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.

Botanical Building & Lily Pond

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.

Balboa Park Botanical Building.
Balboa Park Lily Pond - the modern postcard
The lovely reflective lily pond.
Looking through the columns at the edge of the lily pond.
I loved this bicycle stand in front of the Botanical Building.

Casa del Prado

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.

Casa del Prado.
Column detail of the Casa del Prado.

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

Ordem e Progressor, Balboa Park’s founding theme.

History & Science

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.

The Bea Evenson Fountain.
San Diego Natural History Museum.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

Spanish Village Art Center

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.

Spanish Village Art Center entrance.
Artists’ studios line the courtyard at the Spanish Village Art Center.
This whimsical elephant topiary outside the Spanish Village Art Center points the way to the San Diego Zoo. A 1910 carousel and miniature antique train ride are also nearby.

The Museum of Man

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.

California Tower and the Museum of Man Dome.
San Diego Museum of Man and California Tower.
The Museum of Man entrance and ornate façade.
Eureka! California’s state motto is inscribed beneath a window on one side of the Dome.

Climbing California 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.

California Tower Donor Staircase - the modern postcard
Staircases are imprinted with the names of donors who supported the California Tower renovation project.
The Carillon Suggestion Box for leaving a favorite song request.

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.

Final climb to the observation deck.

Views from the Top

One of four balconies offering views from the Tower.
Looking out over the San Diego skyline.
Peeking in on preparations for an event at the Old Globe Theatre.
The San Diego Museum of Art (left), Timken Museum of Art (right) and the rooftop of the Botanical Building.
Top of the dome.
Such a vibrant and happy design!
This staircase, which is closed to the public, leads to higher Tower floors.

The Prado

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.

The Alcazar Garden outside the Mingei International Museum is named after the Alcazar Gardens in Seville, Spain.
The House of Hospitality, home to the Balboa Park Visitors Center and The Prado restaurant.
On the patio with The Prado’s signature hummus and flatbread crisps complimentary appetizer.
View from our table.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion

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.

Entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden.
Free Sunday concerts have been held at Spreckels Organ Pavilion since 1917.
I love how the columns at the end of the pavilion create a frame for the lamppost.

A Parting Surprise

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.

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