History of the Balboa Park Club / New Mexico Building in Balboa Park

by Richard Amero

When the 1915-16 Panama-California (International) Exposition opened, the New Mexico Building aroused curiosity. The Exposition’s official guidebook called it “the Cathedral of the Desert” and commented on the rough- beam vigas that protruded from irregular walls. Ex- President Theodore Roosevelt congratulated San Diego and New Mexico for developing an American form of architecture out of old Spanish and Pueblo Indian styles.

In asking that their exhibit building display an individual style, officials in New Mexico sought to counteract the influence of the California-Mission architectural style that was sweeping the country. As with New Mexico officials, Bertram Goodhue, who designed the popular Spanish-Baroque style buildings on El Prado, the Exposition’s main east-west street, was also trying to lessen the dominance of the California-Mission style.

In 1905, University of New Mexico president William Tight rejected suggestions that buildings on the campus look like California missions. Instead, he designed four Pueblo- style buildings. University regents called these buildings, whose prototypes could be found in pueblos a few miles away, “barbaric” and “un-American.” When the regents dismissed Tight in 1909, they also dismissed his vision of an architecturally-unified campus comprised of Pueblo-style buildings. The California-Mission style favored by the regents had won a temporary victory.

In 1908, C. M. Schenk, an independent-thinking client, persuaded Isaac Hamilton Rapp, who had designed many buildings after fashionable European models, to use the massive facade and two belfry towers of the Church of San Estevan at Acoma and the open balcony of the Church of San Buenaventura at Cochiti as the basis of his design for the Colorado Supply Company building in Morley, Colorado. Rapp turned the building at Acoma around, placing the wing occupied by the church on the right and the wing occupied by priests on the left. When they saw a rendition of the innovative Colorado Supply Company building, New Mexico exposition commissioners were convinced they had found an architect who could put contemporary uses inside a Pueblo- style building.

By designing New Mexico’s exhibit palace to be placed in the homeland of California missions, Rapp established the Pueblo-Revival style as the architectural idiom of New Mexico. Even today, architects living in New Mexico use the Pueblo-Revival style in ways that respect history and the environment, while being modern and individual in appearance and function.

Rapp restored the left-right order of the church and priory at Acoma, contracted masses, defined silhouettes, and counterbalanced openings. As a result, the Balboa Park building was better-integrated and proportioned than the sprawling, no-longer-standing building in Morley, Colorado. Unlike his “quotations” on the exterior, Rapp used his talents as a decorator on beams, corbels, fireplaces, and corridors inside the building.

The State of New Mexico paid less than $20,000 for a 15,000 sq. ft. building and about $30,000 for exhibits inside.

The west or chapel-like wing of the New Mexico Building housed an auditorium with a brown-timbered ceiling and an ornate balcony at the front end. The auditorium was used for lectures and for showing movies illustrating life in New Mexico. The interior was in an Indian-Spanish-Mexican style that today is called simply the “Santa Fe style.” Consequently, the San Diego Park Department has chosen the name “Santa Fe” to designate this room. In 1915 the walls of the chapel were hung with paintings of mission churches in New Mexico by Karl Fleischer and paintings by Donald Beauregard, Ernest Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, Bert Phillips, Walter Ufer, and Joseph Sharp.

Adjoining the chapel on the right, a corridor linked the chapel with a two-story east wing. Wings and corridor and a curtain wall in back enclosed an open patio like patios in haciendas of Old and New Mexico. A rustic fountain stood in the center of the patio.

The front corridor contained four cases of mineral exhibits, including a block of coal weighing 3,000 pounds, a gold nugget weighing about 13 ounces, ore containing tin, copper and zinc, samples of white silver, glistening mica and gray iron, and several blocks of meerschaum. Navajo rugs, Indian bows and arrows, plaques and pottery hung from the walls.

The corridor led to an exhibit located in a hall at ground level on the east side. This room has since been converted to utility space. In this section, called the “Hall of Governors,” sepia portraits of New Mexico’s governors, from the military occupation of 1846 to statehood in 1912, looked down on six models of New Mexico buildings, churches and pueblos set on tables.

