Jesse L. Nusbaum and the Painted Desert in San Diego
April 1, 1983
By LYNN ADKINS
Currently completing a Master’s Degree in the
History of Photography at the University of New Mexico
Anyone familiar with the American Southwest might recognize the scene in the photograph (right) as being the famous adobe pueblo of Taos, situated in northern New Mexico. Under a sunny southwestern sky, five traditionally dressed Indians (a man, two women and two babies) are gathered near the entrance to the ceremonial kiva, while another cloaked man, barely visible, stands atop the highest section of the pueblo building, surveying the scene. But the photograph deceives us.
This “pueblo” never stood in New Mexico, and these Indian “residents” are many miles from home. What then does one see here, and what is the meaning of this photograph, taken by the young photographer/archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, in 1914?
In the early years of the twentieth century, the City of San Diego decided to hold an exposition to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. Unlike other expositions of the era, which were more international in scope, the Panama-California Exposition focused on Latin America and the western United States, with a decidedly Spanish and Indian flavor pervading the architecture and exhibits.
For an exhibit in the commercial section of the exposition, the Santa Fe Railway produced, for the delight and edification of the tourist, a recreation of southwestern Indian life. Author Eugen Neuhaus described it:
Skillfully and with fine regard for the effect of genuineness, the habitations of the cliff dwellers and the “Logans” [sic] of the Navajos and the other nomadic tribes are here set up. Even the towering pueblos of the Zuni and Hopi are in evidence. One gets a very ‘ real and lasting impression of a unique and old civilization of Indian life with which very few people are familiar.1
In the official brochure for the exhibit the railroad company explains that:
Realizing that many people have neither the time nor the means to visit the Indian tribes which inhabit the country adjacent to the railway from the Colorado-New Mexico line to the Pacific, and knowing the deep interest that all take in the “First Americans,” it was decided lo reproduce at the Panama-California Exposition, in their Painted Desert Exhibit, typical Indian settlements of the sedentary and nomadic tribes of the GreatSouíhwest.2
Of course, it was also implicit that some of these visitors to the exhibit might, encouraged by the picturesque sights they beheld there, find the time and means to visit, via the railroad, the actual locations represented. Increased tourism was certainly one of the primary goals of the commercial exhibitors at the Exposition.
The Painted Desert was, by all accounts, one of the most popular attractions on the Isthmus, as the commercial midway of the Exposition was called. Construction, which ran about $150,000, began in April, 1914, nearly nine months before the official opening on January 1, 1915, on a site which encompassed five acres of land. Two large units of Indian dwellings were erected, one called the Zuni Building, the other the Taos. Also, there were ceremonial kivas, beehive-shaped outdoor ovens for bread baking, Navajo hogans, Apache teepees, summerhouses of sticks, and cliff dwellings set in brightly colored rock meant to look like the Arizona Painted Desert from which the entire exhibit took its name. Authentic materials used in the construction were hauled in on the railroad; southwestern cholla cactus, sagebrush and yucca, as well as willow, cedar posts and sandstone flagging from Colorado. The cliffs were created of wire and colored cement over a wooden frame, sculpted to resemble rock. Indian families from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico were brought in to assist with the construction. During the two years of the Exposition’s existence, a number of Indians from various tribes, including the now famous San Ildefonso potters Julian and Maria Martinez, lived at the exhibit. The Indians demonstrated their skills at such tasks as jewelry making, bread baking, blanket weaving, and pottery decorating, as well as performing traditional dances and ceremonies for the enlightenment of the visiting tourists. All of these activities were duly reported in the local press.3
As supervisor of their Painted Desert construction, the Santa Fe Railway hired Jesse Nusbaum, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, at a salary of $100 per month. Nusbaum was born in Greeley, Colorado, on September 3, 1887, the son of Edward M. and Agnes Nusbaum. During his youth, Jesse learned the building trade from his father, a general contractor and brickyard owner. He also became a proficient self-taught amateur photographer. After finishing his secondary schooling, young Nusbaum earned his education degree, in 1907, at the State Normal School in Greeley. He was immediately hired by the New Mexico State Normal in Las Vegas, to teach science and manual arts. In 1909, he moved to Santa Fe to become one of the first employees of the Museum of New Mexico and the School of American Archaeology, both under the directorship of Dr. Edgar L.Hewett, who had been president of the New Mexico State Normal when Nusbaum was hired there. Nusbaum’s most active period of picturemaking occurred between 1907-1915, during which time he made several trips to Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, in the company of such eminent personalities as archaeologist, Sylvanus G. Morley and folklorist, Charles Lummis, to photograph important Maya sites. In New Mexico, between these expeditions, he continued to work as a photographer and an archaeologist. From 1909-1913 he acted as superintendent for the renovation of the Palace of Governors in Santa Fe, which he also recorded with his camera. He was living and working in New Mexico’s capital city when the Santa Fe Railway engaged him to oversee the creation of their exhibit at the Panama-California Exposition.
