Balboa Park’s Botanical Building is one of the most recognizable landmarks in San Diego. When originally constructed in 1914 for the Panama California Exposition, it was billed as the largest wood lath structure in the world. Welcoming over a half million visitors every year, it houses more than 2,100 varieties of plants, making the Botanical Building both a must-see tourist attraction as well as a vital horticultural resource for San Diego.
Due to the inevitable effects of time and weather, the venerable structure is now in need of a major restoration. The Balboa Park Conservancy, which is charged with the care and preservation of many of the Park’s key cultural assets, has developed a detailed plan to not only bring the important San Diego monument back to its original splendor, but enhance its accessibility and relevance for the next 100 years.
The Conservancy is calling on our community to take part in this history-making project. With enough support, a substantial impact can be made on the experience of millions of park visitors for decades to come as well as on the horticultural health and cultural legacy of our city.
Botanical Building History
Perhaps no other structure better embodies what Balboa Park represents to the city and region than the Botanical Building. 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. The brainchild of Alfred D. Robinson (1867–1942), the world’s leading begonia breeder at the time, the Botanical Building was intended 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 a bewildering 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.
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 dappled shade and the beautiful world of plants: the colors, textures, smells, and feel of the extraordinary number of plants that can thrive in this environment.
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
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 building structure and architectural elements (wood lath, cupola, plaster/concrete, and wood and steel beams)
To learn more about how you can help with this historically significant restoration, please see Support Us.