In July 1909, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce declared its intention to bring the next world’s fair to their city. With the Panama Canal set to open in 1914, they envisioned San Diego rising to eminence as the first U.S. port of call for ships sailing west through the new waterway. The fair, which would be named the 1915 Panama California-International Exposition, solidified the region’s distinctive sense of cultural identity and bolstered San Diego as a tourist destination.
Initial plans for the Exposition proposed a muted architectural style known as Spanish Mission Revival, evoking the city’s Catholic mission established by colonial California’s Spanish rulers. But architect Bertram G. Goodhue won the commission for the exposition with a Spanish high baroque style, today known as Spanish Colonial Revival. The form evoked a Spanish version of the French beaux-arts seen at the Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.
Much like Jackson Park in Chicago, which remained undeveloped before the Columbian Exposition, the Panama-California Exposition sculpted Balboa Park into a major urban amenity. Financial backers of the Panama California-International Exposition successfully insisted that the fair be situated at what was then known as City Park, just north and west of the city’s downtown Expanded trolley lines transported visitors from across the city into its heart and to the Exposition grounds, increasing commercial activity and land development. The Exposition did prove to be a commercial boon for the city of San Diego, attracting upwards of three million patrons between 1915 and 1916. To this day, several major structures from the Exposition serve as cultural attractions in Balboa Park.
Bokovoy, Matthew F. “San Diego 1915-1916.” In John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle, eds. Encyclopedia of World’s Fairs and Expositions. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2008.
Bokovoy, Matthew F. The San Diego World’s Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880 – 1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press with the San Diego Historical Society, 2005.
Starr, Raymond. “San Diego 1915 – 1916: The Panama California Exposition.” In John E. Findling, ed. Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851 – 1988. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876 – 1916.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
The Committee of One Hundred. The Official Guide Book of the Panama California Exposition. San Diego, 1915. https://archive.org/details/TheOfficialGuideBookOfThePanama-californiaExpositionSanDiego1915
“View of Canadian Building from the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition,” Postcard. © San Diego History Center, SDHC #AB 124-2