prado
Casa del Prado
In a minute you have a nice view on your left across the street to the Casa del Prado. This was the first of the temporary buildings from the fair to be torn down and rebuilt. The original building was erected to house foreign and domestic industrial exhibits during the fair. It was torn down in 1968. Its replacement, which houses meeting and storage rooms for local cultural groups, opened in 1971.

As you walk along the arcade, the next building you come to is the Casa de Balboa. This building was not as fortunate as its neighbor on the other side of the street. It too had been scheduled to be torn down and rebuilt. In early 1978, however, while plans were being made for its replacement, the building burned to the ground. The building has now been rebuilt to be identical in appearance to the former one.

The Casa de Balboa now houses three museums. The Museum of Photographic Arts features exhibits of photography that change approximately every six weeks. The San Diego History Center contains exhibits about the history of the San Diego region. The History Center's research archives, open to the public, are downstairs. Also downstairs is the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, home of an elaborate miniature railroad system.

Immediately after you pass the Casa de Balboa, you reach a spot where some steps lead down a path lined with low stone walls to a quiet shady glen, an excellent spot for a picnic or snack.

Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center
Returning to street level, continue up the ramp, across the wide Plaza de Balboa, to the fountain. On your right is the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

The Science Center offers a large variety of exhibits in which visitors are invited not just to look, but to touch, talk, and listen as they learn. It also houses an IMAX film theater. The building is open daily, with hours varying with the season. Unlike most of the attractions in Balboa Park, it is open evenings, providing a place to go when the other attractions are closed.

San Diego Natural History Museum
San Diego Natural History Museum
On the left, the San Diego Natural History Museum houses exhibits of Southern California fossils, birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, plants, and marine life. The museum building was erected in 1932, replacing the exposition building destroyed by fire in 1925. Ironically, the fire gutted the earlier building just a few hours before it was to be the scene of the annual Firemen's Ball. Be sure to notice the animal carvings on the pillars and cornice around the entrance.

Returning toward El Prado, walk to the right along Village Place. Behind the Natural History Museum, a large lawn lies under the spreading arms of a Moreton Bay fig tree from Australia, planted here in 1915. Although the Moreton Bay fig is one of the many varieties of rubber tree, it is not the one commercially used for rubber.

Spanish Village Art Center
Spanish Village Art Center
Beyond the lawn, you cross the street to enter the Spanish Village Art Center. The village dates from the 1935-1936 exposition, when it housed a bazaar, a restaurant, and gift shops. After the exposition it became an artists' colony. Sprinkled around a brightly-painted patio, the small tan Spanish houses feature red-tiled roofs and deeply arched doorways. Inside the houses are the studios of artists who work in oils, watercolors, sculpture, woodcarving, photography, ceramics, and weaving. Also housed here is the San Diego Mineral & Gem Society.

When you have finished watching the artists at work, and are through surveying their wares, leave the Spanish Village by the entrance you came in, and begin walking back on the other side of Village Place. Now you will have a close-up view of the statuary and ornate decoration on the east side of the Casa del Prado. The design of the east entrance is taken from entrances to the two chapels that flank the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City. Just before you reach El Prado, you pass a facade of statuary. Before the old building was razed, its statuary and decorations were carefully removed and saved. From them, molds were prepared, and from these molds, new statues and decorations were cast.

Continue under the arcade, along El Prado. Now you can get a good look at the Casa de Balboa, the new building built to duplicate the one destroyed by fire. The original building was constructed to house the exhibits of Canada during the 1915-1916 exposition. It was based on the Town Hall of Palma de Majorca, capital of Spain's Balearic Islands. Above each entrance, sculpted female figures form the caryatids that support a large overhanging roof. Below the buttresses, iron railings guard the balconies of ornate windows.

Lily Pond and Botanical Building
Lily Pond and Botanical Building
You come out of the arcade at the Lily Pond. During World War II, patients of the Naval Hospital used the pool as a swimming pool. Now it hosts ducks and a few fish.

Reflected in the Lily Pond is the Botanical Building. The iron skeleton of the building was originally scheduled to be a Santa Fe railroad station, but the exposition bought up the disassembled building and set it up here to house botanical displays. Over twelve miles of redwood lath form a lattice over the iron skeleton. Inside, you will find over 500 species of tropical and subtropical plants, as well as seasonal flower displays.

When you come out of the Botanical Building, follow the walkway to the right. Pass beside the fountain and between the buildings of two art museums to the Plaza de Panama.

On your left is the Timken Museum of Art. Built in 1965 of imported Italian travertine marble, this modern building houses paintings by Old Masters, in addition to a collection of Russian icons.

facade detail at San Diego Museum of Art
San Diego Museum of Art
At the north end of Plaza de Panama stands the San Diego Museum of Art. During the Panama-California Exposition this site was occupied by a building containing U.S. Government exhibits. That Spanish Colonial building was demolished after the fair, and was replaced in 1926. The exterior is modeled after the University of Salamanca, Spain, in the Plateresque style of the 17th Century. The Spanish word platero means silversmith -- Spanish silversmiths were known for their intricate, delicate designs. In keeping with Spanish Renaissance and Spanish Colonial style, this intricate ornamentation is set off against plain, flat walls.

Appropriate to an art museum with 17th Century Spanish architecture, the entrance facade is decorated with sculptures of 17th Century Spanish painters. From left to right they include a bust of Ribera, full statues of Velásquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán, and a bust of El Greco. (The museum collection includes works by all five of these painters.) In arches above the windows of the plain facade, bas reliefs depict various arts. Inside, the design of the rotunda reflects the Hospital of Santa Cruz in Toledo. The handsome staircase featuring blue tiled handrails leads the eye upward toward a decorated wood ceiling.

In 1966 a wing was added to the west side of the museum. Its contemporary styling is flavored with Spanish and Moorish touches. The new wing now features a cafe in its courtyard.

When you come out of the museum, walk past the new wing and turn right on El Prado. Just beyond the sculpture garden, before you reach the California Tower, take the path to the right. It leads to The Old Globe, a complex of three theaters.

Old Globe Theatre
Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe Theatre resembles the Old Globe Theatre that graced the bank of London's River Thames in Elizabethan times. The first Old Globe Theatre on this site was built for the 1935-1936 exposition. That theater was destroyed by fire in 1978, and its replacement opened in 1982.

To the right of the Old Globe is the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, a theater-in-the-round. And to the right of the Carter, nestled in a canyon, is the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

From December through May, the Globe and White theaters present six plays, including both contemporary and classic. During the summer season, from June through October, the three theaters present another six plays, including at least one by Shakespeare. Ninety-minute tours of the theaters, including the backstage facilities, scene shops, and costume rooms, are given on weekends. Check the website for details. At any time, this is a pleasant spot to sit down, enjoy a view of the California Building and Tower, and relax.

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Copyright © by Carol Mendel

Enjoy this walking tour?

Check out the others 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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Some can be purchased as laminated maps, some as folded maps, some as wooden trays, and some as all three.

San Diego

Los Angeles

Palm Springs

Santa Barbara

San Francisco Bay Area

Las Vegas

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