San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Exposition

By Jonathan Bechtol

Efforts by San Diego to host an exposition in 1915 were a significant undertaking for such a small city. Celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, civic leaders foresaw an opportunity to increase the city’s stature as the first American port of call on the West Coast and thus to promote economic development. They decided that an exposition was the ideal vehicle to advertise and market the small city. The San Diego History Center’s San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Expo uses interesting artifacts and well-researched displays to trace the efforts by these enterprising civic leaders and boosters to market and create the Panama- California Exposition in Balboa Park and to explore the legacy of the exposition over the ensuing one hundred years.

A common theme throughout the exhibition is local leaders’ use and embellishment of San Diego’s Spanish past to advertise and market the city. Organizers knew that the exposition would have to compete with local, national, and international news ranging from labor strife on the streets of San Diego and a civil war in Mexico to the rumblings of world war. In addition, San Francisco was hosting its own exposition which threatened to attract visitors away from San Diego’s. The exhibition recognizes that organizers relied on the marketability of the region’s mythological Spanish past to make their exposition stand out. Much of the promotional media on display reflect this Spanish myth which described San Diego as a “land of enchantment” where “the whisper of a tranquil rancho life could still be heard.”

Obviously, the most tangible legacy of the 1915 exposition is the buildings themselves, many of which have a history all their own which the exhibit delves into deeply. San Diego Invites the World traces not only the creation and use of the originally temporary buildings during the exposition itself but also efforts by local San Diegans and organizations to maintain and keep them as a permanent part of Balboa Park. To correspond with the marketing campaign a unique architectural style, Spanish Mission Revival, was used in the design of nearly all exposition buildings. Essentially an ahistorical style promoted by principle architect Bertram Goodhue, exposition planners preferred its vibrant and ornate look to the more austere yet accurate style promoted by local architect Irving Gill. The city went so far as to demolish the old Santa Fe railroad station for a new building reflecting this style.

San Diego Invites the World is a well-researched and aesthetically pleasing exhibition; however, its size inhibits a more thorough narrative of the exposition. Considering it is the centennial celebration, the amount of actual floor space dedicated to the exhibition is quite small and limits the displays and memorabilia. This provides the visitor only a small window into the event that many would argue marks the beginning of modern San Diego. This is a rather superficial concern as the exhibition is clear in detailing the motives of exposition planners and boosters in their attempt to market San Diego to tourists and investors alike.

This exhibit does more than retell the story of the 1915 exposition. It also gives the visitor, perhaps inadvertently, a one-hundred year story of boosterism in San Diego. The first part of this story is an account of civic leaders struggling to put their city on the map, an effort that marks a turning point in the economic development of San Diego. The second is the struggle to preserve the exposition grounds themselves as a tourist site and cultural center. Those issues, combined with the Spanish myth narrative and emphasis on the buildings themselves give visitors to this exhibition an enriching insight into San Diego’s past. The exhibition at the San Diego History Center will continue until March 31, 2016.

Jonathan Bechtol holds a Master of Arts degree from California State University, San Marcos, where he wrote his thesis on the history of Balboa Park and its use of public space. He is a Lecturer in History at CSU San Marcos.