The Great Green…
San Diego's Balboa Park is the city's playground
By ERIC NOLAND Los Angeles Daily News
It was slapped together for a lark, constructed of cheap lath and chicken wire, with plaster slopped on. It was never intended to last more than a year or so.
But the years slipped past -- 85 of them, to be precise. The cluster of ornate Spanish Colonial Revival buildings at the heart of San Diego's Balboa Park came to grow on the city and its inhabitants. And now it has gained a distinct sense of permanence -- refurbished, retrofitted and irretrievably here to stay.
The complex is the soul of a sprawling, 1,200-acre urban park just northeast of downtown, and has proven to be a powerful lure for residents and visitors. Amid its grounds, you'll find a cavernous organ pavilion, a vintage merry-go-round, more than a dozen museums, a botanical garden in an enormous redwood cage, a stylish new restaurant and an open-air theater partial to (and fiercely faithful to) the works of Shake speare.
In most cities, this would probably be more than enough to reel in the tourists. But Balboa Park has other, more-subtle attributes.
For a park in the middle of a metropolis, it is remarkably soothing. There seem to be fountains everywhere -- spectacular ones that send gushers 60 feet into the air, simple ones that gurgle quietly in the middle of an out-of-the-way garden or plaza. The Spanish architecture, meanwhile, features broad, shady arcades along the fronts of buildings -- ideal for casual strolling.
People come for the museum exhibits, organ concerts, perhaps a patio lunch, but you also notice a great number of visitors setting up lawn chairs or spreading a blanket beneath a shady tree for no particular purpose. They seem content to sit, do nothing, perhaps read or nap, and simply savor the place.
And why not? It is a park of postcard images. This close to San Diego Bay (a little more than a mile, as the gull flies), the sky tends to be bright blue after the morning marine layer lifts, often accented with delicate wisps of clouds.
Pause during a visit, and gaze off in any direction; you're likely to see sandcastle-like towers jutting out of a leafy canopy of eucalyptus trees, set off by that sky. Or a fountain framed by a dramatic archway. The clock chimes in the venerable California Tower sound the quarter hours, and sometimes gong out a hymn.
"In my job, I'm always looking for glitches or something that's not right," said city park Ranger Kim Duclo, a 37-year resident of San Diego, "but every once in a while, you stop for a moment and look at it with fresh eyes and realize what a spectacularly beautiful place it is. Especially very early in the morning, or on a walk down the prado late, late at night, I find that it's still magical for me."
Balboa Park was established in 1868, but in arid, pre-aqueduct California, it was a park in name only. Horticulturist Kate O. Sessions began planting trees on the parched expanse just before the turn of the century. Then came the event that would, quite unintentionally, establish its identity.
In 1915, local businessmen chose Balboa Park as the site for the Panama-California Exposition, an event to celebrate the completion of a canal that would have a profound impact on the commerce of this state. Several exhibit halls were thrown up, but only a couple of the structures were intended to be permanent.
Afterward, before the temporary buildings could be torn down, the U.S. military, in need of some work space (there was a war on), moved in, then didn't seem to be in any rush to leave. And the city started getting used to the look of the place.
In 1935, San Diego decided to hold another expo in the park. Some of the existing buildings were refurbished. A number of others -- more-permanent this time -- were added.
Finally, in recent years, a systematic project was undertaken to remake the remaining Hollywood-set-like structures into something more lasting. Builders, while being true to the Spanish Colonial Revival design, in some cases opted for fiberglass rather than constructing imposing edifices of concrete or adobe. The ornate facades were assembled like jigsaw puzzles, such that if you approach an impressive-looking pillar at the front of the Casa de Balboa and rap on it with your knuckles, you might be startled to find that it rings hollow. Given the history of the complex, though, it seems strangely fitting.
One of the more-compelling aspects of Balboa Park is the compactness of its central gathering place. In most cities (Los Angeles included), museums, gardens, cultural sites and performance venues are scattered all over town. Here, a great number of these are clustered in an area about a half-mile square.
The drawbacks of the park might be predictable for a place mapped out at a time when a transcontinental phone call was big news. There is a rather serious shortage of rest rooms, such that chemical toilets dot the landscape like sentries. And the few parking areas can quickly get overwhelmed, particularly on weekends. (The San Diego Zoo abuts the central complex to the north and can put quite a squeeze on parking spaces).
There is a free tram, however, that operates from parking lots at the south end of the park (intersection of Park Boulevard and President's Way, convenient to both the I-5 and 163 freeways).
Free, one-hour tours of the park's heart, led by city park rangers, are offered at 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays (they meet at the visitors center in the House of Hospitality). If you're fortunate enough to draw Duclo as your guide, you'll be treated to architectural and horticultural information richly interlaced with humor, as well as a few playful tales about the park's quirky history.
