Iris Engstrand and Matthew Schiff

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Spring 2015, Volume 61, Number 2
San Diego Invites The World: The 1915 Exposition A Pictorial Essay (PDF)

The first substantial groups of people traveled to California from the East Coast during the Gold Rush in 1848-49. They soon found that trains were confined to east of the Mississippi and slow-moving ships carried passengers and cargo around Cape Horn. The first railroad to cross overland and connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was opened in 1855 across the Isthmus of Panama, then a part of Colombia.

With the completion of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869 followed by the Santa Fe railroad in 1885, thousands of people were able to travel to California more easily, leading to a real estate boom in the 1880s. San Diego planned a city park of 1,400 acres on a central mesa. Unfortunately for San Diego, the Panic of 1893 led to a quick decline in population and properties were left vacant. With a gradual economic recovery during the early 1900s, San Diego evolved into a small city with big ambitions. Residents believed their port and city could become an important base for the US Navy, especially after the visit of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet in 1908.

An initial attempt by France to build a sea-level canal across Panama in the 1880s failed, but only after considerable excavation was carried out. This effort was useful to the United States, which completed the present Panama Canal in 1913 and officially opened it in 1914. Along the way, the Republic of Panama was created through its separation from Colombia in 1903 after a US backed revolt left United States in control of the Canal project area.

As early as 1909, San Diego booster D. C. Collier began discussing San Diego as the first port of call for ships passing through the Canal. Promotions talked about the “Kiss of the Oceans” and businessmen supported the idea of dredging San Diego harbor to accommodate larger commercial vessels as well as naval ships. By 1910, other city boosters such as John Spreckels, G. Aubrey Davidson, and George Marston began promoting the idea of a celebration honoring the completion of the Canal with a world’s fair or exposition in 1915. City Park was renamed Balboa Park to honor the first European who, in 1513, reached the Pacific Ocean.

There was no lack of controversy over the planning—both on the home front and up and down the state. As it turned out, San Francisco secured federal approval to host the official World’s Fair and called it the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Bay Area planners chose towering Beaux-Arts and neoclassical buildings to grace Golden Gate Park, while San Diegans selected a regional theme showcasing a Spanish fantasy city. Even though Southern California’s past reflected the simple architecture of missions and ranchos, Anglo promoters— mostly bankers, lawyers, real estate developers and merchants—convinced park

planners to hire architects who could heighten the romantic aspects of the city’s Spanish beginnings. None of the elegant baroque structures planned for the fair had actually been built in southern California, but, even so, The San Diego Union predicted that the elegance of the exposition would impress all visitors and triple the city’s population.

Local architect Irving Gill had some simple ideas for buildings in the park, while easterners Bertram Goodhue and his partner Carleton Winslow from a firm in New York  had been impressed by Spanish Colonial architecture in Mexico and Spain. Previously, the accepted “fair style” was Beaux-Arts, classical Greek, or Roman. These were the styles of Chicago’s famed “White City” of 1893 and San Francisco’s competing exposition. Goodhue proposed to design his buildings in baroque Spanish Colonial Revival since a “new city” of Old Spain would not only be in closer harmony with the beauty of Southern California, but would be a distinct step forward in American architecture.

The Olmsted Brothers, a nationally famous landscape architectural firm, chose about 100 acres in the southwest corner of the park and preserve the rest of the park as open space. Their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed New York’s Central Park, believed in a maximum of green space. Fellow landscape architect Samuel Parsons agreed. Collier, appointed Director General of the Fair, disagreed and claimed to need more space and buildings to attract exhibitors and promote business growth. Goodhue and others opposed the open space plan so the Olmsted brothers quit the project. The landscaping plan was left to John Morley. Collier brought in Engineer Frank P. Allen, Jr., of Seattle, Washington, as Director of Works of the San Diego Exposition. Allen studied Spanish and Mexican architecture and believed the 1915 Expo could turn into what Goodhue had envisioned as a “Dream City.” One of Allen’s earliest exposition projects was construction of the Cabrillo Bridge, a structure designed in 1911 that resembled the bridge over the Rio Tajo entering Toledo, Spain. The first multiple-arched, cantilever-type bridge built in California, it spanned Cabrillo Canyon. The overpass, built of reinforced concrete at a cost of $225,154, extended 916 feet across the canyon. Its main portion comprised seven semicircular 56 foot arches for a maximum height of 120 feet to the roadway.