On the second floor, above the Hall of Governors, the U.S. Forestry Service showed how it was protecting the forests of New Mexico. Topographical maps of New Mexico’s forests, cross and longitudinal sections of trees, and models showing the effects of deforestation rested on the floor.

Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, Director of Exhibits for the Panama-California Exposition, and head of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, chose Rapp to duplicate the design of the San Diego building for the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, Rapp’s third and final adaptation of the Pueblo-Mission churches of Acoma and Cochiti. Rapp incorporated the facade of the Church of San Jose at Laguna, and the stepped-back elevations of Pueblo buildings in Taos, on the east side of the museum. He added extensions and decorated interiors with more attention to historic detail than in Balboa Park. Even so, front facades of both buildings are similar. If people in San Diego want to see what the Balboa Park building looked like in 1915, they should go to Santa Fe where its twin exists in unblemished splendor!

From the rear elevations of the Balboa Park building, visitors had stunning views of Cabrillo bridge and canyon and of downtown San Diego. Despite these advantages, the Balboa Park building could never match the Santa Fe building’s connection to the skies and mountains of Santa Fe. As artist Robert Henri put it, “The (Santa Fe) museum looks as though it were a precious child of the Santa Fe sky and the Santa Fe mountains. It has its parents’ complexion.” In this sense, the Balboa Park building was a wayward child who had strayed far from home.

When the state of New Mexico sold its building to San Diego for $3,200 in 1917, the City did not know what to do with it. The City knew, however, that the building was architecturally more important than the ephemeral California-Mission style Washington and Montana buildings next to it to the northeast, and, therefore, did not have the temerity to demolish it.

The U.S. entry into World War I temporarily solved the problem of reuse, as the U.S. Marine Corps occupied the Eucalyptus Point portion of Balboa Park. (The name of the area was unofficially changed to “Palisades” shortly before the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition.) Marines used the north wing for officers’ barracks and the auditorium for instruction. Under terms of their lease, Marines were to leave the building as they found it. Therefore, when they left the park in 1921, the New Mexico Building was the same as it was before they moved in.

San Diego’s goal in Balboa Park has always been to maintain the deteriorating buildings along El Prado, a never-ending task. Payments from the military, donations from citizens, and allocations from the City went to this end. Organizations not engaged in commercial activities could occupy the New Mexico Building if they agreed to pay for upkeep.

In 1922, the Girl Scouts thought they had found an ideal headquarters. However, when they discovered they would have to pay $3,000 for repairs, they lost interest. On hearing of costs involved, the San Diego Musicians’ Association, in 1924, abandoned the idea of using the building for office, rehearsal and performance space. To take care of overflow from the Fine Arts Gallery, the San Diego Museum, in 1923, began using the building for art shows and for artists’ studios. The Park Department billed the San Diego Museum for repairs to the building in 1929. Records for this period are skimpy. The San Diego Museum retained custody through 1934, but the use of the building as an art gallery probably ceased in 1926 when a new Fine Arts Gallery opened in Balboa Park, where the San Diego Museum of Art is now headquartered.

Officials of the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition appointed San Diego architect Richard Requa to redesign the building for use as a State of California Palace of Education. Requa had a successful practice designing homes in a Spanish vernacular style, minus the heavy Churrigueresque relief on Bertram Goodhue’s buildings. These cozy homes resembled white-walled, red- tiled buildings along the coasts of the Mediterranean.

If Requa appreciated the style then flourishing in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, he did not show it in his transformation of the 1915 New Mexico building. Acting on a request from the California Department of Education, he spanned the patio with a roof, thus destroying an indispensable Southwestern trait and dramatic views of second level north and south wings. This from a man who had photographed the romantic patios of Andalusia and Morocco! He also added a 13,000 sq. ft. exhibit room behind the now- enclosed court, where representatives of universities and colleges and trade and business institutions displayed their works.

