Panama–California Exposition

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For the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, see Panama–Pacific International Exposition.
Official Guide Book

The Panama–California Exposition was an exposition held in San Diego, California, between March 9, 1915, and January 1, 1917. The exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, and was meant to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the canal. The fair was held in San Diego's large urban Balboa Park.


There were arcades by major Exposition buildings, such as this decorated one on the United States Building

Real estate developer "Colonel" David Collier, at the time often referred to as San Diego's greatest asset, was made General Director of the exposition. He was responsible for selecting both the location in the city park and the Pueblo Revival and Mission Revival architectural styles.[1] Collier was tasked with steering the exposition in 'the proper direction,' ensuring that every decision made reflected his vision of what the exposition could accomplish. Collier once stated "The purpose of the Panama-California Exposition is to illustrate the progress and possibility of the human race, not for the exposition only, but for a permanent contribution to the world's progress".[2] With San Diego's population at the start of the exposition at around 74,000, the city received no federal support to host the Expo, because the U.S. government had decided to support the rival Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco instead.[3][4]

Spanish Colonial Revival architecture[edit]

Fair officials first sought architect John Galen Howard as their supervisory architect. With Howard unavailable, on January 27, 1911, they chose New York architect Bertram Goodhue in that role, also appointing Irving Gill to assist Goodhue. By September 1911 Gill had resigned and was replaced by Carleton Winslow of Goodhue's office, just as the original landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers had left and were replaced in their role by fair official Frank Allen.[1]

Goodhue and Winslow advocated a design that turned away from the more modest, indigenous, horizontally oriented Pueblo Revival and Mission Revival, towards a more ornate and urban Spanish Baroque. Contrasting with bare walls, rich Mexican and Spanish Churrigueresque decoration would be used, with influences from the Islamic and Persian styles in Moorish Revival architecture.

For American world's fairs, this was a novelty. The design was intentionally in contrast to most previous Eastern U.S. and European expositions, which had been done in neoclassical and Beaux-Arts styles, with large formal buildings around large symmetric spaces. Even the simultaneous Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco was largely, though not exclusively, in Beaux-Arts style.[5]

Goodhue had already experimented with Spanish Baroque in Havana, at the 1905 La Santisima Trinidad pro-cathedral, and the Hotel Colon in Panama. Some of his specific stylistic sources for San Diego are the Giralda Tower at the Seville Cathedral, the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Oaxaca.[6]

Goodhue personally designed the largest and most ornate building on the site, the California Building, with its historical iconography; he sketched two other buildings, provided Winslow and Allen with his photographs and drawings from examples in Spain and Mexico, and reviewed their developed designs.[1] The original ensemble of buildings featured various stylistic and period references. Taken together, they comprised something like a recapitulated history of Spanish colonial in North America, from Renaissance Europe sources, to Spanish colonial, to Mexican Baroque, to the vernacular styles adopted by the Franciscan missions up the California coast.[6]

This mix of influences at San Diego proved popular enough to earn its own name: Spanish Colonial Revival. The Exposition brought Spanish Colonial Revival into becoming California's "indigenous historical vernacular style", very popular in poured concrete through the 1920s, still used and reinterpreted in the present day. To some extent it was even adopted as a southwestern regional style, as seen at the Pima County Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, with a few minor examples in Phoenix.[7]

Goodhue moved on to other national projects, while Winslow stayed on in southern California, continued to produce his own variations of the style, at the Bishop's School in La Jolla and the 1926 Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. Winslow was also instrumental in persuading the city of Santa Barbara to adopt Spanish Colonial Revival as the officially mandated civic style after its 1925 earthquake. The major example from the rebuilding is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.[8]

The temporary installations, decoration, and landscapes of Balboa Park were created with some large spaces and numerous paths, small spaces, and courtyard Spanish gardens. The location was also moved from a small hillock to a larger and more open area, most of which was intended to be reclaimed by the park as gardens.[9]

Exposition site[edit]

