Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor
Balboa Park: A Millennium History.
By Roger M. Showley. Carlsbad: Heritage Media Corporation, 1999. Photos, maps, notes, 224 pp. $39.95 cloth.
Reviewed By Vonn Marie May, landscape historian and appointee to the San Diego City Historical Resource Board, who wrote the historical component of the current Balboa Park Master Plan, and is a former president of Save Our Heritage Organisation.
Balboa Park: A Millennium History is an appealing tour through the history of Balboa Park from the time its boundary was first struck in 1868 to today’s reconstructed exposition buildings and the park’s newly reclaimed popularity. Mostly pictorial, the book presents historical photos, maps, and paintings some that have never been seen by the public before.
Serving as an update to Florence Christman’s 1985 Romance of Balboa Park, Balboa Park: A Millennium History sheds light on new historical facts recently contributed by urban park scholars. For example, it explores the first master plan (1902), which was done by New York landscape architect Samuel Parsons and predated both expositions; the book also shows how much the park served as an essential U.S. Navy hospital facility during World War II.
The book offers an excellent chronology of events genuinely helpful to those struggling to understand San Diego’s past. The author uses Balboa Park as a mirror of San Diego history, explaining how the park was shaped as much by dramatic and unplanned events as by rational considerations. From the saga of early land acquisition, through wildly inappropriate encroachments, to heroic cultural settings, these events transport us across the entire 20th century.
Any account of this beloved park would be obliged to reveal how it was never resolutely planned in a methodical and comprehensive manner. Several master plans were generated and each reflected the values of their time; for instance the 1959 Bartholomew Plan called for three freeways, two of which made it into the park, although the third, thankfully, fell by the wayside. As each plan was promoted, invariably each was eclipsed by an historical event, ranging from world wars to world expositions to political inertia.
Even though the park’s built environment dominates the text, horticulture in the park can be seen and read somewhat between the lines. Unlike large public parks in the eastern United States that were carved from existing tree masses, Balboa (City Park as it was known originally) was essentially an open slate, a blank canvas. The author’s favorite quote comes from Parsons’ first impression of the land set aside for the park:
Every park has its own peculiar and more or less distinct characteristics, but this great area of spreading mesas and picturesque canyons is markedly different from all other parks I have seen in Europe and AmericaÉThere is nothing like it among the parks of the world.
After nearly a century of conscientious (if not pernicious) foresting, the park could easily qualify as a certified arboretum. Genus and species from all parts of the world have been collected, cultivated and displayed as monuments of their own, attesting to the profound biological diversity and adaptability that San Diego provides.
The author thoroughly credits early city fathers and mothers whose contributions are taken for granted as we enjoy a fully mature vision of San Diego’s cultural core: George Marston, Kate Sessions, D. C. Collier, Aubrey Davidson, Bertram Goodhue, Richard Requa, John Morley, et al. The list is long and is a who’s who of early movers and shakers rallying to a worthy civic cause.
The most historically significant era of the Park’s history, the 1915 Panama California Exposition. is given a rather abbreviated review. The epic venture of a small frontier town mobilizing for such a global event was San Diego’s defining moment. The remnants of this grand effort have qualified the park as a National Historic Landmark and is credited by architectural historians and scholars as launching the Spanish Revival style in the southwest, if not the whole nation.
In 1915 Bertram Goodhue, master architect of Spanish Revival styles, created a traditional Hispanic classical setting for that exposition. In the 1935 exposition, lead architect Richard Requa, fresh from his Mediterranean travels, imposed an ‘Islamic’ wash over the original ensemble. At the junction of the Prado and Palisades area the city placed Anna Hyatt Huntington’s heroic equestrian statue of ‘El Cid’, who successfully threatened the Moors. Thus the community has used Balboa Park to impose artistic and architectural images of Spain into the community, and in the process, have provided a large part of the identity which defines San Diego.
For most of the 20th century this magical setting caused preservation battles. They began the moment the exposition concluded in 1916, and continued through the 1960s (inadvertently birthing the modern historic preservation movement), and remain part of today’s dialogue.
Balboa Park: A Millennium History shows the history and evolution of Balboa Park, but also clearly addresses and promotes the park’s present and its destiny in the new millennium. Hopefully, the future will cherish and understand the cultural investments that have been made in Balboa Park and will honor them for the civic identity they represent.