History of Balboa Park

Balboa Park is packed with fun and educational things to do, and the park’s history is just as impressive as its assortment of museums, gardens, and more.
History of Balboa Park
Past & Present
Early Development
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Naming the Park
Attractions & More
Historical Facts
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Discover the Past and Present of Balboa Park

If you’re looking for a hub of history, culture, and natural beauty, look no further than Balboa Park in San Diego, California!

As one of the oldest parks in the area, Balboa Park has withstood the test of time and remained an incredibly important spot for both education and leisure. Whether you’re visiting the many museums in the park or just enjoying a nice walk through the scenery, there’s always something new and exciting brewing here.

Balboa Park’s scenic landscapes combine modern urban design with historical architecture and the beauty of the natural world, making it a joy to visit. Its close proximity to other popular sites like Downtown San Diego and La Jolla has helped keep this great park significant to the tourism industry in San Diego, which contributed to much of its popularity.

While Balboa Park is one of the busiest tourist destinations in San Diego today, it wasn’t always such a dominant part of local culture. It took many years to turn the park from a large section of unused land to the bustling urban center it is today.

The park’s creation ties into other notable events from San Diego’s history, including the Panama-California Exposition and the city’s second World’s Fair.

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Balboa Park’s Early Development

Architecture, horticulture, and smart design planning combine to shape a history of Balboa Park that encapsulates just how deep-rooted in local culture the park really is.

The current version of Balboa Park spans an impressive 12,000 acres, but the original land designated for the park was even larger at 14,000 acres. Though the plot was reserved back in 1868 as the City Park, the area lay undeveloped for over 20 years. It remained in its natural state until 1892, when the first steps were taken to renovate and overhaul the park’s layout and design.

Park beautification efforts were spearheaded by Kate Sessions, a botanist referred to as the “Mother of Balboa Park.” She took on the task of planting over 100 trees a year in the park as well as countless shrubs and flowering plants, all in exchange for just 32 acres of park land which she used for her commercial nursery.

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Did you know?
Balboa Park is not only home to the famous San Diego Zoo but to over 17 museums and dozens of parks which are great for a romantic picnic.

Sessions’ work introduced popular plants like the queen palm, bird of paradise, and poinsettia to the grounds, and many of the trees she planted still exist in the park today.

From 1903 to 1910, official steps were taken by the local government to revamp and revitalize the park. Roads and water systems were installed and the layout began to take the shape of its modern incarnation.

It was around this time that some of the earliest Californian museums were constructed in the park. With the opening of the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Marston House, Balboa Park was already incorporating historical preservation into its appeal.

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Naming the Park & Continued Development

Perhaps the most important turning point for the park came in the form of the Panama-California Exposition held in the park in 1915. At this time, the park received the name Balboa Park, which it has carried proudly ever since. It is a tribute to the explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who was the first European to have reached the Pacific Ocean from the Americas.

The Exposition drove huge swaths of people to the park. Many appreciated its natural beauty and impressive design, nicknaming the event the Garden Fair.

The park began to focus on science and history in the wake of the Panama-California Exposition. Many more museums were created based on exhibits at the Exposition which still exist today.

This trend continued when San Diego hosted their second World’s Fair, the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. This fair focused on art, culture, and architecture, and plenty of the buildings nearby the park’s Pan American Plaza were constructed during this time.

The fair led to the creation of the Lily Pond, the Starlight Bowl, the Ford Building, the Palisades building, the Old Globe theater, and the Spanish Village Art Center. The House of Hospitality Building was also remodeled, showcasing Spanish Renaissance-era architecture. The courtyard of the Hospitality Building includes a fountain and the sculpture “Woman of Tehuantepec” by Donal Hord.

During World War II, the park was also used to support military operations. The House of Hospitality Building was used as a dormitory for nurses, and other buildings were used as hospitals.

Balboa Park continued to improve and develop in the following years, with new buildings and attractions added on a frequent basis. The park became well-known as a neighborhood that is as engaging as it is educational, with culture and architecture being forever ingrained in Balboa Park history and shaping its future growth.

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Historical Attractions and Places to Visit

If you want to see the history and development of the park yourself but you’re not sure where to begin, never fear. This is your guide to Balboa Park that will help you experience it to its fullest.

