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California Pacific International Exposition

CHAPTER SEVEN: Exposition Legacy

City Manager Robert Flack set up a Citizens’ Advisory Committee, chaired by Julius Wangenheim, to tell him what to do with the buildings after the California Pacific International Exposition. Whatever use was found for them, it had to conform to Section 55 of the City Charter which specified that city parks and cemeteries had to be “for park, recreation and cemetery purposes.” To define what “acceptable” park purposes were, the City Council, October 29, 1936, enacted New Series Ordinance No. 1013. It said that so long as users of park buildings were “noncommercial local societies, groups and organizations engaged in civic, social, educational, cultural, recreational or philanthropic work,” the Council would allow them to occupy buildings.

The Council directed Flack to decide if applicants for buildings were engaged in the right kind of work, subject to final Council certification. Societies, businesses and clubs could operate in a dedicated public park if they provided a public service. Food and souvenir stands were appropriate operations as they generated revenue and people expressed their approval by patronizing them.

Wangenheim’s Committee recommended demolishing the Water and Electricity Building, the Standard Oil Tower, the Palisades Cafe, the Rainbow Fountain, the Latter-day Saints Building, the Arch of the Future and reflecting lagoons, Model town, the Amusement Zone, and the Athletic Field. Federal, General Exhibits, California State, Entertainment, Education, Christian Science and Ford Buildings and the Ford Bowl would stay. The Committee ignored the “Roads of the Pacific.”

Architect Louis Bodmer drew up plans to strip the fiberboard ornament from the Federal Building and to turn the building into a Civic Auditorium at a cost of about $200,000. The use was permissible as the City Charter and Ordinance No. 1013 didn’t say it wasn’t. Inspired by this act of iconoclasm, architect Frank Hope submitted a plan to turn the Ford Building into a planetarium with a large observatory dome covering the patio. These plans were much discussed, but, as Work Progress Administration funding and labor had been diverted to other purposes, nothing was done to implement them.

The City Manager leased the 1936 Press Building (the 1915 Kansas Building) to the San Diego Floral Society, granted the Photographic Arts Society the right to occupy the Christian Science Building , gave the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp to the Campfire Girls, and allowed the City Playgrounds and Park Department to use the Palace of Electricity.

The City Manager also approved allowing a group of educational associations, including the Parent-Teachers’ Association, the Board of Education, and representatives from city and county schools and colleges to use the Palace of Education. Not having received a firm application, the Manager set aside the Palace of Entertainment for joint use by the Barn Players and Medical, Dental and Nursing Associations. The 251st Coast Artillery moved into the California State Building in June 1937 and turned it into an armory.

Buildings that had not been allocated were available for use as soon as someone came up with money to cover costs of insurance and promised to pay costs of maintenance.

After they had raised more than $10,000, the Barn Players, reorganized as the San Diego Community Players, negotiated a lease for the Old Globe Theater . Workers employed by the Works Projects Administration tore down the interior and replaced it with “a concrete shell.” They demolished the open-style Elizabethan stage and built a stage with a traditional proscenium arch.

The City Manager gave Sherman Trease, president of an association of artists, permission to occupy Spanish Village. The cottages lacked windows and, when shutters were down, they were dark and uncomfortable.

Despite Park Board grumbling over the loss of authority, the Manager had the power to enforce the City Charter and Ordinance No. 1013. In 1937, then City Manager Fred Rhodes replaced W. Allen Perry as park superintendent with Percy J. Broell. Terming the dismissal unjustified, the Civil Service Commission reinstated Perry. Perry kept his post, but as the Manager could overrule Park Board decisions, its members stopped complaining about his peremptory methods.

The American Legion resumed its tenancy of the Cafe of the World, and the Women’s Auditorium Association took back its management of the House of Hospitality. The Natural History Museum, Fine Arts Gallery, San Diego Museum, and San Diego Zoo went back to regular schedules.