An exhibit submitted by the California Institute of Technology was the main attraction. It included the most powerful X-ray tube in the world, studies of heredity, examinations of the causes of earthquakes, a working model of the Boulder Dam electrical transmission system, and a model of the Palomar Observatory. A basement beneath this voluminous room contained a nursery which visitors could observe by looking through one-way glass windows. Education being a serious matter, the sooner it started, the better!

Described as the “theme” room, the interior court functioned as an assembly and transit room for people moving to other attractions. Eight booths lined the walls, replacing the arcade. Displays in the booths illustrated Citizenship, Worthy Home Making, Fundamental Processes, Health and Safety, International Goodwill, Wise Use of Leisure, Vocational Effectiveness, and Ethical Character.

A fountain sculpture, called “The Four Cornerstones of American Democracy,” blocked the view of an unevenly scaled mural on the back wall of the assembly room. Belle Baranceanu, who did the mural in haste so that it would be ready for the 1935 Exposition, told critic Jim Britton in 1980 that she could not stand to look at it! A montage of rectangles, triangles and arcs encloses a space containing people and objects illustrating “The Progress of Man.” In the center a blond, blue-eyed boy, nude from chest up, emerges from an aureole of golden light. In a gesture that looks as though it had been derived from William Blake’s color print, “The Dance of Albion,” the boy extends his arms to left and right as if to say, “See what I have done!” A brown tonality in the mural obscures the limited color contrasts. An inscription beneath the mural read “Through education we communicate to our children the heritage of the past.” Another inscription above read “Education for good life.”

A bronze nude, with ebony patina, on top the awkwardly- placed fountain in front of the mural is caught in a pirouette. She expresses joie de vivre in contrast with somber matrons, cast in cement, beneath who represent Home, School, and Community, and a virgin, with hands clasped in prayer, who represents Church. The figures support the blithe spirit who cavorts on top a globe. Colored lights, rising from a pool at the base of the fountain, cast their rays on four jets of water cascading down from the outstretched hand of the dancing woman. The tonality is gray. Frederick Schweigardt, who did the fountain, told a reporter the neck of Miss Cynthia Ricketts, the young woman who posed for some of the figures, reminded him of Venus de Milo.

Money for his commission ran out while Schweigardt was working on the fountain and he volunteered to do the remainder of the work free. Dr. Kleinsmid, president of the University of Southern California, cajoled Schweigardt into allowing him to make casts of his sculpture so he could put a replica on the University campus. Of such generosity, paupers are made!

The Neoclassical style fountain and inspirational mural do not converse intelligently. Inscriptions above and below the mural related objects to the theme of education. No such clarification was used to explain the fountain. Nationally-acclaimed sculptors in the 30’s, such as Paul Manship, Leo Friedlander, and Carl Milles, and artists such as Stuart Davis, Eugene Savage, and Arshile Gorky, expressed themselves and the times in which they lived in an original manner. In comparison with their energetic achievements, Belle Baranceanu’s and Frederick Schweigardt’s productions in the Palace of Education are tame and conventional.

The Department of Education called the assembly room the “Hall of Youth” and the west-wing auditorium the “Palace of Women.” Neither name caught the public fancy and they were soon abandoned.

The machinelike rear facade of the exhibit room and its proliferation of rectilinear windows and vents obliterated the earthform quality of the 1915 building that it concealed from view.

A doll house, topped by a pitched gable, on the roof of the assembly room was the most conspicuous of Requa’s changes. Openings in the toy house allowed light and air into the gloomy court. Perched as it is on top of a flat, Pueblo-like roof, the straight-edged house mocked the flowing lines of the 1915 building.

Gene Muehleisen, son of Mrs. Vesta C. Muehleisen, who managed the 1935-36 Palace of Education, has donated to the San Diego Historical Society Research Archives photographs showing Requa’s alteration to the facades and interiors of the building. Besides extending assembly room walls to an upper level, Requa made few exterior changes. He placed a Palace of Education sign on the upper level above the center entrance, and drapes with geometric designs of Navajo origin at the back of open east and west balconies. To atone for the doll house on the roof, he put small vigas under the eaves. As Pueblo Indians used vigas to hold down flat roofs, Requa’s attempt to turn them into miniaturized accents seems superfluous.