Cabrillo bridge ends at West Gate

The groundbreaking ceremony for the site of the expo was held on July 19, 1911.[10] Cabrillo Canyon (formerly known as Pound Canyon) forms a deep separation between the exposition site and the park entrance from downtown San Diego. The elegant Cabrillo Bridge was built to span the canyon, and the appearance of its long horizontal stretch ending in a great upright pile of fantasy buildings would be the crux of the whole composition. This design composition and the bridge were designed to remain as a permanent focal point of the city, while many of the exhibit buildings were intended to be temporary.[11]

Upon arrival, the focus of the fair was the Plaza de California (California Quadrangle), an arcaded enclosure often containing Spanish dancers and singers, where both the approach bridge and El Prado terminate. The California State Building and the Fine Arts Building framed the plaza, which was surrounded on three sides by exhibition halls set behind an arcade on the lower story. Those three sides, following the heavy massiveness and crude simplicity of the California mission adobe style, were without ornamentation. This contrasted with the front facade of the California State Building, 'wild' with Churrigueresque complex lines of mouldings and dense ornamentation. Next to the frontispiece, at one corner of the dome, rose the 200 feet (61 m) tower of the California Building, which was echoed in the less prominent turrets of the Southern California counties and the Science and Education buildings. The style of the frontispiece was repeated around the fair.[9]

West Gate

There were three entrances to the Expo site, on the west, north, and east The East Gateway was approached by drive and trolley car winding up from the city through the southern portion of the Park. From the west, the long bridge's entrance was marked with blooming giant century plants and led straight to the dramatic West Gate (or City Gate), with the city's coat-of-arms at its crown. The archway was flanked by engaged Doric orders supporting an entablature, with figures symbolizing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans joining waters together, in commemoration of the opening of the Panama Canal. These figures were the work of Furio Piccirilli. While the west gateway was part of the Fine Arts Building, the east gateway was designed to be the formal entrance for the California State Building. The East or State Gateway carried the California state coat-of-arms over the arch. The spandrels over the arch were filled with glazed colored tile commemorating the 1769 arrival of Spain and the 1846 State Constitutional Convention at Monterey.[9]

Opening of the exposition[edit]

On December 31, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson ceremoniously pushed a button in Washington, D.C. to open the expo by turning on the power at the park.[12][13] Guns at the nearby Fort Rosecrans and on Navy ships in San Diego Bay also were fired to signal the opening.[13] The fair was decorated with over two million plants of 1,200 different types.[14]

Attendance was initially low for the first month. The average number of guests were 4,783 a day, which decreased to 4,360 by February.[15] However, in April 1916 it was announced that the expo had already resulted in a $40,000 profit for the first three months.[16] By May, the average attendance had increased to 5,800 and in July the total attendance had reached a million visitors.[17] At the end of 2015, total visitors reached nearly two million.[18]

Notable guests of the event include Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy, and former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt.[17][19][20] The attempt to "put San Diego on the map" was successful. The event's original 1915 run was so well-attended that the fair was extended through 1916 with assisted funding from Los Angeles.[21][18] Over the two years more than 3.7 million visitors were in attendance and a slight profit was earned over the total cost of organizing and hosting the expo.[22][23]

Features of the Exposition[edit]

The event had been successful in attracting national attention. Even Pennsylvania's Liberty Bell made a brief three-day appearance in November 1915.[21]

Permanent structures[edit]

Intended to be permanent were the Cabrillo Bridge, the domed-and-towered California State Building and the low-lying Fine Arts Building; the latter are now part of the National Register of Historic Places-listed California Quadrangle. The Botanical Building would protect heat-loving plants, while the Great Organ would assist open air concerts in its Auditorium.