While working in that capacity, Nusbaum made a thorough photographic documentation of the project. He captured on his five by seven inch glass plate negatives all stages of construction. There are images of workers creating the cliffs of wire and plaster, Indian men building an horno for the bread baking, and putting the finishing touches to the interior of a ceremonial kiva. There are also photographs of the Indians engaged in their time honored daily activities. With his dramatic use of light and shadow, strong diagonal elements, and varied perspectives such as low camera angles and bird’s-eye-views, Nusbaum created photographs that were not only informative documents, but visually and aesthetically pleasing compositions as well. The Santa Fe Railway utilized Nusbaum’s sensitive photographs to advertise and publicize their Indian exhibit, with eleven of his pictures appearing in the official “Painted Desert” brochure. Some of his popular images, such as that of the Indian women firing pottery, were made into post cards and sold by the Railway through the Fred Harvey concessions.
Reviewers of the Exposition frequently singled out the Painted Desert, from among the many Isthmus concessions, for special praise as being more than a mere entertainment, and cited Nusbaum as the person most responsible for its successful creation. An article from El Palacio proclaims that “Jesse Nusbaum, for years superintendent of construction for the Museum [of New Mexico] and School [of American Archaeology], has reared a monument of tremendous proportions and interest, as distinctive as anything that has ever been created for any exposition and withal wonderfully instructive.” Furthermore, the article continues, ” . . . it is an ethnological exhibit of uncommon human interest and attractiveness and there is probably no other man who could have created it as satisfactorily as Mr. Nusbaum.”4
In fact, the overall emphasis at the Panama-California Exposition was on the educational, on processes rather than on mere display of products. When the idea was first conceived in San Diego to hold an exposition to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, the construction of something along the lines of a traditional world’s fair was envisioned. However, shortly after the Exposition committee filed their Articles of Incorporation in Sacramento, announcement came that San Francisco intended to hold the offical celebration of the Canal opening. This move was sanctioned by the Federal Government, which extended a formal invitation to the Latin American countries to take part in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition. Thus, San Francisco commenced to plan and construct an international fair along the lines of those previously held in Chicago and St. Louis with their white cities of Greek and Roman inspired edifices. Mark S. Watson, in Out West Magazine observed:
This left San Diego with the realization that if a similar plan were followed in the southern city there would be mere duplication of effort with a certainty of competition and a likelihood of mutual injury.
Thus, largely through necessity, came the germ of the new idea. Eventually it would be seen that San Francisco’s stand was really the most fortunate possible event for San Diego, for the southern city was practically forced by good judgment to start out afresh and create something new.5
What was created was an exposition strongly thematic and distinctively regional in character when they decided to honor the Spanish and Indian heritage of the Southwest. The site chosen for the Exposition was Balboa Park, formerly 1,400 acres on top of a sun-baked, arid mesa covered with scrub and cactus, which was turned into a veritable Eden of flowering gardens by the deft planning of the fair’s landscape architects. The high, nearly level plateau was ideally situated less than a mile from the center of the city, commanding a superb view of the surrounding country with its ranges of mountains to the south and east. The city and bay lay immediately below the plateau, with Coronado Beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond. The main entrance to the Exposition was reached by an impressive concrete bridge spanning Cabrillo Canyon, at the far end of which arose the Spanish Colonial city with its towers and tiled domes glistening in the sun. Edgar L. Hewett, the Exposition’s Director of Exhibits described it thus:
On the right are grouped on the edge of the Canyon the various state buildings, that of New Mexico, taken from the archaic mission of Acoma, standing out among the others. On the left, in the background, there are the structures of the Isthmus, terminated by the Painted Desert, the very successful exhibit of the Santa Fe Railway. In the center rise the magnificent tower and dome of the California Quadrangle.6
In keeping with the Exposition’s intention to demonstrate processes, especially those relevant to the Southwest, many other unusual exhibits besides the Painted Desert were featured. The Lipton Tea Company created a tea plantation, complete with Singalese gardeners tending the plants brought in from Ceylon, and young women stripping and curing the leaves and preparing the beverage for serving to visitors. There was also a small scale working farm, employing the latest in modern machinery and methods for intensive innovative agriculture. It was hoped that through such exhibits new industries would be introduced into the region, and that a back-to-the land movement would open up development of thousands of acres of uncultivated land in southern California and the Southwest. These activities would, of course, generate increased trade and commerce through San Diego’s harbor, and make it an important port for goods flowing through the Panama Canal.