By sinking a road in front of the New Mexico building, workers altered the slope of the ground in front of the building. Wayne Van Schaick and W. Allen Perry, who had charge of the Exposition’s landscaping, planted semitropical plants from south of the border on the elevated ground. These plants are not native to the high desert of northern New Mexico. As the plants had not achieved full growth, it was possible to examine the play of voids and solids and of lights and shadows on the exterior of the building.

There is a scarcity of information to fill the six years between 1936 and 1942. An Education Association, organized by Vesta Muehleisen, prolonged the life of exhibits. To meet expenses, the Association depended on voluntary contributions, money from memberships, and money obtained from renting rooms. The Public Works Administration helped by sponsoring recreational, and arts and crafts activities in the former Palace of Education, Hollywood Hall of Fame, and California State Buildings.

Officers and enlisted personnel from the U.S. Navy Training Center moved into buildings south of the Organ Pavilion immediately following the U.S. Congress Declaration of War, December 8, 1941. Calling their post “Camp Kidd,” after Admiral Isaac Kidd, who had died during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the cadre set about turning buildings into barracks. Since a vocational school preparing people to work in aircraft industries already occupied the Ford Building, it was allowed to stay. Naval officers converted the Palace of Education into a temporary hospital and dispensary. Owing to an overwhelming shortage of housing in San Diego, they used some rooms for sleeping quarters.

Camp Kidd continued as a Reception Center for sailors until early in 1944 when the U.S. Marine Corps moved from Camp Elliott to Camp Pendleton. Thereupon the Navy transferred its Reception Center in Balboa Park to Camp Elliott. This left Camp Kidd available for hospital expansion to meet the heavy load of wounded caused by accelerated fighting in the Pacific.

Officers of the Naval Hospital used the Palisades buildings as barracks and as classrooms for corpsmen. As there were not enough spaces for corpsmen and for transient officers, the billetting officer put in several frame barracks. To feed transient officers, workers converted the annex added to the Palace of Education in 1935 into a mess hall, capable of feeding 800 persons at once. Workers put in partitions, bathrooms, a kitchen and a conveyor belt to bring food into the mess hall.

Changing an exhibit hall into a mess hall did not require major modifications. However, converting the auditorium into a barroom for officers and their guests changed drastically the appearance of the auditorium. A bar extended along the north wall. Staff put a map of the Pacific wartime theater behind the bar. Officers must have been riveted to the map as island after island in the Pacific fell to the Americans. Somebody, most likely not Staff, put pinups of beautiful women on the wall next to the map. Whatever his thoughts about the pinups, the Entertainment Officer approved putting slot machines and a jukebox at the rear of the auditorium. Couples danced on the floor and, when crowds became too big, in the central lobby. While the name “Balboa Park Club” has since been applied to the entire building, Naval officers referred to the barroom area only as the “Camp Kidd Officers’ Club.”

At the conclusion of the war, City Recreation Director Leo Calland announced his intention to convert buildings on the Palisades into a community recreation center. Calland said 2,500 persons could dance, 1,500 could banquet, and 600 could banquet and dance in a refurbished New Mexico Building.

Business people had other ideas. They wanted to use the buildings for conventions.

With money the military gave San Diego for wartime damages to Balboa Park, the City in 1949 made extensive changes to the Palace of Education, now called the Balboa Park Club. At a cost of $75,000, workers expanded kitchen and dining facilities left by the U.S. Navy, refinished floors, added windows, installed Venetian blinds, enclosed exposed balconies on the north wing, and sawed off vigas on outside walls. They put a dropped ceiling in the center court, giving the room the character of a dungeon, and scattered stuffed furniture about the darkened room. Chairs and sofas soon took on the appearance of rejects from thrift stores.

