By Michael Good | HouseCalls
100 years ago some scrappy San Diegans created a city of the imagination in Balboa Park
The Panama-California Exposition began with a bang, nearly collapsed in a fit of whimpering, then found its courage and loudly carried on, successful beyond all reasonable expectations. The 27-month party began at midnight on Dec. 31, 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson touched a telegraph key and set off a barrage of fireworks and electric lights on the darkened Prado, from 2,300 miles away.
Attendance in the first week hit 100,000 (in a city with a population half that). Then the whimpering began. For the rest of the month, attendance averaged only 27,000 per week. Rumors began to spread that the Expo was about to close.
The organizers fought back — and not for the first time. They’d been struggling to get this thing off the ground since 1909. They called out the cavalry —literally — sending 16 platoons on horseback parading up Sixth Avenue. For Chinese New Year, they summoned a dragon — a 300-foot-tall mechanical monster with smoke pouring from its mouth — and sent it careening down “The Isthmus,” the Expo’s fun zone. Neighboring states pitched in. For George Washington’s birthday, the state of Washington held a potlatch in its Expo building, giving away apples and apple cider. The Women’s Board got involved and sponsored a dance in the Plaza de Panama.
Apparently, these enticements worked. February was not a complete disaster, with attendance of 133,162. In March, the figure rose to 153,042. But more important, the Exposition turned a profit of $24,467.97. From the first month debacle, the organizers learned an important lesson — that automobile race they staged in Point Loma in January, the one that drew 50,000 spectators? Probably not a good idea when you’re putting on an Expo on the other side of town.
This confusion of goals and profusion of interests bedeviled the Expo and its organizers. Were they raising money? Raising awareness? Promoting industry? Promoting the Expo backers and boosters, many of whom, like Point Loma real estate investor D.C. Collier, had vested interests? Or were they just trying to show the world a good time?
This scrappy naiveté was built into the Expo’s DNA, beginning with the Chamber of Commerce meeting that launched the campaign to bring a World’s Fair to San Diego. Among the movers and shakers assembled, no one thought to inform the mayor, who was traveling and learned about it after the fact (then enthusiastically jumped on board).
With parents like these, no wonder the Expo grew up a bit schizophrenic: On a hill above the little border town there stood a Dream City, a paean to higher culture and higher ideals. Along the streetcar tracks behind this noble enterprise there lurked the Prado’s evil twin, the fun zone, that tribute to the Depravity of Man. There was entertainment for the whole family on The Isthmus, especially if dad just got out of prison — gambling, opium smoking, mock naval battles, stuntmen on bicycles, actors making movies, roller coasters, Ferris wheels, alligators, a volcano and an aviatrix doing loop-the-loops while dropping rose petals from 1,500 feet. It was the kind of place you could get your baby tattooed.
The doings on the Prado were perhaps just as craven, but with better manners. The industrial and cultural exhibits trumpeted the relentless march of technology that would someday transform the lives of all Californians — in a romantic garden setting, no less, surrounded by fantastical castle-like architecture. These edifying and educational exhibits included a cow and milkmaid made of butter, a plantation of laborers from Ceylon harvesting tea (sponsored by Lipton), a demonstration of a “gasifier” from the Moreland Truck company, vacuum cleaners and stoves, and a painting of a cow so real it defied the senses.
You could watch bread being baked, food being packed (by machines, what a novelty!) and water being pumped into an orchard of exotic fruit trees (oranges!), sponsored by International Harvester. (Even the dirt had an underwriter.)
Attendance grew during the summer, and the year ended much as it began, with a bang. The organizers brought out the cavalry again, and the U.S. Marines to boot. Admission was free at the concessions on The Isthmus, and there were follies girls at the Café Cristobal and Asian dancers, too. Finally, at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, 1915, there was a fusillade of aerial bombs and noisemakers. And with that, it was over.
Or was it? The organizers sat down and counted the receipts. In all, there had been 2,050,030 admissions by ticket or passes in 1915. Naturally, they thought, “Why stop now?” They renamed and reconfigured the Exposition — it now was the Panama-California International Exposition — borrowing exhibits from the now-closed San Francisco World’s Fair, and remodeling and rebranding the buildings to reflect their new cosmopolitan focus.
It might have gone on forever if World War I hadn’t gotten in the way. On April 5, 1917, the U.S. entered the war, and Expo activities came to a sudden halt. Local booster D.C. Collier, who’d fought tirelessly for the Expo, now went to Washington, D.C. to give it away, offering the Expo buildings to the federal government for use as a boot camp. The Dream City had become just another military facility, a collection of cavernous buildings converted into a hospital, barracks, and training center. There was still entertainment to be had on the Prado, but it was presented by the USO.
Considering its unconventional history, it should come as no surprise that the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-California Exposition has had its own fits and starts, lows and highs, grandiose plans and pedestrian realities. The celebrations, such as they are, are now underway at many of Balboa Park’s museums. SOHO, Save Our Heritage Organisation, has four Expo exhibits up and running, including one touching on the architects and designers who shaped the Exposition’s buildings and landscape.
“Balboa Park Exposition Designers 1915-1935,” which is on display in a couple upstairs bedrooms and a hall at the Marston House, keeps clear of controversy, of which there was plenty — we’re talking about architects and artists, after all. What it does offer is insight into the unsung designers, artists and artisans who actually made the buildings at the center of Balboa Park, such as Clarence Samuel Stein, who produced the site plan for the California Quadrangle (not Advisory Architect Bertram Goodhue, who gets much of the Expo design credit).
The exhibit and accompanying book also uncover the story of the sculptors responsible for the Expo’s distinctive plaster detailing. Fred C. Schmohl did most of the plaster design work along the Prado. His son Henry supervised the crew of 26 artists. The elder Schmohl worked on expositions for Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo, Charleston, St. Louis, Portland, Jamestown, Seattle and San Francisco. Who were the guys who built the Expo? They were likely something like Schmohl. He was an immigrant (from Germany), he followed the expos around the country for decades, and when he settled down, he did so in Hollywood, working for Paramount Studios.
“Many [visitors] will know the name of Bertram Goodhue or Richard Requa,” says Alana Coons, SOHO’s education and communications director. “But it took a team of designers, artisans, and landscape professionals to pull off something as monumental as the Panama-California Exposition. We hope their stories will help people understand how rare and utterly irreplaceable Balboa Park is, so they will stand by her side the next time she needs help.”
“Balboa Park Exposition Designers 1915-1935: The Making of the Dream City” runs through November at the Marston House on Seventh Avenue. Admission is included with the price of the home tour.
—Contact Michael Good at firstname.lastname@example.org.