Throughout 2018, to help mark the park’s 150-year anniversary, we will feature a prominent figure in Balboa Park’s history, highlighting his or her unique role in the park’s early development.*

While the names of Kate Sessions, George Marston, and Alonzo Horton are most often associated with the origins and development of Balboa Park, it was the prominent New York-based landscape architect Samuel Parsons Jr. (1844–1923) who played the most significant role in designing the park’s original layout. Arriving in San Diego in December 1902, Parsons was tasked with creating and implementing a new plan for the 1,400-acre green space that had been set aside in 1868 by the city’s Board of Trustees for a “City Park.”

Descended from a long-established horticultural family, Parsons was educated at Yale University. In 1901, he was appointed Landscape Architect for Greater New York and oversaw the city’s collection of parks, which included, most notably, Central Park. An original landscape design by architect Calvert Vaux and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park set the standard for late 19th-century and early 20th-century public parks in America.

As an advocate of professional standards, Parsons was also a founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In his private practice, Parsons worked throughout the United States on parks, playgrounds, estate gardens, cemeteries, campus plans, and housing developments, creating landscapes inspired by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. According to landscape historian Charles Birnbaum, “What makes Parsons’ career unique is both its length and the fact he practiced when the profession was emerging and defining its role during the Picturesque and Reform Eras.”

Parsons was in fact one of the leading landscape architects in the United States when selected to design San Diego’s City Park, the result of a careful search. On a business trip to the East Coast, George W. Marston interviewed Parsons for the project and was quite pleased with his authoritative grasp on all the elements of park design. Marston sponsored Parsons and made arrangements for him to travel to San Diego.

“Nothing Else Like It Among the Parks of the World”

By 1902, San Diego had grown to approximately 20,000 residents. The arrival of Parsons in San Diego was heralded in the daily newspapers, which treated him like a celebrity, tracking his every move and quoting his reactions to the site. With the flourish of a prose poet, Parsons did not disappoint.

San Diego park tract is a revelation of an altogether new type of landscape for me, and my first impression is of profound regard for the distinct natural beauty and the magnificent outlook. As the park is now, in its natural state, the whole effect is most impressive. Every park has its own peculiar and distinct characteristics, but this great area of spreading mesa and rugged picturesque canyons is markedly different from all other parks I have seen in Europe and America. There is nothing else like it among the parks of the world.

Parsons was accompanied by his able partner, seasoned landscape designer and engineer George Cooke. The plan for San Diego’s City Park began taking shape in mid-1903 with concepts for vehicular circulation, park entrances, and initial formal planting. The plan’s implementation was immediate. Never before had the City of San Diego been so mobilized for a public amenity. Even though Parsons made just four visits to San Diego, his correspondence and coordination with Cooke, who remained in San Diego, and Marston facilitated the implementation of road building, planting, and irrigation as per his vision and with great speed.

The American Picturesque Design Movement

Both Parsons and Cooke were steeped in the English romantic picturesque landscape design style, as best expressed in New York’s Central Park. The picturesque landscape style in America dominated large public parks and private estates from the 19th century to the early 20th century. The style evolved from the 18th-century English romanticism for “nature” over the French formalism of “artifice,” and sought to emulate nature outright through a series of scenic compositions. Inspired by the pastoral lands of England, landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715-1783) designed parks in England with an eye toward dramatic tableaus, often featuring gnarled trees, chasms, and precipices. Later in America, Andrew Jackson Downing popularized and adapted the style that would inspire park designers throughout the country in his Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. Olmsted, Vaux, and Parsons all became exponents of the style.

Parsons’s First Impressions

San Diego’s City Park presented myriad challenges for Samuel Parsons, who brought along his principled view of landscape design and its social benefits. His first site visit in December 1902 exposed him to the semi-arid coastal desert of San Diego, a landscape “picture” entirely different from any he had experienced before. Luckily for George Marston, there had been a significant El Niño event throughout 1901–02, which left the grounds in a very healthy and natural looking condition. Marston ferried his landscape architect around the park land he intuitively knew held great promise.