Calland approved shortening the length of the auditorium to create restrooms on the north side and putting windows on the south side of the auditorium in place of alcoves designed to hold murals illustrating the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the martyrdom of Franciscan priests during the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680. (The murals were not completed for the 1915 Exposition due to the untimely death of the artist Donald Beauregard. Brought to completion by artists Kenneth Chapman and Carlos Vierra, the murals now grace the auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.) The auditorium took on new life as a soda and snack bar.

San Diego now had a club for teenagers, a place for banquets, and a setting for weddings, receptions, style shows, and bridge teas. Calland had planned this amalgamation of functions to please proponents of recreation and of business.

For a time in the 1950’s, the Collegiate Club of San Diego held Saturday night dances for high school, junior college, and college students in the building. Between dances, couples relaxed in the 1935 Hall of Youth whose walls had been adorned with paintings lent by the San Diego Fine Arts Gallery.

Aesthetically, the closing of voids and shaving of surfaces deprived the building of its buoyant quality. The building may have been of the earth, but sunlight and air had penetrated its spaces and lightened its masses. Santa Fe architecture historian Carl Sheppard described the revamped building as dull, naked, weighted down, heavy in proportion, and inert.

By this time, landscaping outside the building had gone amuck. Towering eucalypti grew at north and south corners and decorative palms began to look like transplants from an overgrown jungle. Park Department gardeners had license to pursue their whims without seeking advice from landscape architects who know there is more to landscape design than just letting plants grow.

Due to a shortage of space in City Administration Buildings, the San Diego Park Department moved into the auditorium and lower floor of the Balboa Park Club in 1974, dividing space into cubicles and obliterating architectural features. Thus, the Park Department, formed to foster public enjoyment of parks, took from people recreational resources they had come to think of as their own.

After voters in 1986 approved a ballot measure to spend $100 million to get, develop and rehabilitate local parks, recreation facilities, and historic sites, the City decided to use $2,529,265 of this money, plus $56,000 of matching funds from the capital outlay budget, and $340,000 in Certificates of Participation supported by Transient Occupancy Taxes, — a total project cost of $2,925,265 — to bring the Balboa Park Club into compliance with building codes and to convert city offices housed there into space for square dancers, ping-pong players, and floor hockey players who were being dispossessed from the nearby Conference Building.

The San Diego Historic Sites Board had become a party in deciding how the renovation was to be accomplished. Owing to the listing in 1978 of surviving Exposition buildings as a National Historic Landmark, the National Park Service was also empowered to review plans for renovation, though no federal funds were used. An absence of photographs from 1935 did not prevent the San Diego Historic Sites Board and the National Park Service from insisting that the building should be restored back to its 1935 form. (Unfortunately, Gene Muehleisen’s donation of photographs of the building in 1935-36 to the San Diego Historical Society occurred after the renovation had been completed.) Neither reviewing body professed knowledge of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe.

In 1990, the City of San Diego appointed architect Donald Reeves to prepare plans for the renovation. Confident that its standards were applicable to local situations, the National Park Service questioned many of the contemplated “restorations.” Was the roof framing in the assembly room open in 1935-36, or was it concealed by a dropped ceiling? Did the shed surmounting the assembly room function as a skylight? Would it be all right to flood the assembly room with light by extending a skylight on the roof? Should clerestory windows at north and south ends of the assembly room be reopened? Should a recreated arcade (not there in 1935) have columns, cornices and railings similar to those shown in 1915 photographs? Should duct work be hidden or exposed? Should new construction blend with or stand out from the original construction?

Seeking answers to National Park Service questions, the City, in 1992, appointed Eduardo Maldonado of ATS Architecture to complete the plans and to supervise the renovation. Following National Park Service guidelines for renovating historic structures and Building Code regulations to ensure public safety, Maldonado reinforced exterior walls and stabilized foundations, put up retaining walls to keep moisture away from foundations, and installed diaphragms on roofs to connect walls and to relieve seismic stresses. Though he leaned toward recreating the 1915 Southwestern appearance, he accepted 1935 as the cutoff year. Certainly a more realistic choice, as neither ballroom nor assembly room could be wished away!

