California Pacific International Exposition

CHAPTER TWO: Exposition Architecture

The Spanish Village and the House of Pacific Relations were originally conceived as a unit, but were separated later as the functions of each were defined. In September, managing director J. D. Larsen suggested setting up a typical exposition “Villages of the World,” northeast of El Prado to house foreign exhibits. Each village would reflect the architecture of the host country. Larrinaga made drawings of Oriental, Russian, German, Italian, French and Mexican sections. He did not include a Spanish section as buildings along El Prado already conveyed a Spanish atmosphere.

In October, Frank Drugan took over as “director of foreign participation.” He changed the name of the foreign section to House of Pacific Relations, located it at the entrance to the Palisades, and changed its design to “California hacienda architecture.” Despite the Pacific Ocean emphasis of the Exposition, the “pacific” in House of Pacific Relations meant peaceful. Construction of fifteen cottages began in November. Davidson said the houses were to be reproductions of Spanish and Mexican haciendas. The small, tan, red-tiled cottages that emerged were not copies of anything, though their style was that of peasant houses in Andalusia. Their simple shapes and low massing blends well with their landscaped surroundings.

Consular officials of twenty-one nations used the diminutive houses for meeting places rather than for commercial or government purposes. Then, as now, the life of the colony revolved around its plaza where festivals of participating countries were celebrated.

In December, Requa once more took up plans for a large-scale Villages of the World. This time the villages were to be an adjunct of a fun zone. They would contain a Spanish group of six buildings, an Aztec group of four, a Palestine group of five, and other buildings as clients arose. Spanish Village alone was built in April 1935. This integrated complex consisted of art, curio, flower, music and wine shops, a children’s theater, a Chinese bazaar, a cocktail lounge, and restaurants. One and two-story buildings joined at the sides were painted white and topped by red-tile roofs in a variety of angles. Olive trees, potted flowers, fountains, seats and stalls adorned patios and the large central plaza. The San Diego Union reported the north portal was inspired by the Puerto del Castillo de Siquenza in Castile.

Requa wrote for publication in 1937 that he considered the House of Pacific Relations and Spanish Village “to exemplify the simple and unpretentious type of building which was, perhaps, more completely expressive of the masses and their civilization in Spanish-Colonial times than the monumental architecture along El Prado.” The explanation did not represent his real opinion for, in a letter to Exposition officials at the close of the 1935 Exposition season, he declared Spanish Village to be a stage set, unlike anything he had seen and studied in Spain. As an architect whose specialty was the design of Mediterranean vernacular style homes, Requa did not want to be judged by the overly-pictorial pastiches in Balboa Park, done by Juan Larrinaga.

Most of the 1935 buildings were not in Requa’s trademark vernacular style. He wrote that they were extensions of Goodhue’s work for the first exposition. Since Goodhue had concentrated on seventeenth-century Spanish-Colonial architecture, Requa would relate pre-Columbian Indian buildings and temples in the Southwest and Mexico to the modern era. A model existed in the earth colors, rounded contours, projecting vigas, and flat roof of the 1915 New Mexico Building. Requa, or his assistant Louis Bodmer, adapted features from this Pueblo-style building to the Hollywood Hall of Fame (today Palisades Building) and the Palisades Cafe (today no more). Since these buildings were a few steps from the New Mexico Building, it seemed appropriate to group them together in an identical style.

Requa did not leave the New Mexico Building unscathed for, to adapt it to the purposes of a Palace of Education, he added an exhibit room in the back, closed and roofed an open-air patio, and affixed an awkward gable to the skylight above the enclosed patio. If light were needed, a transverse clerestory window of the type used in seventeenth-century churches in New Mexico would have been sufficient.

Looking at the remodeled Palace of Education sometime after the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition, architecture historian Carl Sheppard ruefully concluded, “the New Mexico Building has lost its early distinction.”

To bring buildings in the Palisades into conformity, however different their styles, Requa planted ferns and cycads at their base which contradicted the desert origins and earthform outlines of the Pueblo-style Palace of Education, Hollywood Hall of Fame, and Palisades Cafe.