The topography, the canyons, and cañadas (ravines), which were almost exclusive to San Diego, were a revelation to Parsons. The opportunity to apply a picturesque design to this foreign land must have enlivened him. He expressed at the time, “to the form and spirit of surrounding nature … This essential principle of design applies with an unusual force in the case of San Diego Park where nature has so beautifully and perfectly modeled slopes and sides of canyons.”

The Parsons Circulation Design

The City Park roads came to form the “bones” of Parsons’s layout, which he linked to existing neighborhood access routes by strategically crafting the park entrances. Most of these are still in use today. True to the tenets of the picturesque, some roads were designed specifically to maximize views and vistas while tracing the native topography, avoiding aggressive grading “cuts & fills.”

In a March 1903 San Diego Union article on the progress of the landscape, Parsons remarked,

It will be readily seen, therefore, that when a few more roads and paths have been built along the top and bottom of the canyons, to bring their slopes into view, when access is established to the best viewpoint of mountains and sea, and some line of enclosure marks the outer boundaries, there will be a park already made of very simple elements, and little changed from its original character.

Parsons was decidedly impressed with the topography of San Diego. The ubiquitous natural canyons were a pure delight to him. He rhapsodically wrote in the textual version of his plan,

So valuable have these convolutions of surface seemed to the designers (Parsons & Co.) that they have conserved with all possible care the lovely low native growth, which while it clothes with color, leaves still defined, the character of the surface. It will be seen that, through regard for this principle of design, which uses all valuable natural conformations to the end of accentuating the dominant quality of the landscape, roads have been ordered with this in view.

With the vehicular circulation element of the plan sufficiently under control, George Cooke accomplished their goals in remarkable time. Tragically though, Cooke’s life ended in an accident in the back country while making other roads for San Diego. But he had already installed the better part of the Parsons road design and planting for City Park before being called away on subsequent projects.

The Parsons Horticulture Design

From the land ethics ascribed to the picturesque design movement, Parsons dutifully respected every natural feature and contour on the blank canvas of City Park. Since he was the heir to the design legacy, no one was better suited than he to transform the barren land of City Park into a world-class landscape setting. As a horticulturist first and foremost, Parsons’s plant palette for the park was carefully thought out in collaboration with the experienced mind of Kate Sessions. Sessions had been in the San Diego environment for 20 years and had experimented with adapting exotic species to the area. She knew what worked, and she knew the growth characteristics of native and exotic plant material.

Sessions had been responsible for several plantings along Sixth Avenue and down into Pound Canyon. Thousands of trees had been planted before implementation of the Parsons plan began, mostly fast-growing eucalyptus, Canary Island pines, and Torrey pines. Sessions had also grown and planted 17 blocks of queen palms, her signature palm, along the newly improved Sixth Avenue by 1905.

Parsons’s tree palette consisted exclusively of evergreen species, not one deciduous tree in the lot. It may seem odd that someone from the East Coast would forgo, even consciously avoid, seasonal color in a new prospective forest. But as he explained, “There are not many deciduous trees that do well in Southern California, and such of them as do only tolerably well are not in keeping with the dominant evergreen effect.” The tree species he chose where generally large—majestic pines, cedars, cypresses, and other robust evergreens—trees that also held the promise to thrive. Parsons depended on Sessions for counsel on species and growth prospects. He also turned over all palm selections and sitings to her as well.

Parsons’s quickly developed plan for park entrances, roads, and trails allowed work to begin in 1903, but his comprehensive plan and report was not submitted until 1905. And then later in 1910, Parsons was hired to assess and report on the condition of San Diego public parks in advance of the planned 1915 Exposition.


*This is part of a series of edited installments from the upcoming Cultural Landscape Report, prepared by Vonn Marie May, a cultural landscape specialist and the report’s primary author. The Cultural Landscape Report will be presented on May 10 at the Balboa Park Conservancy’s next community meeting. Mark your calendars today!

Photographs courtesy of the San Diego History Center