Pam Crooks, Balboa Park Conservancy Board Member

The original formal entrance to Balboa Park was located at Eighth Avenue and Date Street. But wait…there is no such address? Unfortunately, this entrance disappeared under the I-5 decades ago.

Earlier this summer, I—along with several thousand other people—participated in the Rock ‘n’ Roll 5K walk on Balboa Park’s west side. The area has become one of the main sections of the park used for huge public events, such as the Gay Pride Music Festival, Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

Otherwise most people associate the West Mesa (as it’s known today) with the Sixth Avenue playground, Redwood Bridge Club, San Diego Chess Club, Lawn Bowling, and Nate’s Point Dog Park.

Few people realize it is one of the most historic sections of Balboa Park. Here is where Kate Sessions located her commercial plant nursery. That was before more formal development and landscaping began with the hiring in 1902 of a professional landscape designer from New York City—Samuel B. Parsons Jr.—and well before anyone had an idea for an exposition in San Diego, or even a worthy name for “City Park.” Much of Parson’s plans for this part of the park can still be seen today—if you know where to look.

The Balboa Park Conservancy is currently engaged in an in-depth study of the original “West Park” area during the period of 1868 to 1910. Those dates are considered a “period of significance” in the study known as a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). Information uncovered through research of the first period will serve as the base layer for data from the following two interpreted eras—1911 to 1935, and from 1936 to the post-war period. When completed, the report will provide a chronological narrative, documenting the physical development of the West Mesa, the key players, and the original thinking/planning that went into it.

Going forward, anyone developing plans for this part of the park will be able to easily access information on the “how, why, and when” what is located there today came to be, and whether any of the existing features—such as trees, shrubs, structures, paths, or paved roads—are historically significant. The Conservancy plans to conduct similar studies for the Central and East Mesa sections of Balboa Park.

Vonn Marie May is a cultural landscape consultant who launched this initial study for the Conservancy, assisted by several college interns and a committee of volunteers. She has worked on similar projects for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the UC Berkeley campus, and Mills College. She explained why this in-depth research and the resulting report and information are so important.

“Unlike Central Park, which was conceived as one brilliant plan by Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, with one relatively simple build out, Balboa Park has been developed in spurts, during different periods over nearly 150 years. It’s important to get a handle on it from ‘stem to stern.’”

She said the report, when completed, should inform any construction and development in the West Mesa going forward.

Much of the data gathering has been conducted at the San Diego Public Library, Central Branch, where dozens of original maps and documents have been unearthed with the help of Rick Crawford, the library’s supervisor of special collections. Similarly, important information and images were discovered through research at the San Diego History Center, and in the archives of the Committee of 100, with the help of Mike Kelly, the Committee’s president. Nancy Carol Carter, an ardent Balboa Park historian, has been compiling biographical sketches of key people involved between 1868 and 1910.

A professional tree survey of the West Mesa is now being conducted by Davey Natural Resource Group, a nationally recognized arborist company. The results will provide supporting information on the species, condition, and age of existing trees—some dating back well over a 100 years. The tree survey will be completed this summer. Landscape Architect Gail Garbini and her staff are developing professional graphics to illustrate changes over the decades. These details will all be included in the study.

Using research materials compiled so far, including aerial photos taken at key points over the decades, and by noting existing features (in addition to trees) from walking the grounds, it’s now possible to compare what’s there today with the first formal landscaping design done in the early 1900s by Parsons. Surprisingly, according to Vonn Marie, much of it still exists.

San Diego was a very small town when the land was dedicated for a “City Park” in 1868, and with no funds to improve it, the west side was used by local residents for everything from digging up dirt and gravel to fill pot holes, to dumping trash, hunting small game, and corralling stray farm animals.

Concerned neighbors began making improvements to the Golden Hill section of the park, while along the west side, a dedicated women’s group undertook the planting of a number of trees, advised by Kate Sessions. But it was not until a “Park Improvement Committee” was appointed by the Chamber of Commerce in 1902 that the city undertook formal development of the 1,400-acre tract. Kate Sessions was a member of that committee, as was George Marston, a wealthy merchant and philanthropist; both felt strongly that a professional was needed to help them.

Marston traveled to New York City that same year and hired Samuel Parsons, Superintendent of Central Park, to develop a landscaping design/master plan for “City Park.” Parsons had worked with Vaux, one of the original designers of Central Park. When Parsons first visited San Diego in December 1902, he was inspired by the park’s potential and began envisioning a picturesque plan that would take advantage of the natural contours of the land and amazing views of the surrounding hills, mountains, bay, and ocean.

He started with the west side. One of the first things he did was figure out where the formal entrance to the park should be, and how the roads and paths west of Pound Canyon* (later Cabrillo Canyon) would be laid out. Most of those roads and paths still exist today. You can see them on aerial maps and compare them to Parson’s original design. One of the main interior roads he designed is known as Balboa Drive today. The Rock ‘n’ Roll 5K walk in early June followed its route to the southern end—Marston Point—and back.

The formal entrance and ellipse that existed before Interstate 5 was constructed are no longer there. But it’s the dream of some, like Vonn Marie May, to one day put a landscaped lid over the freeway, reconnecting the west part of the park to the neighborhoods on the other side, and reconstruct that beautiful entrance. Armed with the Parson Plan, and all the other documentation presented in the Cultural Landscape Report for “West Park,” future planners would have the data needed to begin that process.

*Pound Canyon was an early nickname given to the Balboa Park canyon where Highway 163 runs today, recognizing its former use as a place where stray animals, large and small, were penned.

Pam Crooks is a member of the Balboa Park Conservancy Board of Trustees and the former Deputy Executive Director, Public Operations at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (1978-98). A long-time board member of the Balboa Park Central/House of Hospitality Association, she is also a former member and chair of the Balboa Park Trust—an advisory committee at The San Diego Foundation. Crooks has written and published numerous books and articles on Balboa Park, including two editions of a comprehensive guidebook, Discover Balboa Park, and two walking guides to Balboa Park.