Some 3,800,000 people visited the Panama-California Exposition during its two years of existence. In the second year a number of foreign exhibitors transferred their displays to the San Diego site when the Panama-Pacific Exposition closed in San Francisco, giving it a somewhat more international flavor.
Within a few months after the closing of the Panama-California Exposition, the United States became involved in World War I, and the Indian Buildings of the Painted Desert were given over to the military for use by the Twenty-First Artillery for the duration of the conflict. After the war, the army moved out and the Boy Scouts moved in. They utilized the Indian Village for their various activities for many years. In 1927, $35,000 was raised by public subscription for renovation of the Indian Buildings. Showers, a mess hall and a swimming pool were added to the area. During the Second World War, the Boy Scouts relinquished the buildings, which were once again occupied by the military. In 1946 the structures were declared unsafe for habitation and subsequently destroyed by the local Fire Department, and the area landscaped for other park use. A few reminders of the Exposition, such as the stately Spanish Colonial California Building, which became the San Diego Museum of Man, still remain today in Balboa Park. Some, though, have gone the way of the Santa Fe Railway’s Painted Desert Exhibit, relegated to the domain of memory. Thus, that tribute to Spanish and Indian heritage, champion of process over product, the San Diego Exposition, so photographic in form itself, being a surrogate for the real thing, has faded away like an old tintype. However, the wonderfully authentic, make-believe Indian Village will continue to exist, frozen in time, in the perceptive photographs of Jesse L. Nusbaum.
1. Eugen Neuhaus, The San Diego Garden Fair (San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1916), p. 45.
2. Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, Painted Desert Exhibit; San Diego Exposition (United States, n.p., n.d.), n.p.
3. See “Indian Tribes Will Be Brought to Exposition to Live and Work in Replicas of Their Real Homes,” San Diego Union, August 21, 1913, p. 1, cols. 4-5, p. 7, col. 6; “Indians at Work on Exhibit for Exposition,” San Diego Union, October 6, 1914, p. 7, col. 1; and “Santa Fe Railroad’s Indian Pueblo Marvel of Primitive Crafts,” San Diego Union, January 1, 1915, Sec. II, p. 7, cols. 6-7.
4. “Museum and School Share in San Diego’s Triumph,” El Palacío, 2, No. 2 (1915), 2, p. 2.
5. Mark S. Watson, “Process, Not Products,” Out West Magazine, n.s. 8 (1914), p. 92.
6. Edgar L. Hewett and William Templeton Johnson, “Architecture of the Exposition,” Archaeological Institute of America Papers of the School of American Archaeology, 32 (1916), p. 35.
Allwood, John. The Great Exhibitions. London: Cassell and Collier Macmillian Publishers Ltd., 1977.
Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Painted Desert Exhibit; San Diego Exposition. [United States]: n.p., n.d.
“The Big Fair Ready at San Diego With Many Special Features.” Santa Fe Magazine, December 1914. pp. 21-23.
Christman, Florence. The Romance of Balboa Park. San Diego: Committee of 100, 1977.
Goodhue, Bertram Grosvenor. The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1916.
Hewett, Edgar L. and William Templeton Johnson. “Architecture of the Exposition.” Archaeological Institute of America, Papers of the School of American Archaeology, 32 (1916).
“Indian Tribes Will Be Brought to Exposition and Live and Work in Replicas of Their Real Homes,” San Diego Union, August 21, 1913, p. 1, cols. 4-5, p. 7, col. 6.
“Indians at Work on Exhibit for Exposition,” San Diego Union, October 6, 1914, p. 7, col. 1.
“Magic Spanish City at San Diego,” Out West Magazine, n.s. 8 (1914), 290-306.
“Museum and School Share in San Diego’s Triumph,” El Palacio, 2, No. 2 (1915), 2.
Neuhaus, Eugen. The San Diego Garden fair. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company, 1916.
“The New City of Old Spain,” Out West Magazine, 41, No. 3 (1915), 122-125.
“News Notes from the Beautiful Fair at San Diego.” Santa Fe Magazine, April 1915, pp. 35-39.
“San Diego Exposition Jottings.” Santa Fe Magazine, July 1915, pp. 35-39.
“San Diego Exposition Opens in Blaze of Glory.” Santa Fe Magazine, January 1915, pp. 21-22.
“Santa Fe Railroad’s Indian Pueblo Marvel of Primitive Crafts,” San Diego Union, January 1, 1915. Sec. II, pp. 7, cols. 6-7.
“Sidelights on the Great Exposition at San Diego.” Santa Fe Magazine, February 1915, pp. 47-49.
Walter, Paul A. F. “New Mexico’s Contribution to the Panama-California Exposition,” El Palacio, 3, No. 1 (1915), 3-16.
Watson, Mark S. “Process, Not Products,” Out West Magazine, n.s. 8 (1914), 87-93.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are courtesy of the Museum of New Mexico.