History of the California Building in Balboa Park

by, Richard Amero


A symbol of San Diego, the iconic California Tower has served as a magnificent entry to Balboa Park since its construction for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The majestic tower, home to beautiful bells that chime every quarter hour, soars 200 feet above the California Building, which houses the anthropology-oriented San Diego Museum of Man.

Here you’ll find stories that inspire reflection and mummies that reveal civilizations. You can also explore new perspectives through dynamic, ever-changing exhibits at the region’s only museum of anthropology and archaeology.


The California Building, home to the San Diego Museum of Man, was constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It was designed by noted architect Bertram Goodhue as a design hybrid, blending Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo details to present a unique Spanish-Colonial façade. Its design hints of Gothic influence with inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico.

A symbol of San Diego, the California Building served as a magnificent entry to the 1915 Exposition.  It was complemented by a Mission-style building constructed directly across the promenade from the California Building and attached to it with two arcaded passageways. Massive arched gateways enclosed the structures to form the Plaza de California. The south side of the plaza included the beautiful St. Francis Chapel (used for weddings today) and its impressive Spanish-style altar.

Perched atop tiers of stone ornamentation on the California Building’s façade are sculpted historical figures and busts. These were created by the Piccirilli Brothers, who were skilled marble carvers in Italy before immigrating to the United States in 1888. Facing the building, visitors can see the façade’s sculpted figures and busts, molded from modeling clay and plaster, in descending order:

  • Junipero Serra, father of the California missions, is the figure located at the top of the frontispiece.
  • Charles V of Spain is the bust below Serra on the right.
  • Philip III of Spain is the bust below Serra on the left.
  • Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542, is the figure below and to the right of Serra.
  • Don Sebastian Viscaino, another Spanish sailor, is the figure below and to the left of Serra.
  • Gaspar de Portola, the first Spanish governor of Southern California, is the bust below Cabrillo.
  • George Vancouver, an English navigator, is the bust below Viscaino.
  • Fray Antonio de la Ascension, a Carmelite historian, is the figure on the lower right.
  • Father Luis Jayme, Franciscan missionary, is the figure on the lower left.

Two coats of armor appear on the California Building’s façade:

  • The Coat of Arms of Mexico is on the upper right.
  • The Coat of Arms for the State of California is on the upper left.

The United States Shield is featured at the apex of the façade, above Serra’s figure.

The California Building, unlike the Spanish-Colonial churches in Mexico that inspired Goodhue, is notably plain and gray. Color highlights appear on the green woodwork of the frames, the deeper green of the ironwork, the brown of the door, and the colored tiles on the dome and tower.

Though the building façade is impressive, the three-stage tower is iconic in San Diego. The outline of the tower is Spanish, but its details and color are reflective of Mexico.  The shining tiles, sparkling glass beads, and graceful proportions of the tower complement the central dome, as well as the two minor domes behind the California Building.

The starburst tile design on the California Building’s center dome copies the design on the dome of Santa Prisca in Taxco. An inscription at the base of the dome of Santa Prisca reads, “GLORIA A DIOS EN LAS ALTURAS” (“Glory to God in the Heights”), whereas the inscription on the base of the California Building’s dome reads, “TERRA FRUMENTI HORDEI, AC VINARUM IN QUA FICUS ET MALOGRANATA ET OLIVETA NASCUNTUR, TERRAM OLEI AC MELLIS.” Goodhue took this last quotation from the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome. It means: “A land of wheat and barley, and vines, and fig-trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey,” a motto in keeping with the agricultural aspirations of the Panama- California Exposition.

The California Building has been mentioned more often than any other San Diego building in studies of American architecture. The building is included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the California Quadrangle. And the California Building tower is recorded in the Historic Buildings Survey in the Library of Congress.

Also part of the San Diego Museum of Man’s footprint is the Irving Gill Administration Building constructed in 1911. This building was the first structure in Balboa Park, serving as the planning headquarters for the entire Panama-California Exposition. Today it houses the offices for SDMoM staff. The City of San Diego owns the San Diego Museum of Man buildings and recently began work on facility improvements, including the California Building dome and the structures surrounding the California Plaza.

