SAN DIEGO — A century ago, the world came to San Diego, a city many didn't know existed, for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
San Diego, today the eighth-largest city in the United States, was Lilliputian with a population of roughly 32,000. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles had a few hundred thousand citizens each; San Francisco was even hosting a competing expo, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
But on July 9, 1909, prominent San Diego banker G. Aubrey Davidson suggested his city, a toddling beach community located in the big toe of the Golden State, host an exhibition to celebrate the human-made marvel’s opening. If the event made the city a household name and helped it bounce back from the economic Panic of 1907, so much the better.
Right on schedule, New Year’s Day 1915, the Panama-California Exposition in the newly named Balboa Park welcomed the world. While the expo has vanished into the ether, the park remains. The San Diego Tourism Authority calls Balboa Park the "Smithsonian of the West" and the "largest urban cultural park in North America," saying the park's size of almost 1,200 acres exceeds that of Central Park.
It is fitting that Balboa Park is the guest of honor as the city celebrates the expo’s centennial. A good place to start a visit is the Marston House Museum and Gardens, former home of one-time San Diego department store owner and philanthropist George W. Marston. Marston donated much of the land that became Balboa Park. The house, built in 1905, draws visitors every year as a prime example of the Arts and Crafts architectural style.
This year’s visitors to the Marston House can help themselves to a sample of life in 1915. Commemorative pillows, plates, purses and other souvenirs that fairgoers took home from the expo, including oddities such as a genuine miner’s ore bag, have been dusted off and are on display. A posted advertisement by the Santa Fe Railroad tells readers about scary events going on in the outside world: “Open on time: War will not affect the 1915 Panama Expositions.” The conflict that would become known as the Great War was setting Europe ablaze.
The next step is to visit the San Diego History Center. In the yearlong special exhibit “San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Expo,” descriptions of the fair give 21st-century visitors the opportunity to decide what they would see and do if they were walking the grounds 100 years ago.
Then again, many did not walk the grounds. Some chose to traverse the fair by way of an electriquette. Few pedestrians could wander the property without seeing these wicker-covered electric-powered vehicles that could move at 3.5 miles per hour. Based on similar electric carts that had transported Boardwalk denizens of Atlantic City, New Jersey, for several years, electriquettes proved as hot an item as ice cream cones in August. One display says that by August 1915, the fleet of electriquettes had logged 143,000 miles.
Next up is the Botanical Building, which dazzles with a reflection pond called Laguna de Las Flores, or “the flower lagoon.” The California Quadrangle was dominated by a bell tower of Spanish design and became the 1915 fair’s symbol. One could sip oolong tea at the Japanese Tea House and sample baked goods at the Foreign and Domestic Industries building. Additionally, the works of American painter Robert Henri dominated a small but potent display of contemporary art that afforded a teasing look at the future Ashcan school of art.
Like every such expo, San Diego’s had a midway. It was officially “The Isthmus: The Entertainment Center of the Exposition.” Unlike most other midways, this was less carnival and more educational entertainment. One could enjoy the view from the top of a Ferris wheel or hop on a balance-tormenting ride called the Toadstool, but an electrified diorama called “The War of the Worlds” showcased a world war in the year 2000, rife with flashing artillery and soaring Zeppelins. Ironically, the war raging in Europe would forever be known as World War I.
Not far away, Apache, Navajo, Tewa and other American Indians wove rugs and blankets and crafted traditional pottery in reconstructed tepees and pueblos. Some of what was meant to be a learning experience in 1915 is archaic and unflattering by 21st-century standards. The Chinatown pavilion was an opium den with wax effigies of people suffering from addiction.
Perhaps the expo’s sweetest development was the installation of what was then the world’s largest outdoor pipe organ, a gift of sugar baron brothers John D. and Adolph Spreckels. (One might say that generous donation made the brothers the world’s first sugar daddies). Organists played the 4,725 pipes of the Spreckels Organ during daytime concerts, and at nights during the expo, newfangled electric lights outlined the organ pavilion.
The Spreckels Organ is still in the park, serving double duty as a music machine and frequent backdrop for wedding photos.
Six other buildings created for the expo still stand. One, the former California Quadrangle, is now the San Diego Museum of Man. Its landmark bell tower reopened to the public in January, and those with the energy can again climb the 125 steps to the top. The Botanical Building is still an arboretum, home to thousands of tropical plants, many dating from 1915. While San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition closed at the end of 1915, San Diego’s expo ran through 1916.
The 1,200-acre park is home to more than a dozen museums, most constructed since 1915. Aside from the San Diego History Center and San Diego Museum of Man, others celebrate science, air and space, automobiles, art and local sports. There are also 10 gardens, a half-dozen performing arts venues, a carousel, a miniature railroad and the renowned San Diego Zoo.
If you go ...
What: Balboa Park
Where: San Diego
When: Park grounds are open 24 hours a day, but hours for specific attractions vary
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received a MFA in Professional Writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at [email protected].