At the opening of the exposition, it did not feature any buildings that were represented by foreign countries.[3] A handful of U.S states held exhibits: Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, and Utah.[3] In contrast, the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition featured exhibits from 23 countries and 20 U.S. states.[24]

Temporary buildings[edit]

Casa de Balboa, as rebuilt in the 1980s, and the El Prado Arcade

The architecture of the "temporary buildings" was recognized, as Goodhue described, as "being essentially of the fabric of a dream—not to endure but to produce a merely temporary effect. It should provide, after the fashion that stage scenery provides—illusion rather than reality."[9][19]

The "temporary buildings" were formally and informally set on either side of the wide, tree-lined central avenue. El Prado extended along the axis of the bridge and was lined with trees and streetlights, with the front of most buildings lined with covered arcades or portales. The Prado was intended to become the central path of a great and formally designed public garden. The fair's pathways, pools, and watercourses were supposed to remain while the cleared building sites would become garden. Goodhue emphasized that "only by thus razing all of the Temporary Buildings will San Diego enter upon the heritage that is rightfully hers".[9][25] However, many of the "temporary" buildings were retained and reused for the 1935 fair. Four of them were demolished and rebuilt in their original style toward the end of the 20th century; they are now called the House of Charm, the House of Hospitality, Casa del Prado and Casa de Balboa, and are included in the National Register of Historic Places-listed El Prado Complex.

William de Leftwich Dodge painted murals at the exposition. Peacock and pheasant wandered through the fair grounds.


One of the San Diego Electric Railway streetcars at 5th and Broadway in San Diego, CA (1915)

One of the main considerations for San Diego leaders concerning the Panama-California Exposition was transportation. In order to service the large number of people that were to attend the Exposition, John D. Spreckels and his San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERy) began work on streetcars that could handle the traffic of the event as well as the growing population of San Diego. The routes ultimately spanned from Ocean Beach, through Downtown, Mission Hills, Coronado, North Park, Golden Hill, and Kensington, even briefly serving as a link to the U.S.–Mexico border. Today, only three of the original twenty-four Class 1 streetcars remain in existence.[26]


"It is so beautiful that I wish to make an earnest plea...I hope that not only will you keep these buildings running for another year but you will keep these buildings of rare, phenomenal taste and beauty permanently."

Theodore Roosevelt, speaking at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion on July 27, 1915[17]

Speaking in July 1915, former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to San Diegans at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, and requested that San Diego keep the exhibition buildings permanently.[17]

The Exposition's permanent buildings, still standing, include:

La Laguna de Las Flores
  • Botanical Building, one of the largest lath-covered structures then in existence, contained a rare collection of tropical and semitropical plants. It is well back from the Prado behind the long pool, La Laguna de Las Flores.
  • Cabrillo Bridge (completed April 12, 1914)
  • California Bell Tower, completed 1914, 198 feet (60 m) feet tall to the top of the iron weathervane, which is in the form of a Spanish ship; one of the most recognizable sights in San Diego as "San Diego's Icon".[27]
  • California State Building, completed October 2, 1914, which now houses the San Diego Museum of Man. The design was inspired by the church of San Diego in Guanajuato, Mexico.[28]
  • Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi (south side of Fine Arts Building); now the Saint Francis Chapel operated by the Museum of Man.
  • Fine Arts Building (on south side of Plaza of California), now part of the Museum of Man.
Spreckels Organ pavilion

The fair left a permanent mark in San Diego in its development of Balboa Park. Up to that point, the park had been mainly open space. But with the landscaping and building done for the fair the park was permanently transformed and is now a major cultural center, housing many of San Diego's major museums. The exposition also led to the eventual establishment of the now world-famous San Diego Zoo in the park, which grew out of abandoned exotic animal exhibitions from the exposition.


The City of San Diego is planning a major observation of the 2015 centennial of the Exposition. The park institutions will have special programming for the centennial; specific programming within the park but outside the City leaseholds is under development.[4] The most ambitious proposal was one which would remove vehicle traffic and parking from the central Plaza de California and Plaza de Panama, using a newly constructed ramp off the Cabrillo Bridge to divert vehicles around the California Quadrangle to a parking structure behind the Organ Pavilion.[29] The proposal is controversial and has been delayed due to legal challenges.[30]