San Diego Natural History Museum

The San Diego Natural History Museum, often shortened to The Nat, is a four-story museum that contains over 9 million different specimens. The Nat contains dozens of exhibits covering every aspect of natural history, from extinct animal fossils to modern local San Diego fauna to many unique gemstones. It also contains a large 3D movie theater that’s used for screening educational documentaries.

This San Diego Museum was one of the first, tracing its founding all the way back to the beginnings of the San Diego Society of Natural History in 1874. This predates the influential Panama-California Exposition by over 40 years. It has significantly expanded its collection and reach since its early days, and it now welcomes over 400,000 visitors each year.

The Nat doesn’t just educate visitors on natural history. It also educates them on the history of San Diego itself.

As a San Diego museum so closely tied into the town’s past, many of The Nat’s exhibits showcase findings only available in San Diego, California. These include native California wildflowers, specimens in the Living Lab, and fossils recovered from Southern California.

San Diego Museum of Art

The San Diego Museum of Art, abbreviated to SDMA, brings the very best of art history to Balboa Park.

The museum includes a wide variety of art pieces, but its main focus is on Spanish art from early San Diego settlers. At SDMA, visitors can explore some of the works of art that defined the early days of San Diego and that had a significant impact on modern artistic styles.

In addition to the extensive San Diego portion of the gallery, the San Diego Museum of Art includes traditional paintings, sculptures, and other works of art from all over the world. There are exhibits showcasing works from India, Germany, Europe, Iran, South Asia, and East Asia. Each piece helps to tell a complete story about the diversity of influences in San Diego and the diversity of the San Diegan population themselves.

Timken Museum of Art

The Timken Museum of Art is another Balboa Park art gallery that is well worth checking out. Originally established in 1965, the museum hosts many fine art pieces that have been added to their collection in the more than 50 years the museum has been open.

Exhibitions at the Timken Museum of Art seek to form connections between the present and past of San Diego. By examining historic art with cultural significance, visitors can develop a more meaningful and personal connection to art. The works become more than just paintings; they become representations of different snapshots throughout history.

On top of the collection inside the museum, the building itself is a work of art. It was designed in the style of mid-century modernism in Southern California by local architect John Mock in the early 1950s. The building remains an important example of post-World War II modern architecture.

Casa de Balboa

Once known as the Commerce and Industries Building, the Casa de Balboa has been a part of Balboa park since 1915. The architecture of the building mimics the Venetian Renaissance style. It frequently hosts family-friendly events, and it is also the home base for many important services and historical collections in Balboa Park.

Casa de Balboa houses the Balboa Art Conservation Center (BACC), which is an organization committed to collecting and restoring historic works of art. The BACC provides its services to museum galleries, private collectors, and the public alike.

It works closely with the San Diego Museum of Art and the Timken Museum of Art to ensure no works run the risk of being irreparably damaged; assisting in fixing any damage that does occur.

The building also includes the Museum of Photographic Arts, which is one of only three US museums with a collection composed entirely of photographs. The gallery is extensive, with photos of everything from globally important events to mundane activities of past and present San Diego residents.

On the lower floors of the Casa de Balboa is the San Diego History Center. This museum was founded in 1928, and it was originally located in the Junipero Serra Museum. It contains many artifacts and exhibits about the founding of San Diego and the lives of early residents.

Finally, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum also calls Casa de Balboa its home. This museum has covered the extensive train and railway history of San Diego since it opened its doors in 1982. Miniature replicas are used to represent real historic events.

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Interesting Historical Facts & Tips

Balboa Park is a huge tourist destination with plenty to see and do. Here are a few more interesting activities in Balboa Park and some tips if you plan to visit.

Other Attractions

If you take a trip to Balboa Park to visit historical sites, don’t forget to add some additional stops to your trip! The world-famous San Diego Zoo is a huge draw for many visitors, as are the Japanese Friendship Garden and The Fleet Science Center.

If you plan to visit multiple attractions, consider purchasing a Go San Diego pass to save up to 55% off on your trip. By buying a pass through us, you can get access to an additional discount on top of the already discounted Go San Diego pass prices.

Hiking Trails

Balboa Park also includes many hiking trails and scenic walking paths of varying difficulty levels. Take a leisurely stroll through the park grounds, or traverse unpaved paths and steep climbs for an extra challenge and the chance to discover a little-known part of the park.

Interested in hiking during your visit to San Diego? Check out our article on the Best Hikes in San Diego!

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