May 14, 2018

Photo Essay: A Leap of Faith Despite Depression

When I started spending some real quality time in Balboa Park two years ago, it became clear that for all I'd seen, I'd still only scratched the surface.

Because while I learned a lot about the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-17, the park actually hosted two expositions in two decades' time—and that meant I'd have to head on down to the southern section of Balboa Park's central mesa, a plateau known as The Palisades, to investigate what remains of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935-36.

And you can't really talk about either expo independently, without mention of the other, as their histories are inextricably tied to one another.

Let me set the scene a bit: In 1933, Prohibition had been repealed, but the end of the Great Depression wouldn't come until 1939. In 1934, it had been 20 years since the last expo, and the temporary structures that had been built for it were slated to be torn down. But in a stunning about-face, those buildings were not only saved but restored and reused for yet another expo.

Given the economic conditions at the time, mounting such a large-scale ordeal was, perhaps, a foolish endeavor. But after the fact, once it proved successful, exposition president G. Aubrey Davidson called it an "achievement of faith, courage, and enthusiasm unparalleled in the history of similar enterprises."

Thankfully, seven million people attended. And the year this second expo opened coincided with the creation of the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's economic recovery plan under the auspice of the New Deal (1933-1937).

Of course, work didn't really start coming out of the U.S. government's "Work Relief" divisions until the California Pacific International Exposition was wrapping up—which makes the creation of the "Plaza de America" even more of an achievement.

And fortunately, although some of it has been lost or modified beyond recognition, there's still enough left there in the Palisades to give an inkling as to what this team of hopeless optimists managed to accomplish despite all odds, 80 years ago.

The layout of the Plaza de America was to show architectural progression from prehistoric to modern times...

...and so, the Palace of Electricity and Varied Industries became "a modern development of prehistoric American architecture," with a nod to the great civilizations of the Mayas and Aztecs.

Richard S. Requa, the master architect for the expo, considered the architecture of Mesoamerica the only style that was truly American.

Of course, that message has been lost as the palace is now used as a municipal gymnasium, interior gutted, exterior mural removed, vines no longer hanging.

The former Federal Building—a structure that had been built to be permanent, with concrete walls and steel roof trusses—is said to be pre-Columbian in design, even if that's not obvious when looking at its facade. The San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum occupied it until last year, when it exited to make way for the forthcoming Comic-Con museum (opening date TBD).

The former California State Building is now the San Diego Automotive Museum, and its former entrance plaza—once adorned by elaborate water features that were lit up at night—is now a parking lot. Perhaps its most distinctive feature, however, were the murals above the front entry that depicted the principal industries of the state (i.e. transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, and scenic beauty). Since the structures for this expo were thrown together in such a hurry, the construction crews and designer had to get a little creative when fabricating elements like exterior ornamentation—which was to at least "suggest permanency."

Using principles of set design, Hollywood artist Juan Larrinaga simulated tile using wallboard segments—just one of the many artistic feats he pulled off throughout the expo grounds. Although those original wooden murals have since been removed (and destroyed?), local preservationists have placed temporary placeholders to evoke the original look and are currently raising funds to replace them with permanent replicas in ceramic tile.

From Milton Sessions' scrapbook via Parker H. Jackson (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

The Ford Exposition Building never really fit the theme of architecture of the Americas, though its purpose was more to "exemplify the latest ideas in modern industrial architecture."

Certainly, it was representative of a certain modernity that felt downright futuristic, which is probably why it's so fitting that it's now the home of the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Since Ford needed a venue where it could showcase its vehicles as part of its sponsorship, the Ford Bowl was built directly adjacent, in a ravine that couldn't really be used for anything else, since it was too deep to fill or build over or across.

And it became not only a hub of automotive excitement but also a cultural center, thanks to Ford-sponsored performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Diego Symphony in 1935, which were heard across the country thanks to live radio broadcasts.

The amphitheater was always meant to be a permanent addition to the park, but when Ford pulled out of its title sponsorship after just one year, expo organizers had to figure out what to do with it.

And that's kind of the situation it's in right now. No show has been produced on its stage since 2010, and its 4273 seats sit empty.

It's a shame since this was Director of Architecture Requa's favorite of his contributions for the expo. He saw it as his attempt to extend the work of Bertram Goodhue from the 1915-1917 event. And the cultural impact of the concerts that were held there—even on a national level—was undeniable.

But, after the expo ended, it wasn't long before the U.S. entered World War II and the Navy seized Balboa Park for military use. (The U.S. Naval Hospital still stands in the southeastern quadrant of the park.) And by the late 1940s when the park was returned to the City of San Diego, Balboa Bowl (as it was known then) was all but forgotten.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, though, the concrete bowl venue hit its stride, mounting productions of Broadway musicals like Carousel and Oklahoma. This was also the time that the stage was being used by the San Diego Civic Light Orchestra, which moved there in 1950, left in 1965, and returned in 1973. And in the 1970s, what had become known as "Balboa Park Bowl" was rechristened Starlight Bowl (no relation to the outdoor venue in Burbank) in reference to its history with the "Light" Orchestra. But unfortunately, when the SDCLO folded in 2012, that spelled doom for the place the ensemble had called home on and off for so many years.

Throughout its history, no matter what the venue was called or which show graced its stage, planes departing from and landing at the nearby airport has always an issue—going all the way back to the days of Lindbergh Field (established 1928), which ultimately became today's San Diego International Airport. And while no amount of restoration will abate that noisy distraction when it occurs during a show, some people actually like the nuisance for its nostalgic value.

A non-profit organization, The Committee of One Hundred, has been working to preserve Balboa Park's architecture and gardens since 1967 and has assembled an incredible list of resources that address the many issues that the park has been and is currently facing. The committee is also leading the charge to get the Palisades area the renaissance it's due, so it can cease to be seen as Balboa Park's "ugly stepsister."

And part of that involves the formation of a splinter group, Save Starlight, whose mission is to bring the bowl back to life, reinvigorated and ready to serve the community once again.

Personally I hope someone figures out how to bring back some of that lost Mayan ornamentation and nighttime lighting schemes. I'd also really like to see the lost Firestone Singing Fountains in action.

Much of the information here came from the book Inside Lights on the Building of San Diego's Exposition: 1935 by Richard S. Requa AIA. To read it and get the story from the horse's mouth yourself, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The View from Above Balboa Park's Former Expo Grounds
Photo Essay: The World's Largest Outdoor Pipe Organ
Taking the Stairs to a Tower, a Terrace, a Dell and a Bowl in Hollywood

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