By Katherine Hon
In 1914, City Park Superintendent John G. Morley was very busy overseeing development of Balboa Park for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. But he still envisioned the east side of Balboa Park as the site for active sports venues, and he set aside the northeast corner of the city park for recreation grounds.
Nearly 20 years later, as Morley was supervising development of the 1935-36 Exposition on the central mesa, he saw his vision for the long-neglected east mesa come true. On a bright New Year’s Day in 1933, a municipal swimming pool and clubhouse, tennis courts, baseball and softball fields and shuffle board courts were dedicated “to the people of San Diego for their use forever as an outstanding monument to their courage.”
Why did San Diegans need courage at that time? As in the rest of the country, the economic crisis of the Great Depression still deeply hindered construction and employment. To help provide unemployment relief, San Diego voters approved a $300,000 bond issue at a special election in March 1932. This would be about $4.3 million in today’s dollars. Recreation facilities for the east mesa consistent with the 1920s plan developed by John Nolen were to be constructed with some of those funds.
The swimming pool generated considerable excitement. It was the first public pool built by the city. Although the Mission Beach Plunge opened in 1925, it had been privately developed by John D. Spreckels. The new public pool measured 130 feet long by 65 feet wide. The pool and accompanying clubhouse were designed by architect H. Louis Bodmer, a Swiss immigrant who lived in North Park from 1928 until his death in 1982. He worked for William Templeton Johnson in 1926, and started his own firm in 1930. He was later involved with the design of buildings associated with the 1935-36 Exposition, including Spanish Village.
Opening day for the recreation center entertained thousands with drill teams, musical concerts, a beauty queen competition, diving exhibitions and lots of speeches. Of the 13 lovely ladies in the pageant, Alberta McKellop was chosen the most beautiful by the three judges.
That summer, the annual picnic sponsored by the North Park Business Men’s Club was held at the municipal pool, and more than 12,000 attended the daylong festival. Activities in North Park’s new backyard included a scramble for balloons carrying theatre tickets to the North Park Theatre, sack races, dances on the tennis courts, swimming races, diving exhibitions and another beauty queen competition, where the apparently quite popular Alberta McKellop was among the three winners.
John Morley served as park superintendent of all city parks from 1911 to 1938. In June 1934, the recreational area was appropriately named Morley Field in his honor. Years later, the pool itself was named for William “Bud” Kearns, who was director of recreation for the city from 1928 to 1948.
Want more North Park history? Go to Paras Newsstand at 3911 30th St. for Donald Covington’s book, “North Park: A San Diego Urban Village, 1896-1946,” published by the North Park Historical Society. Also available at Paras Newsstand (among other North Park stores including Pigment, Kaleidoscope, and North Park Hardware) is the North Park Historical Society’s latest book, “Images of America: San Diego’s North Park,” published by Arcadia Publishing Company in 2014. This book has more than 200 vintage photographs and tells the whole story of North Park from 1900 to now. Visit the North Park Historical Society website at NorthParkHistory.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
—Katherine Hon is secretary of the North Park Historical Society.