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Exposition Fosters Confusion About Balboa Park History

The 100th anniversary of Balboa Park is coming up in 2015. Or is it? Turns out the San Diego press corps has been getting it wrong about the pending centennial and the 1915 Exposition.

— The 100th anniversary of Balboa Park is coming up in 2015. Or is it?

San Diego press corps has been jumping to erroneous conclusions about the pending centennial. In fact, KPBS found itself on the receiving end of a rebuke, delivered in an email from a member of the Horticultural Committee of the Friends of Balboa Park.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Nancy Carol Carter is a member of the Friends of Balboa Park and an amateur historian.

“Reporters for several San Diego news sources have been calling 2015 the ‘Centennial of Balboa Park’ or the park's 100th birthday. I was dismayed to hear this same error on KPBS recently.”

The note was signed, Nancy Carol Carter.

I met her alongside the park’s famous lily pond, where she spoke in measured tones and gave us some consolation that the error was widespread.

“I’ve seen this in newspaper stories, on TV and on the radio,” she said.

A web search did reveal similar gaffs, including a Fox TV interview of City Council president Todd Gloria, in which the female anchor cheerfully proclaimed that San Diego was “preparing for the big, 2015 centennial celebration of Balboa Park!”

But if that was wrong, what is right?

“Balboa Park was actually founded in 1868,” said Carter. “So it has 47 years of history before the exposition.”

During those 47 years it wasn’t called Balboa Park. It was called City Park. It had 1,400 acres and not much else. There was an ammunition dump. There was a pound for stray animals.

“They had a ‘pest house,’ where they isolated people with small pox and other diseases like that,” said Michael Kelly, president of Balboa Park’s Committee of 100. “And during a small pox epidemic there were about a dozen people there.”

So when did the Balboa Park we know begin? The Prado, the museums, the Spanish architecture… it dates not from the founding of the park, but from the 1915 Exposition.

The 1915 exposition was meant to put San Diego on the map. It was called the Panama-California Exposition because it coincided with the opening of the Panama Canal.

“We thought this was going to be the first big port where ships would stop after going through the canal coming into the United States,” said Kelly.

Alas, the Port of Los Angeles would be the region’s great maritime magnet. But the point is… the 2015 exposition is the source of the historical confusion about the park. There was a large city park just east of downtown San Diego in the 19th century. But the one we know today didn’t really exist prior to 1915. Before that it wasn’t even called Balboa Park.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Michael Kelly is president of the Balboa Park Committee of 100.

Keep in mind this confusion in the media about Balboa Park history has its own venerable history. Carter said 1918 a local newspaper published a false story about how Balboa Park got its name.

“And that story was that a city-wide contest was held in 1910 about what to name the park, and that a Mrs. Harriet Phillips won that contest by proposing the name ‘Balboa,’” said Carter.

“It turns out there was no naming contest and Harriet Phillips played no part in the way Balboa Park got its name.”

Carter said the park commission came up with the name. Another incorrect story, which Carter actually believed for years, was that the park’s botanical building was originally built as a train depot.

But back to the centennial. KPBS stands corrected. The park we call Balboa won’t be 100 in 2015. It’ll be 147 years old.

By the way, before the exposition one local newspaper, the Sun, did actually ask its readers what San Diego City Park should be renamed? The winner of that contest got five bucks.

So what was the winning name? What was the iconic label the editors thought would give City Park just the right glossy, cosmopolitan profile? San Diego Park. Lucky for us, that one landed in history’s dustbin.

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