San Diego 1915 Exposition Centennial

In the early 1900’s some of the businessmen in San Diego proposed an exposition to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. They wanted San Diego to be a destination for the tourists and ship traffic the canal would bring. However San Francisco was also making plans for an exposition at the same time. Then San Diego had a population of about 40,000 while San Francisco’s population was nearly ten times that. San Francisco managed to persuade Congress to deny support to San Diego for the exposition. San Diego decided to continue and managed to obtain sufficient funding to put on the exposition. San Diego could not use the word international so it was called the Panama California Exposition and opened at midnight on December 31, 1914.

The location chosen for the exposition was Balboa Park which at the time was mostly undeveloped, open space. A number of buildings and other structures were constructed, some were to be permanent and others temporary intended to only be used for the duration of the exposition. One permanent structure was the Cabrillo Bridge which served as the majestic west entrance to the exposition. Its innovative design featured a multiple-arched cantilever structure, the first such bridge in California. It spans Cabrillo Canyon and when the bridge was completed there was a man-made lagoon with water lilies at its base. Today a freeway passes under it.

The bridge was a pedestrian pathway to the exposition though some dignitaries managed to get driven across in autos. After the exposition the bridge was opened to car traffic. Recently the bridge underwent renovations to improve its stability during earthquakes and make other repairs which were completed in early 2015.

For comparison this archival photo is basically the same view at the time of the exposition.

After passing through the western entrance is the California Building on the left which is another of the permanent structures constructed for the exposition. This building is the largest and most ornate building, and its design hints of Gothic influence with inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico. It is connected to the buildings across the street by two arcaded passageways.

On the facade of the California Building are sculpted historical figures and busts molded from modeling clay and plaster which can be seen in more detail in this photo. Depicted are prominent people from California, England, Mexico, and Spain.

The California Building houses the Museum of Man. During the exposition there were exhibits to illustrate The Story of Man through the Ages, with emphasis on the Native populations of North and South America. Some of the exhibits remain today including these Maya monuments, or stelae. These are casts of the original monuments in Quirigua, Guatemala. A stela is a tall shaft of carved stone. On them the Maya Civilization might incorporate a lengthy calendar date, portraits of rulers, and hieroglyphic texts recounting historical, mythological, and astronomical events.

This is a closer view of the dome and three-tiered tower on the California Building. Some people can be seen on the first tier. The tower was closed to the public in 1935 but was opened again for public tours at the beginning of this year as part of the centennial events. Since it is not known how long this will continue I made climbing the tower a must do for this year.

Bells coming from the tower can be heard every quarter hour. Though it sounds like bells and fools a lot of people the sound actually comes from a Maas-Rowe Carillon. This carillon has small chimes which make the sounds which are then amplified millions of times and projected through speakers in the tower (which can be seen in the previous picture). A few chimes can be seen in the following left photo. The right photo shows devices that can play the chimes automatically or live. A carillon was first installed in 1946 and updated to what is seen here in 1967. Though not a part of the exposition I included it because it is an important part of the California Building history.

After climbing seven stories of the tower the first tier is reached and this is as far as the public is allowed to go. This steep, narrow, winding and very open spiral staircase is one of the reasons for not going farther.

The views from the first tier are still spectacular and I couldn’t help taking pictures all the way around. The following 4 panoramas are roughly from the 4 cardinal compass points. The panoramas overlap a bit so one can follow them in a circle. The first panorama is looking toward the south where downtown San Diego can be seen.


The second panorama is looking toward the west toward the ocean which cannot be seen because of the haze. The water to the left of center is part of San Diego Bay. In the center is the roadway over the Cabrillo Bridge.


Continuing on is the view toward the north.


Finally is the view to the east. Things to note that will be covered it the rest of this blog post are to the left of center is a little bit of the Botanical Building, to the right of center is a little bit of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, in the center is a fountain, and in the lower right are the House of Charm and the Alcazar Garden.


This is a view from one of the arcaded passageways mentioned earlier. Just beyond the cars is the fountain though it did not cooperate and spout water when I snapped this picture.

One of the trees in Alcazar Garden was blooming nicely last spring. The garden was named because its design is patterned after the gardens of Alcazar Castle in Seville, Spain.

Looking in the other direction is what is now named the House of Charm. During the exposition it was the Fine Arts Building where paintings and other art was exhibited. After the expo ended it continued to be used as an art gallery until the art was moved to a new building which was built across the street in 1925. The new building was called the San Diego Museum of Art. The House of Charm currently houses the San Diego Museum of Art and the Mingei International Museum.

This is the afore mentioned fountain actually spouting water this time. The street under the arcaded passageways and continuing across the Cabrillo Bridge can also be seen.

The Botanical Building is the only known conservatory in the world built with no glass as it uses only wood lath. It also features a Lily Pond which is somewhat obscured by flowers in this photo.

This shows the lath construction as well as some of the larger plants.

Of course there are also lots of colorful plants and flowers. During the exposition visitors were wowed by tropical plants. Today the Botanical Building has over 2,100 plants on permanent display.

Money to build a music pavilion and purchase an organ for the exposition was donated by John D. Spreckles. The semi-circular pavilion has an ornate Italian-Renaissance design. In 1915, the Spreckels Organ had 48 ranks or 3,400 pipes distributed among five divisions. Size of pipes ranged from 32 feet down to small pipes that were approximately the size of a pencil. Over the years the organ has had a number of upgrades and the latest in 2014 brings the number of pipes up to 5,005.


For some more pictures and information on the California Building see our Balboa Park Spring Colors blog post.

More Information:

Panama–California Exposition Wikipedia article
Cabrillo Bridge Wikipedia article
History of the California Building by the San Diego History Center
Balboa Park Botanical Building article by the Tanglewood Conservatories
House of Charm Wikipedia article
Spreckels Organ Pavilion Wikipedia article
KPBS Public Television station’s San Diego Historic Places show did an eight part series on the 1915 Expo Centennial. The episodes can be watched on their website.

YouTube videos:

California Tower Carillon Chimes in Balboa Park, San Diego, California
Video with the California Tower chimes playing so you can decide if they really sound like bells.

Balboa Park’s Iconic California Tower Opens To Public After 80 Years
Shows the climb up the California Tower as well as other interesting things.

Behind-the-Scenes in the Spreckels Organ, Balboa Park
While the camera works leaves much to be desired the second half shows some of the pipes and the mechanisms for playing them.

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