I think most of the towers I've ever climbed have been lighthouses, clock towers, or cathedrals. Sure, I've visited observation decks on skyscrapers like LA's City Hall, the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, Windows on the World, and Baltimore's World Trade Center, but I don't recall ever having climbed a tower that was just...a tower.
I've stood at the bottom of Coit Tower in San Francisco, the Old Baltimore Shot Tower, Seattle's Space Needle, Toronto's CN Tower, Hollywood's High Tower, and Bowman's Hill Tower in New Hope, Pennsylvania, but for whatever reasons of time, place, or money, I haven't gone up in any one of them.
Of course, the ultimate tower for climbing would be the Space Age, blinking towers of the New York State Pavilion and Tent of Tomorrow from the 1964/65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
So last year when I heard that the California Tower from the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17 was reopening to visitors after being closed for 80 years, I thought, Eureka!
I'm ashamed to say that although I'd been to Balboa Park twice before, I had never heard of the Panama-California Expo and had no clue that Balboa Park shares a similar origin story with Flushing Meadows. Both were planned with the event in mind. Both events were similarly focused on the theme of progress: "To Show What Will Be by What Has Been" and "Man's Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe," respectively. And finally, for each event, structures were built that were meant to be temporary and subsequently torn down.
And this is where their stories diverge, because Balboa Park became more popular than ever, the crown jewel of San Diego. The Expo's architecture (primarily Spanish Colonial) was so beloved that the temporary structures (like the Casa de Balboa and Casa del Prado, made cheaply out of chicken wire and other flimsy materials) were reinforced and kept, rather than being torn down—which is what happened in Queens. A century and two more expos later, Balboa Park still thrives, while Flushing Meadows has largely been abandoned and forgotten in just 50 years since the fair.
San Diego originally wanted to host a World's Fair—but when the city was deemed "too small" for such a large, international public exhibition, they decided to put on an official one, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, first used in late 1914. The resulting Panama-California Exposition gave rise to the baroque California Building and the California Tower. Always intended to be a permanent fixture of Balboa Park even after the expo was over, it became a centerpiece of the expo, and it's now a centerpiece of the park.
From its somewhat neo-Gothic facade (designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, of LA's Central Library fame), ornamented with statuary and gargoyle-like faces (all made out of concrete poured into molds), it looks like a church—but it's actually a non-denominational "hall of fame" of prominent historical figures like Serra, Cabrillo, Portola, and two kings of Spain. In fact, it's never served as a church—although it did briefly serve as a hospital for the Navy and double as Xanadu in Citizen Kane.
No, this place doesn't focus on heavenly creatures, but rather on the study of earthly humans and their societies, in its current iteration as the San Diego Museum of Man. Its permanent collection includes mummified human remains.
But from that 180-foot tower (198 feet above the ground), I wanted to see the California Building's 60-foot dome, which is inscribed with the biblical phrase Terram Frumenti Hordei, ac Vinarum, in qua Ficus et Malogranata et Oliveta Nascuntur, Terram Olei ac Mellis ("A land of wheat and barley and vines…a land of live trees and honey").
I wanted to see the rest of Balboa Park—and beyond—from that tower.
And so, I climbed 125 narrow and sometimes harrowing steps to concrete block observation deck on the seventh floor, which is as far as visitors can go these days (since the upper two floors are not currently up to code).
Up there, past the dome, you can get a good view of the Old Globe (built for The 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition—but more on that later).
The dome's tiled design was inspired by the Church of Santa Prisca y San Sebastian in Taxco—a distinctly Mexican dash of color on an otherwise gray edifice. The tiles were fired locally by California China Products Company, based in nearby National City.
The tower feels like a belfry, but actually no music ever came from it until 1947. Now, it's got a 100-bell carillon operated by a keyboard located on one of the lower levels of the tower. Speakers mounted up at the top of the tower broadcast Westminster chimes every quarter hour and a series of instrumental songs every day at noon. (The carilloneur even takes requests.)
The California Building and Tower were originally part of the California Quadrangle (Plaza de California) of the Expo, along with Evernham Hall and St. Francis Chapel of the Fine Arts Building across the street (and now taken over by the museum).
They provided a grand entrance to the Expo for pedestrians crossing the Cabrillo Bridge, a concrete and redwood walkway specifically built for it.
The Cabrillo Bridge was the first multiple-arched cantilevered bridge of its kind in California. Now open to cars as "El Prado," it provides one of several entrances to Balboa Park. Having survived three fires (one arson in 2004), it's been designated a civil engineering landmark.
While it once traversed a creek (which park officials dubbed a "lagoon"), San Diego just didn't have enough water to keep it going—and now, Cabrillo Bridge crosses over the Cabrillo Freeway (SR-163), built on the floor of Cabrillo Canyon and completed in 1948.
Circa 1915 (Image courtesy of The Commitee of One Hundred)
At some point, I've got to go back to explore the grounds of the Great Depression-era California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-6, so stay tuned for more dispatches from Balboa Park and San Diego.
Photo Essay: Taking a Spin Into the Last Century in Balboa Park
Photo Essay: An Inn for Presidents, Padres, and Patron Saints
Falling In Queens