In the year 2015 the California Building will observe its 100th anniversary. The former Fine Arts Building, now called Evernham Hall, is currently used for exhibits and for December Nights festivities. The St. Francis Chapel, a unique and hidden gem, is available for weddings and other ceremonies and is viewable by appointment. Notable enhancements to the museum include the addition of steel framing and shelving to basements, doubling storage capacity for more than 55,000 artifacts, or about 89 percent of the Museum’s collection, the remodeling of the lobby and first floor, the installation of an elevator on the west side of the first floor, and the paving of the Plaza de California with red brick.


Though built for the State of California as its contribution to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, the California Building did not house state exhibits. Twenty-eight counties of California exhibited in buildings about the Exposition grounds but the Departments of the State of California confined their exhibits to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco.

Acting on a suggestion from Colonel Charlie Collier, Director-General of the Panama-California Exposition, archaeologist Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, of the School of American Archaeology, and anthropologist Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, of the U.S. National Museum, chose exhibits to illustrate The Story of Man through the Ages, with emphasis on the Native populations of North and South America. Hrdlicka persuaded the National Museum in Washington, D.C., an adjunct of the Smithsonian Institution, to send exhibits for the Science and Education Building. He also helped to procure skeletal remains of early man in Europe and Siberia, photographs and casts of materials from museums in Europe, busts of native peoples in Siberia, Mongolia, Africa, the Philippines, and other places, and figures executed by the Belgian sculptor M. Mascre representing primitive man for exhibits in the Science and Education Building. Hewett obtained exhibits of Native life in the Southwest from the School of American Archaeology at Santa Fe for the Indian Arts Building.

Hewett did not reshape the interior spaces of the California Building to accommodate exhibits. However, he appointed Jean Beman Smith to make bas-reliefs portraying scenes from Maya life, Sally James Farnham to make copies of a historical frieze she had done for the Pan-American Union Building in Washington, D.C. showing incidents in the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, and Carlos Vierra to produce murals showing the ruins of Copan, Uxmal, Quirigua, Palenque, Chichen Itza, and Tikal. These he added to the vestibule and rotunda to amplify Maya displays from Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras, including eight replicas of monoliths from Quirigua that had been excavated in 1910 -1911 by the School of American Archaeology. Ironically, the replicas in the California Building have retained details that are now obscured by weathering on the originals.

In 1916, Exposition officials added French tapestries, carpets, perfumes, fashion designs and art to the upper levels of the California Building and to the Fine Arts Building. The French government sent these exhibits to San Diego from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition as it was impractical to return them to France because of the war in Europe.

Dr. Hewett continued on as Director of the San Diego Museum after the Panama-California Exposition in 1916. He was at the same time Director of the Museum of New Mexico, president of the School of American Archaeology (later School of American Research), a teacher at San Diego State College and at institutions in Santa Fe, and an archaeologist in charge of excavations at Quirigua in Guatemala and in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. In 1929 Hewett resigned as Director of the San Diego Museum.


Hewett added partitions to the California Building to organize exhibits, but he did not change interior spaces. Trustees designated the California Building the San Diego Museum on January 11, 1916, the date they officially created the museum. In 1917, Hewett moved exhibits in the Science and Education Building to the 1915 Indian Arts Building (1916 Russia and Brazil Building) and Native American exhibits formerly in the Indian Arts Building to the Science and Education Building. He changed the names of the buildings to reflect the change in exhibits. Along with the relocation of exhibits, Hewett placed the newly-aquired Joseph Jessop Archery collection of primitive weapons in the 1916 U.S. Government Building at the north end of the Plaza de Panama.

The San Diego Museum was not affected by the occupation of Balboa Park by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army during World War I. Following a hiatus caused by the relocation of priceless exhibits from adjacent buildings to the fireproof California Building, the San Diego Museum reopened on February 19, 1921. Since then, the California Building has been the headquarters of the San Diego Museum. In July 1923, a scientific reference library, the gift of W. W. Whitney, was added to the Museum.

The State of California cut off funds for the San Diego Museum in February 1929, whereupon the San Diego City Council appropriated $2,100 to pay the salaries of a curator, custodian and janitor for the Museum. In recognition of City support, the Museum allowed people to see exhibits free.

Fine Arts Gallery construction in 1925 made the removal of the Joseph Jessop archery collection from the U.S. Government Building imperative. Space was found in the east wing of the second floor of the California Building. An Egyptian collection from excavations at Tell-El-Amarna, donated by Ellen Browning Scripps, was placed on a balcony on the east side of the rotunda in the same building.

Experiencing a shortage of funds due to a reduced valuation of taxable city property by the county, the City Council temporarily withdrew its support of institutions in Balboa Park in August 1932.