The City of San Diego had long regarded the Balboa Park Club as a stepchild rather than a son or daughter. The building was too durable to destroy, yet not dazzling enough to restore to mint condition or to use for a purpose in keeping with its appearance. In 1994, the City attempted to undo years of neglect by recreating the charm of the original building.

Maldonado did an excellent job in extending the life of the building and in preserving many grace notes of the past while suppressing some discords. He removed a ceiling and soffit added to the assembly room in 1949, opening two bays and revealing trusses supporting the roof. By opening north and south clerestory windows and by painting the room in soft, cool colors, he relieved the interior of its gloom. His exposure and highlighting of trusses in the ballroom, reinstallation of vigas on the outside of the building, and reopening of the north wing’s upper balcony revivified past glories. The National Park Service objection to putting Spanish-style columns and corbels in the assembly room, because they would “appear to be an actual historic feature of the courtyard,” resulted in the creation of rounded shafts topped by angular capitals that harmonize well with the simple and plain character of the room.

We now have a Balboa Park Club that on its exterior looks like the New Mexico Building. Maldonado did not remove the structure on the roof, though its openings are now closed off by a flat ceiling and it serves no purpose. Consequently, Requa’s anachronistic gable still looms over the curves of the Pueblo-style building beneath. If people block it out by holding their hands in front of them, the building looks harmonious. A boxlike annex, holding furniture, mars the effectiveness of viga projections and plastic surfaces on the north side. However, a simple molding, uncovered during the renovation, dresses its drab mass.

To enable the renovation to proceed, gardeners removed trees and plants. It is now possible to see the building. Gardeners are eager to show their talents, so, if the past is prologue, the results will be disastrous. The Park Department has turned the foreground on the north side into a parking lot.

Rather than bemoan the failure of the Balboa Park Club to match the high quality of the building in Santa Fe, it is important for San Diegans to appreciate the building they have, and to put thought into finding uses for it that would enhance rather than detract from its aesthetic character.

The auditorium on the southeast corner is the most exciting part of the building. Because Leo Calland walled off the chancel in 1949 to provide restrooms, San Diego no longer has the chancel used during the first Exposition to display paintings and to hold a podium and stage. Unlike the long hall in the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts and the narrow naves of Pueblo churches, the Balboa Park auditorium is almost square, its length only slightly exceeding its width. A balcony behind the front entrance creates the impression of an anteroom, further decreasing the perceptual length of the nave.

Balconies and wood beam ceilings supported by corbels in Pueblo churches are second in importance to awe- inspiring, mysteriously illumined altars. Given that the chancel no longer provides focus in San Diego, the balcony and wood beam ceiling are the most distinctive architectural features in the room.

It is possible that members of the San Diego Historic Sites Board would object to alterations to recreate an Indian-Spanish-Mexican setting in the auditorium. However, in keeping with the historic origin of the auditorium, murals, photographs, and fixtures placed there should recall their antecedents in New Mexico. Furnishings should testify to the excellence of Southwestern Indian and Hispanic arts and crafts. The lobby in the center of the building and the remaining large room on the north wing’s upper level should again contain exhibits that reflect the culture of New Mexico. These exhibits would supplement similar displays in the auditorium.

The Park Department will continue to occupy the basement under the ballroom. Dancers and other users approved by the Park Department will continue to use the ballroom and central court. It is unlikely that players of vigorous sports will be allowed inside the building.

Private groups will resume renting the Balboa Park Club for meetings and conventions. Such use fulfils a public need and the City gets rent money for its General Fund. Nonetheless, regular park visitors — and not just dancers, floral groups, and conventioneers — should be granted free access to the building. After all, State of California, City of San Diego and visitor money was used to restore the building. A way of showing thanks would be to allow everyone to see what their money has bought.

It is always possible to wish things were different. In doing this, San Diego should not lose sight of the fact that the Balboa Park Club now offers much in the way of pleasing appearance and potentially exciting uses. San Diegans should breathe a sigh of relief that the renovation came out as well as it did, and they should keep their fingers crossed that the building and the land around it will always be as pleasurable as they now are.

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