Despite attempts to harmonize buildings in the Palisades, the progression from pre-Columbian to modern architecture was awkward. It must be remembered that plans called for many Maya and Aztec structures that were not built. The final impression was not one of quality. Large structures, such as the California State, Varied Industries and Electricity and Water and Transportation Buildings, had wide blank walls decorated at the top and corners with thin geometric relief, vaguely suggestive of Maya and Mixtec origins. Requa claimed the horizontal massing corresponded with the massing of Maya and Aztec temples, but this was a guess by one who did not understand that Maya buildings were set on pedestals and Aztec temples on the summit of pyramids.

Unlike abstract Maya and Mixtec relief, Toltec and Aztec sculpture, in the round and as relief, depicted realistic subjects in — to modern eyes — frightening poses; see, for example, the carved rows of jaguars and coyotes on the base of the Temple of Atlantes at Tula and the powerful sculpture of Coatlicue, now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Neither Requa nor Larrinaga used traces of Toltec or Aztec art and architecture on the exhibit palaces they created in Balboa Park.

In the daytime, hanging gardens and frescoes, and in the evening, colored lights relieved the drab character of the warehouses in the Palisades. The windowless and bulky buildings would have been overbearing without the festive accents, among which the most conspicuous were representational frescoes and reliefs illustrating exhibits inside the buildings. It is because of the dynamic and picturesque frescoes and reliefs in front of the Transportation, California State, and Electricity Buildings, that these buildings merited the designation of Art Deco, an art widespread in the 20’s and 30’s that integrated painting, sculpture and architecture. Without frescoes, reliefs, decorative moldings, and flowering vines hanging from roofs, the buildings would have been faceless blobs.

Requa regarded the Federal Building, a heavy, sodden pile with the fondness a father might have toward a wayward child. Deriving his information from books, Larrinaga converted the strong, stonework frets, lattice-like designs and rain-god masks on the Palace of the Governor at Uxmal, Mexico and on the east wing of the Nunnery at Chichen Itza into flimsy, fibreboard imitations. He ran these as a frieze along first and second level cornices and as an entablature topping a center entrance shaped like a Maya corbel arch. Flying hooks, or snouts of Chac the raingod, at the corners of the entablature resembled Puuc-style masks of Chac, found at Uxmal, Chichen-Itza and other Late Classic sites (600 to 900 A.D.) in northern Yucatan. Translucent panels beneath the arch illustrated a chief accepting the submission of a prisoner, a common Maya motif in murals, wall relief and pottery, the most notable example being the wall painting of victors with prisoners at Bonampak. The depiction omitted the grisly details one would find in a Maya rendition of the scene. A more authentic reconstruction of the North Building of the Nunnery at Uxmal had been put up for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, the design having been prepared by archaeologist Frans Blom of the Middle American Research Department of Tulane University.

Most people thought the circular Ford Building, at the south axis of the Plaza de America, was the Exposition’s architectural wonder. Often described as a giant washing machine, Walter Dorwin Teague designed the 90-ft tower on the front of the building to look like a gearwheel laid on its side. Teague was a designer of cameras, flat irons and radios. A fountain inside the patio of the Ford Building’s circular exhibit hall behind the rotunda was designed to look like the Ford V-8 emblem.

The 108-ft. Standard Oil Tower of the Sun, on the other end of the Plaza de America from the Ford Building, soared upward. Larrinaga invented a motif for the ground level of the building that may have been inspired by repeat key patterns on the walls of the Place of the Dead in Mitla, Oaxaca. The cleanly articulated geometric designs on the tower were Art Deco in style. While they resembled the dynamic Mixtec relief found on the Place of the Dead in Mitla, the ornament was not based on historical prototypes. Unlike the Place of the Dead where repeating patterns emphasize horizontality and manifest poise, contrasting designs on the tower emphasized verticality and manifested tension. The tower was divided into quadrants, two in front being circular, two in back being square. A glass panel, in the middle of each quadrant, running from top to bottom, bore the name Standard Oil.