The Museum continued to function as a museum during the 1935-1936 California-Pacific International Exposition, though its title was changed to Palace of Science to correspond with changes in titles of exhibit buildings along El Prado and in the Palisades. Special exhibits, some on a loan from the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, required the removal of the W. W. Whitney scientific reference library to the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The government of Mexico sent crystal cups, gold objects, and jewelry discovered by Alfonso Caso in Grave 7 at Monte Alban in 1932. Though ignored by the newspapers, the exhibit was the most aesthetically intriguing of all the exhibits at the Exposition. The Monte Alban exhibit was placed in the Science Hall (west wing of the 1915 Science and Education Building). In 1936, Mexico replaced the Monte Alban treasures with facsimiles of idols, masks and symbolic figures in the National Museum of Mexico. After the Exposition, these became the property of the Museum.


Recognizing that the departure of Fine Arts and Pioneer Society collections had narrowed the museum’s scope, the trustees of the San Diego Museum changed its name to the San Diego Museum of Man in 1942. Holding out the possibility that at some future time the trustees would control other museum enterprises, they continued to call themselves the San Diego Museum Association. When, in 1979 the trustees notified the State of California of a change in the bylaws of the Museum, they dispensed with the San Diego Museum Association title. Whatever the goals of the trustees may be in the future, they are now legally the Museum of Man despite protests of feminists who have requested that the name be changed to the Museum of Men and Women or to the Museum of Humanity.

Following the United States entry into World War II, Museum directors halted a five-year plan of modernization and, in March 1943, they vacated the facility. The U.S. Navy added a second floor to the rotunda and put hospital beds for servicemen in the building and tents for staff in the Plaza de California outside. Casts of Maya stelae, which were too big to move, were sealed within a wall. The task of moving casts from Quirigua called The Turtle and The Dragon was too much for the Navy. To the consternation of Museum staff, sailors sawed each of the monoliths into three pieces.

To undo U.S. Navy alterations and damages, staff renovated the headquarters building after the war. Repair costs were paid from whatever the City could obtain from the sale of 35 temporary structures and from $790,000 that the Navy gave the City to restore buildings it had occupied in Balboa Park. Staff returning from military duty added boomerangs from Australia and models of canoes from Samoa to the museum’s collection.

Museum activities were relatively quiet between 1946 and 1965. Dr. Frank Lowe paid for the installation on Christmas Day, December 25, 1946, of a 30-chime carillon in the California Tower in honor of his mother, Ona May Lowe, for the carillon’s reconditioning in 1949, and for its replacement, on April 6, 1967, with a 100-chime carillon. The carillon can be played by plastic rolls, as in a player piano, and by a carilloneur at a keyboard. An exhibit asserting that the Soviet Union had wiped out race prejudice lasted approximately a week in July 1950, at which time patriots forced its removal.

As City funds were needed to repair and improve San Diego’s infrastructure that had been neglected during the war there was little money left to restore Balboa Park buildings. To solve its financial problems, to carry on research projects, to deter vandalism and burglary, and to pay guards the Museum began charging a 50-cent adult admission fee in July 1965.

After the architecturally non-conforming Timken Gallery and the west wing of the Fine Arts Gallery were built in 1965 and 1966, it became evident that the Spanish-Colonial Revival Style buildings in Balboa Park were nearing the end of their lifetimes and would soon be destroyed. Because of the zeal of Bea Evenson, the Committee of 100’s founder and president, and of Samuel Wood Hamill, the Committee’s architectural consultant, the deterioration or demise of surviving Exposition buildings, including the California Building (built in 1915 as a permanent structure) was not allowed to happen.

Beginning in 1976 technicians undertook major renovations to the Museum of Man. They took down a false 15-foot wall hiding the Quirigua stelae at the north end of the rotunda, opening up the exhibit area and the Museum began changing its exhibits with greater frequency. As a result, the Museum’s scholastic standing and its popularity increased and, in March 1973, the American Association of Museums formally accredited the San Diego Museum of Man.

In 1990, the Museum of Man moved into the former Administration Building at the west entrance to the California Quadrangle. Douglas Sharon, Museum director, attributed the Administration Building’s design to nationally-acclaimed San Diego architect Irving Gill. Using public and private funds raised by the Museum, the building had been restored on the outside to its 1915 appearance (minus the Churrigueresque ornament) and readapted in the inside to accommodate offices and an auditorium.

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