Balboa Park San Diego


“The elements of the urban park represent part of the planners’ strategy for moral and social reform, so that today, as in the past, the citizen visiting a park is subject to an accumulated set of intended moral lessons.” Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design


cellist in archway balboa park san diegoThe Spreckels Organ Pavilion was built in San Diego’s Balboa Park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Heirs to the Spreckels Sugar fortune, John D. Spreckels and his brother Adolph, donated the organ to the city, along with the funds needed to build the Italian Renaissance-style pavilion to house the pipes. John Spreckels also agreed to pay for the services of an organist to entertain the crowds throughout the two-year duration of the Exposition. Since that time, San Diego has continuously employed a civic organist.

Currently holding that unique position (the last of its kind in America) is Dr. Carol Williams. A British-born musician and composer, Dr. Williams studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Yale University before getting her Doctorate in Musical Arts from the Manhattan School of Music. In addition to her concerts at Spreckels Pavilion throughout the year, Dr. Williams is Artist in Residence at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego and host of TourBus, a documentary series about pipe organs around the world.

For anyone who has ever played the drum solo of Iron Butterfly’s 1968 psychedelic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on a table top, we’d like to share this 2012 improvisation of the song, performed by Dr. Carol Williams at the Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park, accompanied by Kerry Bell on drums.

blue gown girl posing quinceanera photos balboa park san diego

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California Bell Tower Balboa ParkParks – national, state, municipal – may vary in size and shape and features, but they are our precious reserves of natural wonders, beauty, history and play. Swinging toward the clouds in an urban pocket park or being frightened by an equally frightened renegade bison in Yellowstone, spending time in a park may be idle play or it could be a communion with noble nature.

Balboa Park is one of the oldest of America’s urban parks and it is a grand, elegant dama. Lush palm trees and gigantic banyans, Spanish Colonial Revival architecture (a term that has its origin in Balboa Park), art, culture, entertainment, trails, formal gardens, urban forest, and El Prado — a promenade that is evocative of Madrid’s Buen Retiro Park yet quintessentially Californian — all define Balboa Park as a playground, a backdrop for once-in-a-lifetime memories, a museum bonanza, and a Shakepearean theater.

Two Expositions helped to transform Balboa Park from a field of wildflowers and brush, a neglected home to coyotes and rattlesnakes, into San Diego’s beloved park. The 1915 Panama-California Exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Ulysses S. Grant was its board president, former Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft spoke before the throngs (an estimated 3.7 million people attended the fair over a two-year period) and back at the White House President Woodrow Wilson flipped the switch to open the Exposition. (It was a strange time, long ago, when politicians worked together despite their differences.) Thomas Edison and Henry Ford attended. Fatty Arbuckle and Mable Normand made a silent Keystone movie about it. Architect Bertram Goodhue and associate Carleton Winslow designed the fair’s layout and created a new style of architecture that Teddy Roosevelt referred to as “buildings of rare phenomenal taste and beauty.” Many of the structures remain today including: the California Bell Tower, now the symbol of San Diego; the California State Building, St. Francis of Assisi Chapel, and the Fine Arts Building which together today comprise the Museum of Man; and, the wooden lath Botanical Building. The 1915 Exposition even made a slight profit.

Battered by the Great Depression, the world returned to Balboa Park for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. This time the numbers rose to 6.7 million attendees and, again, the Exposition turned a profit. An all-electric television set mystified the crowds – or at least those who could be drawn away from the Zoro Garden Nudist Colony, the fair’s most popular attraction. The Old Globe Theatre (a replica of Shakepeare’s Globe in London which was destroyed by fire in 1613) became a permanent addition to the park until it, too, burned to the ground in 1978. Like its British predecessor, the Old Globe was rebuilt, and it is now the centerpiece of a three-stage Tony Award-winning regional theater in Balboa Park.

Since the expositions, Balboa Park has taken some knocks and undergone a few nips and tucks – not so unusual for a dama who celebrated her 100th birthday last year. But on a beautiful Sunday in the park, with thousands of people strolling along El Prado or cradled in the their lovers’ arms between the roots of a banyan tree, it’s easy to see why the people still love her madly.

California, you never cease to amaze.

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images shared on pinterest

There’s always something new on Zippertravel’s Pinterest. This week you’ll find 110 images on our new board “Tile Story” inspired by the Balboa Park Museum of Man. Visit

And while you’re on our Pinterest page, browse through some of the other 189 terrific boards dedicated to travel, architecture, fashion, politics, and design, along with some original photography by Elizabeth and Steven. You don’t have to be a Pinterest member to view Zippertravel’s boards, but if you enjoy pinning you can do so by clicking on the button in the upper left hand corner of this page or selecting the Pinterest icon below. It’s just that easy.

Balboa Park closer