Completion of the Panama Canal provided the region’s link to the rest of the nation not only in terms of transportation and commerce, but for military defense. By 1913, William Kettner had become a US Congressman and was San Diego’s spokesperson for the US Navy. The canal symbolized the city’s hope for future progress even though California had never brought Spain or Mexico the wealth and power that resulted from the Gold Rush. The west entrance to the park portrayed the meeting of the two oceans and the façade of Goodhue’s California building included those persons most influential in San Diego’s past. Despite the elegant structures and varied displays, the orchard plantings were perhaps the most impressive aspect of the fair for out-of-town visitors. Stacks of oranges were prominent at other fairs but not the actual trees in bloom giving off their distinct fragrance. The gardens, which had to be constantly watered because of San Diego’s average annual rainfall of ten inches, were beautiful in every direction.

The Model Farm exhibit, jointly operated by several companies, demonstrated Southern California farm life. International Harvester supplied the machinery in a display of its newest technology for mechanized farming. Fair visitors gathered in great numbers to watch electric sheep shearing, compressed air cow milking, and orchard pesticide spraying. A special theater showed films on reclamation including “Romance of Irrigation,” and visitors could test-drive tractors.

The Alhambra Cafeteria, named for Spain’s popular Moorish palace, served food to visitors while lavish dinners were prepared for important guests. These included such people as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, William McAdoo, William Jennings Bryan, governors of several states, and local fair directors. The WCTU ladies were not happy about alcohol being served in the park, but the men won out on this issue. The Café Cristobal was another popular restaurant.

The fair featured the science of anthropology in the California Building and in several others. The intention was to trace human evolution of man in the New World from savagery to civilization. Exhibits were planned to discover where American Indian peoples had come from and to demonstrate their racial origins. The topic was controversial and was not solved at the fair. The 1915  exhibit of plein air paintings brought  together by Alice Klauber drew national attention in the quadrangle’s Fine Arts Building.

The very popular Indian exhibit was located beyond the central Prado where the Zoo now exists. The ten-acre Painted Desert, built and advertised by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, contained buildings resembling the pueblo architecture of New Mexico and Apache teepees in Arizona. The Trading Post featured authentic curios and souvenirs, and a resident population of some 300 southwestern Indians could be seen making pottery, weaving baskets, designing silverware, and fashioning jewelry. There were no local Indians except for one time when 200 Kumeyaay from various reservations lived at the exposition for four days. There were ceremonial dances and athletic games and a cultural exchange among all the Indians present.

On the way to the Painted Desert, fairgoers passed through the Isthmus—the entertainment center with exhibits promoting everything from the California missions to a Japanese Tea Pavilion. There was a House of Mirth, a Hawaiian village, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, and a host of unusual exhibits. A working model of the Panama Canal was built to give visitors an understanding of how the Canal worked—and where it was!

Nationally known visitors frequented the Park in 1915. They could be seen riding around in electriquettes and their activities have been recorded in photographs. Picture Thomas Edison chatting with Henry Ford about improvements to his automobiles or Joseph Pendleton convincing Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt about the need for a naval port or a marine base in San Diego. Perhaps Maria Montessori saw the value of a project-based curriculum for young students when she saw them visiting the Pacific Film Company. California Governor Hiram Johnson had to have been impressed with the southernmost part of his state.

At the end of 1915, it was decided to continue the Exposition for another year and 1916 became even more colorful and every bit as successful as 1915. Visitors and economic returns continued. Dr. Henry Wegeforth and Dr. Fred Baker were worried about what would happen to the animals brought in for display. They talked about forming a zoo, but that’s a story for another time.

For Further Reference

  • Amero, Richard W. Balboa Park and the 1915 Exposition. Edited by Michael   Kelly.
  • Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013.
  • Bokovoy, Matthew F. The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880- 1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
  • Christman, Florence. The Romance of Balboa Park. Fourth Edition revised. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1985.
  • Kropp, Phoebe S., “The 1915 Fair” in California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006, pp. 103-156.
  • Marshall, David. San Diego’s Balboa Park. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007. Showley, Roger. Balboa Park: A Millennium History. Heritage Media Corporation, 2000.

Iris Engstrand is Professor of History at the University of San Diego and co-editor of The Journal   of San Diego History.

Matthew Schiff is Marketing Director at the San Diego History Center and a writer of San Diego history. They are co-curators of the current exhibit San Diego Invites the World featuring the 1915  Panama-California Exposition.