Science & Education Building
Theosophical Building
United States Building
Exposition name Later or alternate name Notes
Administration Building (1915) Gill Administration Building (completed March 1912) now holds offices of the San Diego Museum of Man
Commerce & Industries Building (1915) Canadian Building (1916) Palace of Better Housing (1935) renamed Electrical Building and lost in a 1978 arson fire, reconstructed as the Casa de Balboa
Foreign Arts Building (1915) altered and renamed House Of Hospitality[28] in 1935, reconstructed to be permanent in 1997
Varied Industries & Food Products Building (1915) Foreign & Domestic Building (1916) Palace of Food & Beverages (1935) 1971 reconstruction named Casa del Prado[28][31]
Montana State Building (1915) demolished
New Mexico State Building (1915) Palace of Education (1935) now used by Balboa Park Club
Home Economy Building (1915) Pan-Pacific Building (1916) Cafe of the World (1935) Timken Museum of Art built on site in 1965
Indian Arts Building (1915) Arts & Crafts Building (tentative) Russia & Brazil Building (1916) rebuilt to exacting specification in 1996 as the House of Charm[32]
San Joaquin Valley Building (1915) demolished
Science & Education Building (1915) Science of Man exhibit, Palace of Science & Photography (1935) demolished in 1964 (exhibit inspired creation of Museum of Man)
Southern California Counties Building (1915) Civic Auditorium burned down in 1925, replaced in 1933 with San Diego Natural History Museum[28]
Kansas State Building (1915) Theosophical Headquarters (1916) United Nations/House of Italy designed in the spirit of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside
Sacramento Valley Building (1915) United States Building (1916) replaced by San Diego Museum of Art in 1926
Washington State Building (1915) demolished


While originally opened as Panama–California Exposition, the fair was rechristened the Panama-California International Exposition on March 18, 1916. This was actually valid renaming, for while the fair originally had no international exhibitors, by 1916 it had exhibits from Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. Most came from the recently closed Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco some of whom were unable to return to Europe due to World War I which had been raging since 1914.

Later exposition and rebuilding[edit]

The California Pacific International Exposition at the same site in 1935 was so popular that some buildings were rebuilt to be made more permanent. Many buildings or reconstructed versions remain in use today, and are used by several museums and theatres in Balboa Park.

In the early 1960s destruction of a few of the buildings and replacement by modern, architecturally clashing buildings created an uproar in San Diego. A Committee of One Hundred was formed by citizens in 1967 to protect the park buildings.[33] They convinced the City Council to require new buildings to be built in Spanish Colonial Revival Style and worked with various government agencies to have the remaining buildings declared as a National Historic Landmark in 1978. In the late 1990s, the most deteriorated buildings and burned buildings were rebuilt, preserving the original style.

Exhibition schematic map[edit]

This is a schematic map of the Exposition as it appeared in its second year, 1916.

Day nursery Jardins de Eucalyptus Japanese & Formosa Exhibit North Gate
gardens United States Botanical Building Indian Village
Administration Building California State Building Science & Education Plaza de Panama Pan-Pacific La Laguna de Las Flores Foreign & Domestic Calle Cristobal Southern California Counties
Cabrillo Bridge West Gate Plaza de California East Gate El Prado, the central avenue
Fine Arts Building Montezuma gardens Russia & Brazil Plaza de Panama Foreign Arts Canadian Building Canyon Espanol Service buildings
Chapel of St. Francis thick bosque Palm Canyon Esplanade San Joaquin Valley Hospital
Via de los Estados Plaza de Los Estados Pepper Grove park
Great Organ
Theosophical Building
Washington Montana
New Mexico


