Botanical Building & Gardens                            Restoration and Enhancement Project

Built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the Botanical Building and Gardens in Balboa Park’s National Historic Landmark District is known for its iconic lath structure, is free to millions of annual visitors, and home to more than 2,100 plant varieties. This special building is in great need of restoration due to termite damage, rust and deferred maintenance. The project not only repairs and restores the facility and surrounding gardens, but provides new amenities, such as restrooms, water-efficient irrigation, energy-saving lighting and enhanced opportunities for education, visitor engagement, and earned revenue. Together, the Botanical Building and Gardens are revived as the heart of horticulture in San Diego and a global botanical destination.


Project Goals 

  1. Restoration and enhancement of the building and grounds
    • Adhere to the 1915 original design;
    • Repair lath and steel damage; reconstruct arches, entrances;
    • Add new irrigation system; electrical upgrades and lighting;
    • Add restrooms; visitor center for park horticulture;
    • Historic landscape design and planting; pergola recreation
  2. Cultivate a passion for plants in children, residents and tourists alike.
    • Demonstrate the beauty and depth of San Diego’s biodiversity
    • Provide the infrastructure for education, guides and interpretive displays
    • Connect visitors to our region’s botanical assets and expertise
  3. Develop new model for self-sustaining operations
    • Support and enhance City staff and resources
    • Implement a comprehensive donor recognition program
    • Flexible use of facility and grounds

Project Background

  • The Balboa Park Conservancy selected the Botanical Building in Balboa Park as its first major restoration project and began planning and fundraising, securing all of the funds for Planning and Design by 2015, when Tomás Herrera-Mishler, the Conservancy’s first CEO was hired.
  • The Botanical Building and Gardens project planning was overseen by a steering committee comprised of subject matter experts, City of San Diego staff, and park stakeholders including the Friends of Balboa Park and Committee of 100.
  • An RFP was released in 2015 and the design team of RNT Architects, Spurlock Landscape Architects and Tres Fromme, horticultural designer, was selected. The committee selected RSM Design for the environmental graphic design and donor recognition program.
  • Following the architectural and landscape plans completed in 2016, the Conservancy worked with elected officials to develop a formal naming policy for the City of San Diego that would inform the donor recognition program for this project. City Council approved this policy in 2017.
  • In 2017 the Conservancy worked with RSM design to develop a comprehensive donor recognition program for the project. In 2018 the proposed program was approved by the City of San Diego, after review by Parks and Recreation and the Historic Resources Board.
  • In 2018 the Conservancy worked in partnership with Parks and Recreation to form a steering committee of subject matter experts, City staff members and park stakeholders to develop a programmatic plan for the Botanical Building. The plan was completed in July 2019.

Funding Achievements


  • In June 2019, State Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) designated $8.6 million in state funding to the project to cover infrastructure repairs.
  • In September 2019, the prestigious Save America’s Treasure’s federal grant program through U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service awarded the project $258K to help restore the welcome gallery, which will become an educational resource for visitors.

Botanical Building History

A beloved icon at the heart of Balboa Park, the Botanical Building was built for the 1915 Panama California Exposition as one of only four structures intended to remain permanently, the others being the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, the California Building (Museum of Man), and the Cabrillo Bridge.  The unique lath shade structure is reminiscent of the great conservatories of Kew Gardens in England and the New York Botanical Gardens, but designed to show off the amazing growing climate of San Diego. Alfred D. Robinson (1867–1942), the world’s leading begonia breeder at the time, came up with the idea for the Botanical Building and intended the structure to serve as the anchor for a botanical garden in Balboa Park. The Botanical Building presented a tropical paradise for visitors in 1915-16 and again in 1935 for the Pacific International Exposition, featuring an extensive array of stunning and unusual plants rarely seen by most Americans at that time.

Today, plantings in the Botanical Building comprise more than 2,100 permanent varieties, including fascinating collections of cycads, ferns, orchids, and palms. Hosting several of the Park’s most vibrant seasonal flower displays, the Botanical Building is one of the few free attractions in Balboa Park and has remained a consistently popular cultural destination for over a century. Situated at the center of Balboa Park’s Central Mesa, the Botanical Building is one of the most frequented and photographed structures in the Park, with an estimated 500,000-750,000 visitors each year, placing it among the top cultural attractions in all of San Diego County.


Restoration Needed

Unfortunately, this beloved building has suffered the ravages of time and now needs a complete restoration in order to assure that future generations enjoy its architectural and horticultural brilliance. The Botanical Building has a long storied and sometimes difficult history, and it has in fact been closed twice over the past century out of concerns for visitor safety. In addition, significant changes have been made to the building over the years that altered its original appearance. Decorative arcades that flanked either side of the building’s entrance when it opened in 1914 were removed during the last major renovation in 1957. Colored lighting elements from the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition were eliminated as well. An attractive pergola which served as a primary focal point in the landscape was lost, and the planting display beds have largely been removed, resulting in a greatly diminished visitor experience.

Other serious issues that need to be addressed include:

  • Damage caused by mildew, termites, and corrosion
  • Numerous loose, missing, and damaged lath slats
  • Deterioration of the wood structure caused by necessary hand watering and inefficient spray irrigation
  • Rusted steel lag bolts in danger of failing
  • Cracks in the plaster walls
  • Faded paint and stain finishes
  • Split and damaged framing members caused by dry rot
  • Limited interior lighting, necessitating its closure to the public at sundown
  • Inadequate support areas, no restrooms


Restoration Goals

The Botanical Building and Grounds Restoration and Enhancement Project, the Conservancy’s first major restoration project in the Park, will restore the Botanical Building and grounds to its original splendor and enhance its place as a centerpiece of the visitor experience in Balboa Park. The Conservancy has contracted with the noted architectural firm of Roesling, Nakamura and Tejada to undertake the full restoration and visitor experience enhancement planning. Seasonal or thematic changing floral displays and restored water features will give visitors a dynamic experience, inviting them to delight in the diversity of the plant world. Once restored, the Botanical Building will also offer an expanded schedule for free public access, while also affording the opportunity to generate income from private meetings, celebrations, and special events to fund the building’s ongoing maintenance and repairs.

This restoration will accomplish the following major objectives:


  • Revitalization of visually exciting horticultural displays, botanical collections, and programs
  • Reconstruction of the historic arcades and pergola
  • Illumination of the interior and exterior
  • Implementation of water- and energy-saving measures to promote environmental sustainability
  • Installation of a state-of-the-art irrigation system
  • Repair and enhancement of the structure and architectural elements (wood lath, cupola, plaster/concrete, wood and steel beams)