Balboa Park's Iconic California Tower Opens To Public After 80 Years

The tower at the Museum of Man will open to visitors on New Year's Day

Monday, December 29, 2014
By Angela Carone

The last time San Diegans could climb the California Tower at Balboa Park's Museum of Man it was 1935.

Eighty years later, they can now do it again.

Beginning New Year's Day, visitors will be able to take guided tours up the iconic tower. City officials and museum administrators have spent the past three years working to get the tower ready for the centennial celebration of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition at Balboa Park.

Visitors will be able to access a hidden stairwell on the museum's second floor and climb 125 stairs — seven stories — to reach the public viewing deck. They'll only be able to access the tower with a tour guide.

Because the building is historic, it was impossible to put in an elevator.

The tower was refurbished with museum and city funds and private donations, including a $1 million gift from the Legler Benbough Foundation. Much of the work involved making it safe for the public.

From the viewing deck, visitors will have panoramic views of the city and beyond, from the Cuyamaca Mountains to the north and the shipyards and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge to the south. If the weather is clear, they'll be able to see 23 miles to the horizon.

When looking down over the expanse of Balboa Park, "there are a couple of secrets that you can see from up here that aren’t really obvious from down below," said Grant Barrett, a Museum of Man employee.

Visitors won't be able to go to the very top of the tower, which was built for the 1915 exposition, because that portion has not been renovated.

"At the time, you’ve got to remember San Diego had about 35,000 (people), and this was probably the tallest building," Barrett said. The view from the tower would have included the temporary buildings and exhibition spaces set up for the exposition, Old Town, as well as the ocean and mountains. Much of the landscape was covered with chaparral, with trees being added later.

The tower and the Museum of Man were designed by Bertram Goodhue, who was inspired by the churches of Mexico and Spain. Even though the tower and museum resemble a church, they've never been used as one. They've always housed exhibits, except when used as a Navy hospital during World War II.

Often photographed as a symbol of Balboa Park, the tower was also featured in the film classic "Citizen Kane."

Tickets for the tour, which includes admission to the museum, are $22.50.