By providing a common front space, the Plaza de America helped bring the stylistically different buildings into a coherent ensemble. Six high columns of water in changing colors spouted from fountains donated by the Firestone Rubber Company at the south end of the Plaza. Tall staffs holding banners and broad sidewalks bordered the Plaza and fountains and a great carpet of flowers, planted by Wayne Van Schaick and W. Allen Perry, of the Exposition’s landscape division, beautified a large oblong space north of the fountains.

Requa’s most pleasing contributions to Balboa Park were the Gardens of the Casa del Rey Moro, styled after the garden of the same name in Ronda, Andalusia, the Alcazar Garden, styled after the garden in Seville, and the patio in the House of Hospitality, styled after the patio of the Regional Museum in Guadalajara, Mexico. While the originals are larger and more dramatic, their copies fit neatly in the park.

Begun at the instigation of the San Diego Floral Association in 1931 as a tribute to horticulturist Kate Sessions, an agave and succulent garden northeast of the Palace of Natural History was dedicated on March 23, 1935. At the urging of “Aunt Kate,” Chauncey I. Jerabek planted a cactus garden west of the Palace of Education, that was partially completed in time for the second Exposition. Donations came from nurseries and gardens in Texas, Arizona and California. Jerabek and Kate Sessions designed both gardens.

While she enjoyed the two gardens that had been planted in her honor, Kate Session’s horticultural wishes for Balboa Park were unquenchable. She held out for a heather garden and for a path bordered by a trellis covered with flowering vines.

Milton Sessions, nephew of Kate Sessions, planted rubber and pepper trees and ferns in the patio of the Ford Building and plants native to the countries represented on segments of a 2,800-ft. “Roads of the Pacific” along sides of a canyon behind the building.

Fred H. Wylie supervised the construction of a rock garden in the patio of the House of Pacific Relations, using about 75 tons of rock to form cliffs, ledges and benches around a pool containing stone bridges, water lilies and marsh grasses.

Wylie gave the California Gardens, south of the Organ Amphitheater, an Oriental look by using rocks from San Diego County to set off native plants and pools of water. Horticultural organizations in California donated plants and helped lay out sections of the gardens. Architect Requa claimed the results lacked interest. For the second year, Mrs. Neff K. Bakkers created tableaux called “Desert Moods” that depicted dawn, high noon, sunset and night in the California desert. How she could create the moods of the desert night and day through the use of soil, cacti and rock is a mystery. The idea was so novel, however, that her tableaux attracted more attention than the subtropical fruit trees, roses and dahlias in other parts of the garden.

Despite Requa’s sarcastic assessment of a garden that was not an “architecture garden,” his views were not shared by everyone. The many formal and informal, Spanish, desert and California gardens on the grounds comforted visitors exhausted from looking at repetitious exhibits inside the buildings.

While not strictly a horticultural feature, a wooden bridge, constructed by work crews, spanned Palm Canyon, enabling visitors entering from the west gate to look at the tops of palm trees planted for the 1915-16 Panama-California (International) Exposition and into the recesses of the canyon while taking shortcuts to the Organ Amphitheater and the Palisades.

The Plaza del Pacifico on the Avenida de Palacios (today and in 1915-16 the Plaza de Panama on El Prado) functioned differently in 1935 from 1915. Dances, drills, public receptions, and sports events crowded the spacious, central plaza during the first exposition. Arcades and steps of the Sacramento Valley Building served as reviewing and band stand. The City issued permits to demolish the building in 1925, to make way for the Fine Arts Gallery, in 1935 called the Palace of Fine Arts and today called the San Diego Museum of Art. The replacement building lacked the contrasts of solids and cavities, exuberant ornament, and inviting loggia of the first.

Requa put a Moorish style Arch of the Future in the middle of the plaza with the arch spanning the Avenida de Palacios and the sides facing north and south. An upper deck housed flood lights and transmission facilities for an address system operated by Associated Oil Company. To further break up the plaza, Requa placed large low pools on the north and south sides of the arch. These pools reflected images of surrounding buildings. One pool contained an ornamental barge from which troubadours serenaded visitors. H. O. Davis had insisted arch and pool be put up to conceal fixtures and to enhance lighting. Requa considered them to be obstructions that did not belong in a Spanish-Baroque style plaza.