First set aside in 1868, Balboa Park has become one of the largest public parks in the United States. The most visited area, originally serving as the 1915 and 1935 Exposition grounds, is part of a National Register Historic District. The monumental entry consisting of the Cabrillo Bridge, the Quadrangle, and the California Tower and Rotunda were given National Historic Landmark status, the highest historical recognition by the National Park Service in 1977.
Prior to its rapid development for the 1915 and 1935 Expositions, the Park had remained in a largely fallow and undeveloped state until 1902 when city father George W. Marston commissioned New York landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. to create a comprehensive master plan for the Park’s then 1,400 acres of land. Since the Parsons Plan was created, the Park’s land use and maintenance have often been driven by major events in history (like the Expositions) and/or the lack of cohesive management care and protection on behalf of the public. For example, the post war automobile era impacted the Park dramatically, bringing with it major transportation-related intrusions and transformations to the Park’s historic character.
Yet, despite the historic importance of the site, no Cultural Landscape Report (CLR) has ever been prepared as a guiding document for the future of the Park. This CLR would be, in its simplest form, a recording of which elements were added to the Park during which period of time and what remains extant from those periods. This information and analysis is greatly needed to better inform decisions related to new project proposals and how they may impact the Park’s historic integrity.
A complete Cultural Landscape Report will help determine which elements in the Park are most historically significant and, in fact, worthy of preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and historical interpretation. Concurrently, it will also help to identify areas that do not retain historic integrity and that may be in line for appropriate improvements in the future.
Fortunately, private individuals and stakeholder organizations have gathered significant historic resources and knowledge about the Park’s history. With that in mind, the Balboa Park Conservancy has formed a steering committee to oversee the collection, presentation, and interpretation of the cultural and historical materials related to Balboa Park, which will inform the CLR.
The CLR will begin with a review of all available documents pertaining to the Park with support from interns recruited for the purpose to reduce staffing costs. An illustrated historical landscape narrative and attendant period plans will capture the landscape over time in its as-built conditions. These illustrations will be assembled from historic plans, photos, paintings, sketches, and aerial photos and will show all extant features and historical elements in the landscape as they currently exist.
This task will be facilitated by recent aerial photos, both planimetric and oblique, and by a recent survey of the property which the City of San Diego Department of Park and Recreation has provided. A baseline detailed drawing will then be developed in this step for multiple uses in the project. An evaluation of the historical integrity to current conditions will help answer questions about the level of change and the degree to which the landscape embodies and supports its historic character today. Remaining historic elements and features will be identified and listed as well.
As a final step, the CLR will foster discussions among interested parties regarding future landscape treatments, approaches, phasing, and priorities that best further the stewardship of Balboa Park. Options set forth in the Guidelines for the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties include to “Preserve, Restore, Rehabilitate, Reconstruct.” As projects are proposed for implementation in Balboa Park, the CLR will help inform as to which option is most appropriate as we envision and enhance this beloved and historically significant public landscape.