History of the Administration Building in Balboa Park

by Richard Amero

The Administration Building, located at the east end of Cabrillo Bridge, was the first building to be completed for the Panama-California Exposition, held in Balboa Park in 1915-16.

Correspondence between landscape architect John Charles Olmsted and architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue and newspaper articles describe events leading up to the completion of the building.

Olmsted had received a contract, December 9, 1910, to lay out a site plan for the Panama-California Exposition. He chose a site north of Russ High School at the south center border of Balboa Park.

The Exposition Corporation signed the contract January 30, 1911. The Corporation was to pay Goodhue up to $15,000 and Irving Gill $7,500, after Goodhue submitted bills. Gill would furnish working drawings for either an auditorium or a fine arts building and for other buildings, as Goodhue directed. He would also allow Goodhue to use his office, draftsmen and equipment.

Shortly before the July 19, 1911 ground breaking, Exposition Director-General Colonel “Charlie” Collier, Exposition Director of Works Frank P. Allen, Jr., and Bertram Goodhue urged a central park location for the Exposition. Allen and Goodhue prepared different plans for the center site, an encroachment on Olmsted’s authority.

Realizing that Olmsted was not going to budge, Goodhue began getting up plans for buildings that would coincide with Olmsted’s plans for the southern site. Gill had seen plans for both sites and thought Goodhue was “resolved” to show the Exposition that Olmsted’s site was “impossible to work up architecturally.” (Letter Olmsted to Goodhue, June 2, 1911)

Goodhue did not enjoy working with Olmsted. (Goodhue Letters to Olmsted, August 20 and September 14)

In his August 10 letter to Olmsted, Goodhue referred to the prospect of extending the walls of the California Building and Art Museum into a canyon. He was fascinated by the decorative possibilities and engineering challenges of perching buildings on inclines or at the edge of cliffs. His work at West Point supplies the most notable example, but there are others, as shown by drawings and photographs in Charles Harris Whitaker’s Bertram Goodhue, Master of Many Arts.

A master of forceful effects, Goodhue wanted the Administration Building and south wing of the California Quadrangle to rise boldly from canyons.

An undated letter, written by Gill in August, appeared in the September 1911 issue of The California Garden. He supported putting a lath house in Balboa Park. This was the last reported evidence of Gill’s involvement in the Exposition.

When the Exposition’s Buildings and Grounds Committee rejected his site, Olmsted resigned his commission.

Between the September 2, 1911 date of Olmsted’s resignation and the March 15, 1912 completion of the Administration Building several decisive events occurred. Crews began grading the site, November 6. Lumber arrived the first week in December. Work on the superstructure began December 18.

Goodhue arrived in San Diego with his assistant, Carleton Monroe Winslow, on September 5. The following day, the San Diego Union commented “draughtsmen [sic] are working on details” for the Administration Building. Goodhue conveyed to Winslow his ideas of what he wanted in the foreground of the California Quadrangle, but he did not make plans.

Winslow completed plans for the Administration Building, using the drafting rooms of Frank P. Allen, Jr. in the Timken Building at 861 Sixth Street.

On September 28, the San Diego Union reported plans were “almost finished.” On the same day, Goodhue changed details on the Administration Building and suggested a treatment in relief of scrolls, arabesques and dolphins for the center door. Ornament for a building immediately outside the Exposition would provide visitors with a foretaste of the effusive relief on buildings within. While Goodhue could have drawn the ornament, it is likely Winslow did the drawings as he did most of the drawings for relief inside the Exposition grounds.

A sketch of the Administration Building, appearing in the San Diego Union, October 1, showed a bare, multi-windowed building, made up of right angles, with a broken roof line.

The earliest working drawing relating to the Administration Building is a grading plan initialed by GBH and dated October 25. Drawings of the Administration Building’s elevations dated on or about December 2, contained the initials of CMW (Carleton M. Winslow) and HV (Henry Vaughn). Vaughn was a draftsman who had worked for San Diego architect William S. Hebbard before the Exposition and who worked for Carleton M. Winslow after the Exposition was over.

Drawings relating more to appearance then mechanical features are:

  • Basement plan, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • West elevation, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • North elevation, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • Roof plan, made by HV, December 2, 1911
  • Detail of south elevation, made by CMW, December 16, 1911

Drawings pertaining to wiring were initialed by TPH (Thomas P, Hunter), January 9, 1912, interior spaces by CK, January 8, 1912, and plumbing by AB, December 26, 1911.

The Exposition Corporation approved the final plans in late October. Construction began November 6, 1911. Officials moved into the building March 30, 1912. Overall dimensions were 96 x 81 feet. Made of brick, cement and wood, the building consisted of three stories. The basement, or first story, contained boilers, storerooms, and multigraph equipment. Second and third stories were used for offices, working rooms for staff, and an auditorium. Construction and equipment cost came to $26,000. Built to be temporary, the building was durable enough to last many years.

While work on the building was underway, the San Diego Union, December 1, declared Goodhue was its architect, a nominal attribution without precise meaning.

Goodhue used setbacks and stepped planes in his buildings; see the Henry Dater House at Montecito, California, the Philip Henry House at Scarborough, New York, and the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln.

The San Diego Park and Recreation Department and the San Diego Park Commission used the Administration Building for office and meeting space for several decades after the 1915-16 Exposition. Eventually the building fell into such disrepair that a 1957 Balboa Park Citizens Study Committee recommended it be demolished. The Harland Bartholomew planners who prepared the 1960 Master Plan for Balboa Park seconded the recommendation and denigrated the building as “architecturally insignificant.”

Hoping to forestall deconstructionists, the City Manager’s Office of the City of San Diego submitted an application to the Historic Preservation Officer of the National Park Service for listing of the California Quadrangle in the National Register of Historic Places. The application was approved in 1976. While it was not part of the Quadrangle, the Manager’s Office included the Administration Building in the application.

In 1985, Douglas Sharon, director of the Museum of Man, persuaded City Councilman Uvaldo Martinez to ask the Council to approve renovation of the Administration Building so the Museum could move its offices into the building.

Soltek of San Diego began restoration of the building’s second and third floors in November 1988. After rebuilding the basement, the Code Construction Company brought the project to completion in February 1990. In 1915, the building cost the City of San Diego $26,000. According to figures supplied by the City of San Diego Engineering and Developing Department, December 7, 1990, the total renovation cost of the Administration Building in 1990 was $1,034,383. Historic Preservation Grants from bonds approved by California voters came to $225,000 and a Special Account from Capital Outlay, created by the California State Legislature to bolster historic preservation, to $144,000. The National Park Service contributed $200,000. The Museum of Man gave $178,043. The City of San Diego spent $287,340 on the project, or 27.7 percent of the total cost. A portion of the city funds, or $104,045 came from the Transient Occupancy Tax, and the balance, or $183,295, from the City’s Capital Improvement Outlay Fund.

NOTE: Sources for the majority of statements are given in the text. The reader is referred to the Amero Collection in the San Diego History Center Research Library for corroboration or checking of items. Letters from Goodhue have been collected in a volume by that name, letters from Olmsted in an Olmsted volume. A separate volume contains newspaper clippings pertaining to the Administration Building.

Return to Amero Collection.