  1. ^ a b c Amero, Richard A. (Winter 1990). "The Making of the Panama-California Exposition, 1909-1915" 38 (1). San Diego Historical Society. Archived from the original on June 28, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  2. ^ Christman (1985), p. 43
  3. ^ a b c Pourade (1965), p. 186
  4. ^ a b Showley, Roger (November 12, 2012). "California Tower may open to visitors". San Diego Union Tribune. Archived from the original on June 28, 2014. Retrieved June 28, 2014. 
  5. ^ James R. Smith. "San Francisco's Finest World's Fair". San Francisco City Guides. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
    "Hard Times, High Visions". Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley. 10 June 2009. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
    "People & Events: The Panama Pacific International Exposition". American Experience. WGBH Educational Foundation. 2002. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  6. ^ a b Americans and the California dream, 1850-1915 By Kevin Starr, page 405
  7. ^ "EZ Content Blueprint Early Twentieth Century Styles: The Spanish Colonial Revival". Louisiana Studies in Historic Preservation. State of Louisiana. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
    Gebhard, David (1967). "The Spanish Colonial Revival in Southern California (1895-1930)". Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (Society of Architectural Historians) 26 (2): 131–147. doi:10.2307/988417. Archived from the original on 9 July 2011. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
    Officer, James E. (1990). Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856. University of Arizona Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780816511525. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  8. ^ "Santa Barbara County Courthouse". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 19 April 2004. Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Winslow, Carleton Monroe (1916). THE ARCHITECTURE AND THE GARDENS of the SAN DIEGO EXPOSITION. San Francisco: Paul Elder and Company. 
  10. ^ Brandes, Ray (1981). San Diego: An Illustrated History. Los Angeles: Rosebud Books. p. 129. ISBN 0-86558-006-5. 
  11. ^ "History". Balboa Park Online Collaborative. Balboa Park. Retrieved 10 March 2013. 
    "History of the California Building in Balboa Park". San Diego History Center. Balboa Park Online Collaborative. Retrieved 10 March 2013. 
    Tom Grimm Michelle (7 October 1979). "Growing Years of Balboa Park". Los Angeles Times. 
    "A Good Era for Landmarks". San Diego Union Tribune. 6 September 1992. 
  12. ^ Christman (1985), p. 45
  13. ^ a b Pourade (1965), p. 183
  14. ^ Christman (1985), p. 46
  15. ^ Pourade (1965), p. 193
  16. ^ Pourade (1965), p. 195
  17. ^ a b c d Pourade (1965), p. 197
  18. ^ a b Pourade (1965), p. 199
  19. ^ a b Pourade (1965), p. 198
  20. ^ Pourade (1965), p. 194
  21. ^ a b Pourade (1965), p. 199
  22. ^ Showley (2000), p. 94
  23. ^ Pourade (1965), p. 218
  24. ^ Pourade (1965), p. 192
  25. ^ "Ground Plan Map San Diego Exposition". Pictorial Publishing Co. 1915. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  26. ^ Hurley, Morgan M. (June 8, 2012). "Restored historic streetcar showcased at Trolley Barn Park". San Diego Uptown News. Archived from the original on June 18, 2014. Retrieved June 18, 2014. 
  27. ^ "Balboa Park's California Tower - San Diego's Icon". Balboa Park. Retrieved 17 November 2012. 
  28. ^ a b c d Carolyn Pitts (July 19, 1977), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Balboa Park (PDF), National Park Service, retrieved 2009-06-22  and Accompanying 18 photos, undated PDF (6.37 MB)
  29. ^ Showley, Roger (August 31, 2010). "Plaza plan for Balboa Park unveiled". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 17 November 2012. 
  30. ^ Showley, Roger (October 19, 2012). "Balboa Park construction delayed to February". San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved 17 November 2012. 
  31. ^ "Casa del Prado". Balboa Park. The City of San Diego. Retrieved 2008-03-12. 
  32. ^ "Balboa Park Museums, Features, & Attractions". Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  33. ^ "About Us". Committee of One Hundred. Retrieved 17 November 2012. 
  • Christman, Florence (1985). The Romance of Balboa Park (4th ed.). San Diego: San Diego Historical Society. ISBN 0-918740-03-7. 
  • Pourade, Richard F. (1965). Gold in the Sun (1st ed.). San Diego: The Union-Tribune Publishing Company. ISBN 0-913938-04-1. 

Further reading[edit]

  • The Official Guide Book of the Panama California Exposition San Diego 1915
  • San Diego’s Balboa Park by David Marshall, AIA, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7385-4754-1
  • Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Past. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. ISBN 0-520-24364-1
  • The San Diego World's Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940 by Matthew F. Bokovoy, University of New Mexico Press, 2005. ISBN 0826336426

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 32°43′53″N 117°09′01″W / 32.7314618°N 117.1503925°W / 32.7314618; -117.1503925