It's also fun to explore independently. The Lily Pond, which stretches out between the birdcage-like Botanical Building and the House of Hospitality, has a lively history. Over the years, it has been home to various creatures, some introduced to the pond (turtles, koi fish), some of which found it naturally (migrating mallard ducks that decided they no longer needed to migrate).
Duclo explained that two great blue herons used to perch high atop the Botanical Building as baby ducks scampered around the edges of the pool -- "almost always," he said, "when several groups of school girls would be here eating their lunches." The herons would occasionally swoop down on the scene for lunches of koi or duckling, sometimes not making a clean grab, an event that would trigger a wave of squealing horror among the visitors. Homes have since been found for the pond's various critters.
The Spreckels Organ Pavilion is another park oddity. It and its massive pipe organ -- the largest such outdoor organ in the world -- were donated to Balboa Park by sugar magnates John D. and Adolph Spreckels at the start of the 1915 expo, on one condition: that a free public organ concert be held every Sunday in perpetuity.
It may have played well in the days before CDs, electric guitars and John Williams, but it was clear on a recent visit that French symphonic music blasted through the instrument's 4,518 pipes is a decidedly acquired taste. It seemed a lot of visitors sat and listened for only a few minutes before slipping out en route to another attraction. At least civic organist Robert Plimpton revealed the impressive organ in all its glory -- even drowning out jumbo jets on approach to nearby San Diego International Airport.
Another throwback feature of the park is the carousel, a 1910 relic that retains its original, hand-carved menagerie and a calliope that belts out military band music. It even allows riders on the outside row of animals to grab for the brass ring, which extends from an overhanging arm; if you snatch it, you get to ride again, free. The grounds of the park are lush, having been planted with thousands of trees and shrubs. The Parker Rose Garden is worth a visit, particularly in spring and summer, as it boasts 2,406 rose bushes of 190 varieties. Not surprisingly, it is a popular site for weddings.
The fountain in the Plaza de Balboa is also impressive, and on blistering days attracts a lot of little ones in bathing suits. There seems to be no definable pattern to the fountain -- until you learn that the height of its spout is governed by a wind sensor; it will soar to 60 feet in dead calm.
It doesn't take long to work up an appetite in a park such as this, and the culinary choices cover a wide range. Ethnic food is served each Sunday at the International Cottages, with a different country featured every week (Ecuadorean empanadas, anyone?). Hot-dog stands at various points in the park can provide quick snacks. For finer dining, it's hard to beat The Prado, which opened early this year in a wing of the House of Hospitality. Its offerings are described as Latin-Italian fusion -- skirt-steak tacos and crab quesadillas alongside panini sandwiches and ziti with roasted red peppers.
One of The Prado's noteworthy features is its variety of seating areas. You can dine indoors, or on a kind of sun porch, or beneath an umbrella or arbor on an outdoor patio. Or, when they're busy (and they often have a waiting list at lunch), it's a snap to make a light meal of appetizers and sandwiches in the airy bar.
The restaurant is an excellent option for people attending an evening play at the Old Globe Theatre, steps away across the Plaza de Panama. But heed this warning: If you've allowed plenty of time for dinner before the play, don't inform the server of your evening's plans.
Our waitress thought she'd do us a big favor by turning in our main-course order early. We were not two bites into an elaborate platter of bruschetta, barely one sip into our bottle of Seghesio pinot noir, when the entrees suddenly arrived. It was 6:50 p.m., and curtain wasn't until 8.
It proved to be a considerable disappointment, the entrees getting cold as we tried to linger over the bruschetta, the olive tapanade utterly overpowering a steamed seabass and even a pork prime rib when we tried to eat both courses simultaneously.
This might be a recurrent issue at the restaurant. The next day, at lunch in the bar, our main courses were delivered seconds after the soup arrived. But in three visits to The Prado over as many days, the food, drink and setting -- particularly the garden-rimmed patio -- were found to be exceptional.
As a Sunday evening fell, the show went on at the Old Globe. There are three stages here, but the open-air festival theater is particularly inviting in the warmth of summer.
The theater is intimate (612 seats) and simple, with the stage-light rigging suspended from rough, telephone-pole-like timbers.
The proximity of the airport and the wild animals of the adjacent zoo can introduce sounds wholly incongruous with ancient Greece, but the experience is nonetheless memorable, as the dark silhouettes of towering eucalyptus trees frame the stage and the cool ocean air settles in.
The boosters of the Panama-California Exposition may not have envisioned this kind of ambience -- much less the permanence and popularity of Balboa Park's central complex -- when they set about putting on a simple fair 85 years ago. But they obviously picked the site well.
And once the buildings, the walkways, the fountains and the gardens went in, San Diego and its visitors were simply in no hurry to let go.