San Diego staged this Exposition in 1915 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. San Diego would be the first American port of call north of the Panama Canal on the Pacific coast. An exposition would call attention to the city and bolster an economy still shaky from the Wall Street panic of 1907. In 1910 San Diego had a population of 39,578, San Diego County 61,665, Los Angeles 319,198, and San Francisco 416,912. San Diego’s scant population, the smallest of any city ever to attempt holding an international exposition, testified to the city’s pluck and vitality.

The Panama–California Exposition was an exposition held in San Diego, California, between 1915, and January 1, 1916. The exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, and was meant to tout San Diego as the first U.S. port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the canal. The fair was held in San Diego’s large urban Balboa Park.

Real estate developer “Colonel” David Collier, at the time often referred to as San Diego’s greatest asset, was made General Director of the exposition. He was responsible for selecting both the location in the city park and the Pueblo Revival and Mission Revival architectural styles. Collier was tasked with steering the exposition in ‘the proper direction,’ ensuring that every decision made reflected his vision of what the exposition could accomplish. Collier once stated “The purpose of the Panama-California Exposition is to illustrate the progress and possibility of the human race, not for the exposition only, but for a permanent contribution to the world’s progress”. The city received no federal support to host the Expo, because the U.S. government had decided to support the rival Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco instead.

Spanish Colonial Revival architecture

Fair officials first sought architect John Galen Howard as their supervisory architect. With Howard unavailable, on January 27, 1911, they chose New York architect Bertram Goodhue in that role, also appointing Irving Gill to assist Goodhue. By September 1911 Gill had resigned and was replaced by Carleton Winslow of Goodhue’s office, just as the original landscape architects, the Olmsted Brothers had left and were replaced in their role by fair official Frank Allen.

Goodhue and Winslow advocated a design that turned away from the more modest, indigenous, horizontally oriented Pueblo Revival and Mission Revival, towards a more ornate and urban Spanish Baroque. Contrasting with bare walls, rich Mexican and Spanish Churrigueresque decoration would be used, with influences from the Islamic and Persian styles in Moorish Revival architecture.

For American world’s fairs, this was a novelty. The design was intentionally in contrast to most previous Eastern U.S. and European expositions, which had been done in neoclassical and Beaux-Arts styles, with large formal buildings around large symmetric spaces. Even the simultaneous Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco was largely, though not exclusively, in Beaux-Arts style.

Goodhue had already experimented with Spanish Baroque in Havana, at the 1905 La Santisima Trinidad pro-cathedral, and the Hotel Colon in Panama. Some of his specific stylistic sources for San Diego are the Giralda Tower at the Seville Cathedral, the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Oaxaca.

Goodhue personally designed the largest and most ornate building on the site, the California Building, with its historical iconography; he sketched two other buildings, provided Winslow and Allen with his photographs and drawings from examples in Spain and Mexico, and reviewed their developed designs. The original ensemble of buildings featured various stylistic and period references. Taken together, they comprised something like a recapitulated history of Spanish colonial in North America, from Renaissance Europe sources, to Spanish Colonial, to Mexican Baroque, to the vernacular styles adopted by the Franciscan missions up the California coast.

This mix of influences at San Diego proved popular enough to earn its own name: Spanish Colonial Revival. The Exposition brought Spanish Colonial Revival into becoming California’s “indigenous historical vernacular style”, very popular in poured concrete through the 1920s, still used and reinterpreted in the present day. To some extent it was even adopted as a southwestern regional style, as seen at the Pima County Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, with a few minor examples in Phoenix.

Goodhue moved on to other national projects, while Winslow stayed on in southern California, continued to produce his own variations of the style, at the Bishop’s School in La Jolla and the 1926 Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. Winslow was also instrumental in persuading the city of Santa Barbara to adopt Spanish Colonial Revival as the officially mandated civic style after its 1925 earthquake. The major example from the rebuilding is the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

The temporary installations, decoration, and landscapes of Balboa Park were created with some large spaces and numerous paths, small spaces, and courtyard Spanish gardens. The location was also moved from a small hillock to a larger and more open area, most of which was intended to be reclaimed by the park as gardens.

 Exposition site

Cabrillo bridge ends at West Gate


Cabrillo Canyon (formerly known as Pound Canyon) forms a deep separation between the exposition site and the park entrance from downtown San Diego. The elegant Cabrillo Bridge was built to span the canyon, and the appearance of its long horizontal stretch ending in a great upright pile of fantasy buildings would be the crux of the whole composition. This design composition and the bridge were designed to remain as a permanent focal point of the city, while many of the exhibit buildings were intended to be temporary.

