A metal spiral staircase signaled our final climb to the top. Outside was a spacious observation deck with four wrought iron balconies offering views in every direction. Each balcony created a scene all its own, like pressing the lever of an old ViewMaster toy. In one direction, gondolas from the San Diego Zoo sky ride glided over the trees. In another, the city skyline stretched out to the bay. A third revealed festive round tables with bright purple cloths and white dinner plates in the courtyard of the Old Globe Theatre. And my favorite balcony view – the dome, in all its up-close, brightly-tiled splendor.
San Diego’s Balboa Park: Soaking Up Spanish Architecture & Climbing California Tower
It was a tale of dueling expos: Two California cities – San Diego and San Francisco – vying to host a world’s fair, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco won the rights to host the event, but San Diego refused to give up the idea and created an exposition of its own called the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The result was Balboa Park, a permanent collection of exquisite Spanish Colonial architecture and beautifully themed gardens that now includes 17 museums, performing arts venues and the San Diego Zoo.
The centerpiece of the exposition was the California Tower, a 200-foot-tall, intricately detailed structure that is home to the park’s Museum of Man. Closed to the public for eighty years, the tower opened for tours in 2015. Herb and I had booked tickets for a recent Saturday morning and arrived a couple of hours early to explore the park. For our family, Balboa Park has always carried with it a specific destination – the zoo, the IMAX theater, a museum exhibit – but we had never spent a day simply wandering.
We began our walk at the Botanical Building and Lily Pond. Both were designed for the 1915 Expo, the Lily Pond as a reflecting pool and the Botanical Building as one of the largest lath structures in the world.
Next we passed the Casa del Prado and Casa del Prado theatre, reconstructions of buildings from the 1915 Expo, where San Diego’s Civic Youth Ballet and Junior Theatre perform.
As we walked, I noticed the phrase Ordem e Progresso inscribed at the top of a building. I later learned that “Order and Progress” was the theme for the Expo, and I loved how this writer described its utopian dream:
“The exposition builders fashioned a permanent utopian construct that still shapes the cultural values of visitors to Balboa Park. The directors summed up the exact meaning of their bequest – and the cumulative legacy of the exposition movement as a whole – in a short inscription high on the walls of the permanent four buildings: ‘Ordem e Progresso.’”
~Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s A Fair
A circular fountain anchors the section of Balboa Park that houses two of its science buildings. The San Diego Natural History Museum, founded in 1874, is Southern California’s oldest scientific institution. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center features more than one hundred interactive exhibits as well as the IMAX Dome Theater.
We walked through another part of the park where the pavement shifted to colorful tile blocks. The Spanish Village Art Center, built in 1935 for another world’s fair – the second California Pacific International Exposition – was designed to depict a charming village in Spain. It later became an art center, where sculptors, painters, jewelry designers, photographers and other specialty artists maintain their studios.
With our tower tour approaching, we headed to the Museum of Man, a magnificent building decorated with intricate carvings, a stunning tiled dome and that intriguing tower.
We joined a group of ten other tower climbers and made our way to the second floor, where our guides led us to a staircase that we were told had been hidden from the public for many decades. With one guide leading the way and another at the back of the group, we climbed seven flights of stairs, stopping briefly at each landing to peek through narrow windows and learn a bit of tower history. On one level, we passed the Symphonic Carillon, a 100-bell electronic keyboard that plays the chimes heard throughout the park. Daily carillon concerts – popular songs and themed music recorded by the park’s “carillonneur” – are broadcast over the tower speakers at noon. There is even a suggestion box for visitors to leave their requests.
After the tour, we walked through the Alcazar Garden before stopping for lunch at The Prado, a charming restaurant and patio in the House of Hospitality.
Our last stop of the day was the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. The lavishly adorned concert venue was part of the original 1915 Expo, and with more than 5,000 pipes, it holds the title of largest outdoor pipe organ in the world. Along the way, we passed the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden, which began as a teahouse for the 1915 Expo.
It’s easy to get lost in the loveliness of Balboa Park. Leafy pathways, buildings festooned with ornate designs and boulevards lined with palm trees and flowering shrubs create the feeling that you’ve traveled to an elegant Spanish city from long ago. We headed back to our car, crossing an inviting, tree-decked footbridge, and were just about ready to drive away when we heard John Lennon’s Imagine ringing from the carillon. It was the concert our guide had told us about, an unexpected treat and wonderful way to end our visit.
Herb scrambled for the video on his cell phone and captured the moment. It would have been wonderful to have set up the shot with my Nikon DSLR, zooming in on the tower instead of the parking lot. But I kind of like the imperfection of this little video. It reflects the spontaneity of the moment, how we happen upon things in our travels that surprise us and make us pause. It’s a sweet sound I will remember for a very long time.