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Stay Classy, Balboa Park!

People are always surprised when I tell them that one of my favorite architectural gems is the city of San Diego in southern California. This unflappable urban center hugging the Pacific Ocean is better known for its stellar waves and its delicious Mexican fusion cuisine. Yet, a visionary designer, Bertram Goodhue brought to this corner of California an architectural style that would launch a thousand cities in the American southwest: Spanish Colonial Revival. Thanks to the planning of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, Balboa Park – a thousand acre public space – is a study in resplendent landscaping. My time in San Diego always includes a leisurely walking tour of Balboa Park’s architectural delights. This is where I see Old World Europe being greeted at the doorstep of the American Wild West.

Architectural Fusion

While exploring Balboa Park, I endeavor to experience Spanish Colonial Revival at its most abundant. This particular style seamlessly fuses Mission, Pueblo, Spanish Baroque, and Churrigueresque design. At Balboa Park, I can gaze for hours in fascination at the intricate chiaroscuro carved into the spires reaching up into the vast blue sky, or admire the way the sun’s glow reflects off the stucco roofs of the park’s adobe structures. Each of the park’s structures exhibits one or more facets of Goodhue’s structural plans from the multiple museums in the area to the detailed gardens. At the San Diego Museum of Man every stunning feature of Spanish Colonial Revival melds into an extravaganza of light and shadow. Housing the city’s anthropological exhibit during the 1915 Exposition, this edifice seems worthy of a classic cathedral in Old Europe. When the late afternoon sun hits the ornate Churrigueresque columns and spires with their twisting forms and heavy ornamentation or when I spy the intense teal colored door of the Museum of Man, I am transported into a world of drama. The building’s twisting Moorish inspired columns juxtaposed against its array of saintly statues imbues the Museum of Man with a mythical ferocity.

With a little bit of Mission on its floor and a little bit of Spanish Baroque in its spire, the St. Francis Chapel puts together a whole new outfit in the parade of Spanish Colonial Revival style. To me this half hidden church on the southern plaza of Balboa Park holds a marvelous treasure inside: its gold leaf bedecked altar replicates the fusion of Spanish and Kumeyaay art that was popular during San Diego’s early colonization. The natives of San Diego excelled in geometric patterns and basket weaving and their stylized simplicity brings pathos to the decadence of colonial Spanish artwork portrayed in the altar. It is a rare look at the successful marriage of two distinct cultures.

Bridge to Spain

One of the best features of Balboa Park is that I can discover so many varieties of Spanish influenced architecture here. To steer myself away from the ostentatious nature of Spanish baroque styles, I drive down the scenic canyon freeway from which I can see the multi-arched Roman design of the Cabrillo bridge. This bridge physically connects the park to uptown San Diego, but architecturally it connects the New World to Spain’s classical days when it was ruled by the Roman empire. Its straightforward, elegant design harkens back to Spain’s ancient aqueducts. At the time of its construction, the bridge’s skeleton of steel and hollow concrete were innovative and daring. Today, they are marvelous reminders to me of America’s golden industrial age. Aesthetically, the Cabrillo bridge makes an impressive entrance to Balboa Park, landscaped as it is with the Baroque inspired California Bell Tower in the background.

From Roman architecture to Spanish colonial design, I continue to experience the heavy influence of Spain at Balboa Park. When I stroll to the beautiful surroundings of the botanical building, I find myself transported to Moorish Spain with the greenhouse’s serene reflecting ponds and exotic array of tropical and semitropical vegetation. Looking like an overturned wicker basket, the botanical property’s massive lath roof follows the sinuous curves of palaces such as the Alhambra and the Medina Azahara. Its cream and chocolate façade and its surrounding tranquil gardens are the ideal place for me to rekindle an atmosphere of mystery and romance while reminding me of many places in southern Spain.

Future Inspiration

Balboa Park’s vivid and diverse architecture motivates me to find my own inventive mixes. Rarely do I see such a mishmash of styles merge into something greater than the sum of their parts. At Balboa Park, the Spanish Colonial Revival designs show off the best of various Old and New World constructions. Many years have passed since the 1915 Panama-California Exposition ended, but I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy an architectural slice of that time that continues to inspire the future while portraying the American past.


Balboa Park introduced Spanish Colonial Revival style into the architectural repertoire thereby transforming the landscape of the American southwest. The style continues to distinguish San Diego and influence modern interpretations.


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