California Tower: by Bertram Goodhue in Spanish Colonial Revival style.

Upon arrival, the focus of the fair was the Plaza de California (California Quadrangle), an arcaded enclosure often containing Spanish dancers and singers, where both the approach bridge and El Prado terminate. The California State Building and the Fine Arts Building framed the plaza, which was surrounded on three sides by exhibition halls set behind an arcade on the lower story. Those three sides, following the heavy massiveness and crude simplicity of the California Mission adobe style, were without ornamentation. This contrasted with the front facade of the California State Building, ‘wild’ with Churrigueresque complex lines of moldings and dense ornamentation. Next to the frontispiece, at one corner of the dome, rose the 200 feet (61 m) tower of the California Building, which was echoed in the less prominent turrets of the Southern California counties and the Science and Education buildings. The style of the frontispiece was repeated around the fair.

West Gate

There were three entrances to the Expo site, on the west, north, and east The East Gateway was approached by drive and trolley car winding up from the city through the southern portion of the Park. From the west, the long bridge’s entrance was marked with blooming giant century plants and led straight to the dramatic West Gate (or City Gate), with the city’s coat-of-arms at its crown. The archway was flanked by engaged Doric orders supporting an entablature, with figures symbolizing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans joining waters together, in commemoration of the opening of the Panama Canal. These figures were the work of Furio Piccirilli. While the west gateway was part of the Fine Arts Building, the east gateway was designed to be the formal entrance for the California State Building. The East or State Gateway carried the California state coat-of-arms over the arch. The spandrels over the arch were filled with glazed colored tile commemorating the 1769 arrival of Spain and the 1846 State Constitutional Convention at Monterey.

Opening of the exposition

On December 31, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson ceremoniously pushed a button in Washington, D.C. to open the expo by turning on the power at the park. The fair was decorated with over two million plants of 1,200 different types. The event had been successful in attracting national attention. Even Pennsylvania’s Liberty Bell made a brief three-day appearance in November 1915. The attempt to “put San Diego on the map” was successful. The event’s original 1915 run was so well-attended that the fair was extended through 1916. Over the two years more than 3.7 million visitors were in attendance and a slight profit was earned over the total cost of organizing and hosting the expo.

Features of the Exposition

Permanent structures

Intended to be permanent were the Cabrillo Bridge, the domed-and-towered California State Building and the low-lying Fine Arts Building; the latter are now part of the National Register of Historic Places-listed California Quadrangle. The Botanical Building would protect heat-loving plants, while the Great Organ would assist open air concerts in its Auditorium.

Temporary buildings

Casa de Balboa, as rebuilt in the 1980s, and the El Prado Arcade

The architecture of the “temporary buildings” was recognized, as Goodhue described, as “being essentially of the fabric of a dream—not to endure but to produce a merely temporary effect. It should provide, after the fashion that stage scenery provides—illusion rather than reality.”

The “temporary buildings” were formally and informally set on either side of the wide, tree-lined central avenue. El Prado extended along the axis of the bridge and was lined with trees and streetlights, with the front of most buildings lined with covered arcades or portales. The Prado was intended to become the central path of a great and formally designed public garden. The fair’s pathways, pools, and watercourses were supposed to remain while the cleared building sites would become garden. Goodhue emphasized that “only by thus razing all of the Temporary Buildings will San Diego enter upon the heritage that is rightfully hers”. However, many of the “temporary” buildings were retained and reused for the 1935 fair. Four of them were demolished and rebuilt in their original style toward the end of the 20th century; they are now called the House of Charm, the House of Hospitality, Casa del Prado and Casa de Balboa, and are included in the National Register of Historic Places-listed El Prado Complex.

William de Leftwich Dodge painted murals at the exposition. Peacock and pheasant wandered through the fair grounds.


7787-B 5th and Broadway San Diego, c. 1915
One of the San Diego Electric Railway streetcars at 5th and Broadway in San Diego, CA (1915)

One of the main considerations for San Diego leaders concerning the Panama-California Exposition was transportation. In order to service the large number of people that were to attend the Exposition, John D. Spreckels and his San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERy) began work on streetcars that could handle the traffic of the event as well as the growing population of San Diego. The routes ultimately spanned from Ocean Beach, through Downtown, Mission Hills, Coronado, North Park, Golden Hill, and Kensington, even briefly serving as a link to the U.S.–Mexico border. Today, only three of the original twenty-four Class 1 streetcars remain in existence.