As 1936 came to an end, the Medical Science, Better Homes, Food and Beverage, Entertainment, General Exhibits, and Federal Buildings and the House of Charm were without permanent tenants. The City Manager allowed the Red Cross to use rooms in the Better Homes Building for offices, and granted appliance and electric companies yearly permission to stage an electric home show on the main floor. This event became such a regular occurrence that people began calling the building the “Electric Building.”

Wangenheim’s Committee hoped the Work Progress Administration would use the Food and Beverage Building for relief projects for about 400 women. On finding the building to be drafty and cold, the women moved their operation to the Federal Building. Forgetting that they held office at the City Manager’s pleasure, Park Board members muttered that work projects had nothing to do with cultural activities and that the Relief Agency was using all the automobile parking spaces. The Relief Agency responded that if the City wouldn’t cooperate, it would stop funding park improvements.

After the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked for the same privileges the Manager had given the American Legion, City Manager Rhodes assigned them the Medical Science Building (1915 Science and Education Building).

Joseph W. Sefton, Jr., a former director of the Panama-California Exposition, called the Exposition buildings “hideous and ugly,” and added, “Had we torn out the 1915 Exposition buildings and landscaped the park we should have a beautiful place there now and not a long row of ramshackle buildings.”

The House of Pacific Relations was the most valuable social legacy from the 1935-36 Exposition. Volunteers made up rules and organized weekend entertainments. During these celebrations, members from each House sang, danced, played music and wore clothes characteristic of the countries from which they or their parents came. The House still fulfils the aspirations of its founder Frank Drugan:

“The House of Pacific Relations aims to provide a natural healthful means of keeping the international mind from going insane under the sordid strain that world events are putting upon it. The House of Pacific Relations invites the nations of the world to live together and play together in the spirit of good fellowship that can knit them together more closely than societies that use the form of debate to provoke not agreement but disagreement.”

 The 1935-36 Expositions contributed to the phantasmagoria along El Prado and in the Palisades. After the electric lights on the buildings were turned off and the attractions dimmed, these sections entered a period of decline. Tenants proved unreliable and buildings deteriorated. The occupation of the Exposition tract by the U.S. Naval Hospital during World War II postponed the disposition of moldering Exposition buildings. Most San Diegans clung to the memory of a glamorous architectural complex, but efforts to restore the buildings were halting and feeble.

In the early 1960’s, the destruction of the American Legion Building (left, 1915 Home Economy Building) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Building (below right, 1915 Science and Education Building) upset many San Diegans, particularly when their replacements shattered the harmony of the Plaza de Panama.

A Balboa Park Protective Association, formed to combat the demolition of these buildings, gave way in 1967 to the creation of the Committee of One Hundred, under the dynamic leadership of Bea Evenson. Her victory in getting the San Diego City Council in 1967 to adopt a policy requiring the Spanish-Colonial Revival style to be used on future buildings along El Prado was followed by triumphant campaigns to rebuild the 1915 Varied Industries and Food Products Building as the Casa del Prado in 1971 and the 1915 Commerce and Industries Building as the Casa de Balboa in 1981.

The Committee of One Hundred persuaded the Historic Preservation Division of the National Park Service to list El Prado and the Palisades Exposition buildings and the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery, built in 1926, and the San Diego Museum of Natural History, built in 1933, as components of a National Historic Landmark in 1978. Working with the City of San Diego, the State of California, and the United States Government, the Committee’s latest successes have been the renovation of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and the purchase of new stops for the Organ in 1986, the construction of arcades on the Prado side of the Timken Gallery in 1990, the rebuilding of the House of Charm (the 1915 Indian Arts Building) in 1996 and the rebuilding of the House of Hospitality (the 1915 Foreign and Domestic Arts Building) in 1997.

Problems caused by the automobile, traffic congestion, scarcity of parking and by conflicting environmental, educational, cultural, recreational, professional athletic, military establishment, and commercial interests active in Balboa Park will never be resolved. The best that can be hoped for is that competing individuals and groups and the politicians who make the final decisions will learn to adjust their differences so that the natural environment will be protected and the greater public good will be served