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Posted December 10, 2007
David Marshall knows Balboa Park in and out and then and now. His new book is a postcard history of the iconic park's structures and a fascinating work for anyone interested in the past - and future - of Balboa Park. Just when you think you knew something about Balboa Park after having been a visitor all your life, along comes David Marshall with a book that compresses several generations' worth of history into 128 pages of photos supported by explanative text. Marshall is an architect with Heritage Architecture and Planning and over the years has amassed a comprehensive collection of postcard and photo images of the park from its earliest days. Postcards were once a simple way of promoting places and events in the US they were a cheap way to prove to the folks back home that you'd actually been to the fair -- in this case, the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and San Diego's proximity to it as the nearest Homeland port on the Pacific Coast. That fair was very big news in 1915 and much intrigue surrounded it--including whether there would even be one in San Diego. San Francisco was still the major port on the West Coast then, and its 1915 Pan Pacific Expo was backed by Congress and had the full support of the US government behind it. San Diego's was smaller and less glitzy, but no less interesting. It was the first time that San Diego city government planned for a world-class affair, coughed up the funds to pay for it, hired some major architects and approved a plan for the elegant structures we enjoy today. It was a bid to put San Diego on the map and make it a primary American port on the Pacific coast. That the plan failed--San Diego's harbor is bare of shipping--is a legacy we have today. What the city lost in commercial clout, it gained in iconic beauty the park has served San Diego very well ever since 1915 - far better, in some ways than San Diego served it. San Diego's Balboa Park is visual and historical feast that presents the life of the park as an ever-evolving place. Far from being a stable, inert area, at various times Balboa Park held many more buildings than are there now, and some of the buildings that remain were once very different from what you'll find today. The purpose of the park has morphed a lot over the years as well in 1915, San Diego held its coming out party--a kind of quinceañera or batmitzvah for the new, bejeweled dame on the coast. In 1916, there was another fair to follow the commercial success of the first, then the First World War came and the Navy took the park for the duration as a training ground. It's bizarre to see images of sailors taking bayonet drills on the Prado or learning how to row a boat in the lily pond and it's chilling to think that the Navy once considered keeping the park for a base, permanently. Fortunately, the city got the sailors out of the park and off to NTC instead--and put in the zoo. Marshall's zoo images are a hoot, to say the least and worth the price of the book by themselves. How un-PC San Diego's promotions sometimes were in that less 'sensitive' age who knew that Orangutans could smoke? Indeed, who knew that the park once held a Café of the World that seated 850 or that the Old Globe once hadn't any roof, or that nude women were on display daily during the exhibition held in the park in 1935? This was California Pacific International Exposition and it was a bold attempt to shake San Diego out of the doldrums of the Depression and create awareness of the city as a tourist destination. This time, the Expo succeeded like the proverbial charm and nudged the city on the tourist-town track its been on ever since. Do you recall the Science and Education Building? The Vanishing Gardens? The Formal Gardens? They're gone now, as are many of the park's wonderful sites. Most were victims to time, neglect, ever-expanding parking lots and expedient shortsightedness. Marshall offers glimpses of the
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