The Exposition’s permanent buildings, still standing, include:

  • 783px-San_Diego_Fair_1916_Laguna_Flores
    La Laguna de Las Flores

    Botanical Building, one of the largest lath-covered structures then in existence, contained a rare collection of tropical and semitropical plants. It is well back from the Prado behind the long pool, La Laguna de Las Flores.

  • Cabrillo Bridge (completed April 12, 1914)
  • California Bell Tower, completed 1914, 198 feet (60 m) feet tall to the top of the iron weathervane, which is in the form of a Spanish ship; one of the most recognizable sights in San Diego as “San Diego’s Icon”.
  • California State Building, completed October 2, 1914, which now houses the San Diego Museum of Man. The design was inspired by the church of San Diego in Guanajuato, Mexico.
  • Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi (south side of Fine Arts Building); now the Saint Francis Chapel operated by the Museum of Man.
  • Fine Arts Building (on south side of Plaza of California), now part of the Museum of Man.
  • 444px-San_Diego_Fair_Organ_pavilion_1916
    Spreckels Organ pavilion

    Spreckels Organ Pavilion (dedicated December 31, 1914).

The fair left a permanent mark in San Diego in its development of Balboa Park. Up to that point, the park had been mainly open space. But with the landscaping and building done for the fair the park was permanently transformed and is now a major cultural center, housing many of San Diego’s major museums. The exposition also led to the eventual establishment of the now world-famous San Diego Zoo in the park, which grew out of abandoned exotic animal exhibitions from the exposition.


The City of San Diego is planning a major observation of the 2015 centennial of the Exposition. The park institutions will have special programming for the centennial; specific programming within the park but outside the City leaseholds is under development. The most ambitious proposal was one which would remove vehicle traffic and parking from the central Plaza de California and Plaza de Panama, using a newly constructed ramp off the Cabrillo Bridge to divert vehicles around the California Quadrangle to a parking structure behind the Pavilion. The proposal is controversial and has been delayed due to legal challenges.

Science & Education Building
Theosophical Building
United States Building
United States Building
 Exposition name  Later or alternate name Notes
 Administration Building (1915)  Gill Administration Building  (completed March 1912) now holds offices of the San Diego Museum of Man
 Commerce & Industries Building (1915)  Canadian Building (1916) Palace of Better Housing (1935)  renamed Electrical Building and lost in a 1978 arson fire, reconstructed as the Casa de Balboa
 Foreign Arts Building (1915) altered and renamed House Of Hospitality[16] in 1935, reconstructed to be permanent in 1997
 Varied Industries & Food Products Building (1915)  Foreign & Domestic Building (1916) Palace of Food & Beverages (1935)  1971 reconstruction named Casa del Prado[16][19]
 Montana State Building (1915)  demolished
 New Mexico State Building (1915)  Palace of Education (1935)  now used by Balboa Park Club
 Home Economy Building (1915)  Pan-Pacific Building (1916) Cafe of the World (1935)  Timken Museum of Art built on site in 1965
 Indian Arts Building (1915)  Arts & Crafts Building (tentative) Russia & Brazil Building (1916)  rebuilt to exacting specification in 1996 as the House of Charm[20]
 San Joaquin Valley Building (1915)  demolished
 Science & Education Building (1915)  Science of Man exhibit, Palace of Science & Photography (1935)  demolished in 1964 (exhibit inspired creation of Museum of Man)
 Southern California Counties Building (1915)  Civic Auditorium  burned down in 1925, replaced in 1933 with San Diego Natural History Museum[16]
 Kansas State Building (1915)  Theosophical Headquarters (1916) United Nations/House of Italy  designed in the spirit of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside
 Sacramento Valley Building (1915)  United States Building (1916)  replaced by San Diego Museum of Art in 1926
 Washington State Building (1915)  demolished


Later exposition and rebuilding

The California Pacific International Exposition at the same site in 1935 was so popular that some buildings were rebuilt to be made more permanent. Many buildings or reconstructed versions remain in use today, and are used by several museums and theaters in Balboa Park.

In the early 1960s destruction of a few of the buildings and replacement by modern, architecturally clashing buildings created an uproar in San Diego. A Committee of One Hundred was formed by citizens in 1967 to protect the park buildings. They convinced the City Council to require new buildings to be built in Spanish Colonial Revival Style and worked with various government agencies to have the remaining buildings declared as a National Historic Landmark in 1978. In the late 1990s, the most deteriorated buildings and burned buildings were rebuilt, preserving the original style.