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



2014 The newly formed Balboa Park Conservancy selected the Botanical Building as its first major restoration project and began planning and fundraising, securing all funds for planning and design by 2015.
2014–2015 The Botanical Building and Gardens project planning was overseen by a steering committee composed of subject matter experts, City of San Diego staff, and park stakeholders, including the Friends of Balboa Park and Committee of 100.
Fall 2015 An RFP was released 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.
April 2016 The Conservancy holds an open forum to solicit feedback from park stakeholders, constituents, and the general public about the plans and initial designs.
2016 Following the completion of architectural and landscape plans, 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. The City Council approved this policy in 2017.
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.
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.
June 2019 State Senator Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) announced $8.26 million in state funding toward the project to cover infrastructure repairs.
Sept. 2019 The prestigious Save America’s Treasures federal grant program, through U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, awarded the project $258,000 to help restore the Welcome Gallery.
Early 2020 The Conservancy submits its construction (bridging) documents to the City of San Diego’s Public Works Department.
May 2020 An RFQ was released by the city.
Nov. 2020 The RFP was issued to three qualifying bidders. The winning bid will be announced in summer 2021.
Early 2022 Construction is expected to begin with a project goal of completing Phase 1 by spring/summer of 2023.

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)


What does the Botanical Building and Gardens Restoration project include?

  • This project includes the full restoration of the building to its original 1915 appearance, recreating the series of arched openings with Palladian windows and heroically scaled doors, opening the inside space to the surrounding gardens as intended.
  • State-of-the-art lighting and new irrigation systems will be added. The new lighting makes it possible for the building to be open to the public for longer hours and for special events.
  • New multipurpose rooms and dedicated staff workspace will be provided on the north façade of the building.
  • A new “Welcome Gallery,” with an information desk staffed by volunteers and knowledgeable docents, will be created in the building’s foyer. 
  • The surrounding gardens will be restored and enhanced. 
  • The pergola that originally stood on the west lawn near The San Diego Museum of Art will be reconstructed. 


Why is this project required?

  • Many parts of the building’s structure are damaged or in a dilapidated condition, including severe rust and corrosion of its steel structural elements, wood rot and termite damage on the structural girts, and deterioration of the redwood lath. 
  • The walkway system is ill suited to the large numbers of visitors and the mobility impaired. The restoration will make the Botanical Building and Gardens fully compliant with current ADA requirements.
  • The irrigation system is faulty and not water efficient by today’s standards, and the plumbing and lighting systems are out of date and in need of repair.
  • The support areas for the building are inadequate for appropriate care and maintenance of the botanical collection.
  • Much of the authentic historic integrity of the Botanical Building and its contextual landscape is missing or damaged.


How is this project being paid for?

  • The State of California has allocated $8.26 million for the project.
  • The Balboa Park Conservancy has raised more than $1 million — including support from generous donors and a grant award of $258,000 from the National Park Service Save America’s Treasures program. Additionally, with the support of private funding, we have hired additional fundraising staff to support the campaign initiatives.
  • The City of San Diego has allocated $300,000 in capital funds to support the Public Works Department, and dedicated staff time across departments to ensure project completion.


When will the Botanical Building restoration be completed?

  • An RFQ was released by the city in November 2020, and three finalists submitted proposals for the RFP; the design/build team will be selected in summer 2021.
  • Construction is expected to begin early 2022.
  • State of California funding guidelines require the project to be complete by June 30, 2022. Federal grant guidelines require the “Welcome Gallery” work be completed by September 30, 2022. Extensions may be granted, if required.

(See the above Project Timeline for a detailed list project milestones to date.) 


Will admission to the Botanical Building still be free and will the hours of operation stay the same?

  • The City and Conservancy are committed to maintain the same level of free public access and when possible increase public access.
  • Additional facility usage for special events will not reduce current levels of free public access.


Will the restoration reduce the exhibition and public spaces within the building?

  • All square footage of the Botanical Building is dedicated to the growth, care, observation, and education of plants and horticulture. 
  • The flexible square footage planned provides more opportunities for rotating plant displays, horticultural education, visitor information, and increased usage by regional botanical organizations and school groups.


What is the Conservancy’s role in the Botanical Building restoration?

  • The Conservancy is working in partnership with the City of San Diego to develop and oversee Phase 1 — the structural and historic restorations, ADA compliance, and infrastructure enhancements of the project.
  • Phase 2 of the restoration and revitalization will be taken on by the Conservancy and entails additional enhancements to the building as well as a historic landscape restoration and pergola reconstruction.


What is the City of San Diego’s role in the Botanical Building restoration?

  • The city has established a Capital Improvement Project for the Botanical Building and through Public Works is managing Phase 1 of the restoration of Balboa Park’s Botanical Building, in partnership with the Balboa Park Conservancy.
  • The Public Works Department, using $300,000 allocated by the city, will undertake the selection of a design/build team, the structural and historic restorations, ADA compliance, and infrastructure enhancements of the project.


How will the restored building and its programs for visitors be maintained?

  • In partnership with the City of San Diego, the Conservancy is committed to helping secure the necessary resources to ensure the building, collection, and gardens are maintained at best-in-class levels.


What role has the public had in this project and how can the public access information and updates about its progress?

  • On April 18, 2016, the Conservancy held a public meeting, where feedback was solicited from community members on the project.
  • In June 2016, RNT Architects surveyed Botanical Building visitors to collect additional feedback and insight on the project.
  • Since 2016, the Conservancy has provided ongoing formal updates and workshop items regarding the Botanical Building and Gardens project at the Balboa Park Committee, a public meeting.
  • The Botanical Building Plans are being completed by the city’s engineering and capital projects department as a capital improvement project, and accordingly, the plans have been publicly available via the city’s RFP/bid solicitation process as of November 2020.