Balboa Park is a 1,200 acre (4.9 km²) urban cultural park in San Diego, California, United States named after the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Placed in reserve in 1835, it is one of the oldest sites in the United States dedicated to public recreational usage. Besides open areas and natural vegetation, it contains a variety of cultural attractions including museums, theaters, gardens, shops and restaurants as well as the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Balboa Park was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The park is managed and maintained by the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department.
There are a number of gardens located in the park. These include Alcazar Garden, Botanical Building, Cactus Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden, Marston House Garden, Palm Canyon and Zoro Garden.
Other attractions include the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, which includes the world's largest outdoor pipe organ (always free, plays every Sunday at 2:00); The Old Globe Theatre, a replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; a collection of "international cottages" (see the free shows during high season on Sundays at 2:00); the Botanical Building with its accompanying reflecting pool; the Starlight Bowl; and the largest tenant of the park, the Balboa Park Golf Complex with an 18-hole golf course and a 9-hole executive golf course, various archery ranges, chess, horseshoe, petanque, and lawn bowling clubs, as well as a disc golf course..
No further activity took place until 1845, when a survey was done by Henry D. Fitch to map the 47,000 acres (190 km²). The Mexican government would never get to use this land for anything due to the Mexican-American War, and in 1848 the city became property of the United States of America. In 1850, it became part of California with the creation of the state.
On February 15, 1868, a request was put forth to the city's Board of Trustees to take two 160 acre (0.6 km²) plots of land, and create a public park. This request was made by one of the trustees, E. W. Morse, who along with real estate developer Alonzo Horton had selected a site just northeast of the growing urban center of "New Town" (now downtown San Diego) for the nascent park's location.
Then in 1870, a new law was passed, an "act to insure the permanency of the park reservation." The bill stated that "these lands (lots by number) are to be held in trust forever by the municipal authorities of said city for the purpose of a park" (Christman 14). It was around this time that San Diego residents were acquiring a certain fondness for the park; this is illustrated by their strong desire to keep the park intact when in 1871, there was a documented conspiracy to disassemble and "grab" the park land (Christman 15). This conspiracy, political in nature, attempted to create a bill and speed it through the state legislature before anybody could do anything to stop it. The thwarting of this attempt was due largely in part to a San Diego resident who had somehow learned of the plan then immediately informed higher powers in Sacramento. The conspiracy was leaked to the press thereby exposing the city officials involved. Immediately, other San Diegan officials got together and collected signatures supporting the current existence of the park. Their plea was successful.
For the first few decades of its existence, "City Park" remained mostly open space. Numerous proposals, some altruistic, some profit-driven, were brought forward for the development and use of the land during this time, but no comprehensive plan for development was adopted.
Nevertheless, there was some building done. This included an orphanage and women's shelter (later burned down), a high school (San Diego High School) and several gardens maintained by various private groups. One of the most celebrated of these early usages was a nursery owned and maintained by local horticulturist and botanist Kate Sessions, who is often referred to as "the mother of Balboa Park." Although owned by Sessions, by agreement with the city the nursery was open to the public, and Sessions donated trees and plants to the city every year for its beautification. Sessions is responsible for bringing in many of the different varieties of exotic plants in the park. Her work was so progressive that she was in fact the first woman awarded the Meyer Medal for "foreign plant importation" given to her by the American Genetic Association.
Other developments from this time include two reservoirs, an animal pound and a gunpowder magazine in the area now known as Florida Canyon.
The earliest recreational developments in the park were in the "Golden Hill Park" area off 25th street. The National Register listed rustic stone fountain designed by architect Henry Lord Gay is the oldest surviving designed feature in the park. Other attractions in the area included a children's park (probably the first in San Diego), walking trails, and a redwood bird aviary.
Much of the park's look and feel today is due to the development done for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, set to open in 1915, and to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for vessels traveling north after passing through the canal. Planning began in 1909 and City Park was soon selected as the exposition site. The name Balboa Park was adopted in 1910. Groundbreaking began in 1911.
The head architect for the Exposition was New York architect Bertram Goodhue, previously known for his Gothic revival churches. For the fair Goodhue adopted a highly ornamented Spanish Colonial style, which proved influential in and around San Diego and elsewhere in the American southwest. Goodhue's associate architect was Carleton Winslow, who is solely credited with the lattice-work Botanical Building and others. Goodhue's team won out over local contender Irving Gill.
On December 31, 1914 The Panama-California Exposition opened. Balboa Park was crammed full of spectators. All of the guards, workers, and supervisors were dressed in Spanish and Mexican military uniforms, and the entire park was filled with different and foreign plants. Yellow and red were the themed colors of the event and they were everywhere. Over 40,000 poinsettia flowers were used, all of them in full bloom. The event seemed successful in attracting national attention. Even Pennsylvania's Liberty Bell made a brief three-day appearance. The attempt to put San Diego on the map had worked. The event was a success: over the next two years over 3.5 million visitors would attend and witness the hard-sought magnificence that was Balboa Park.
Some of the buildings built for the exposition still standing include: