Balboa Park is steeped in history. A true labor of love to the City’s leaders of the era, there was great effort to shape this rolling plot of land into the masterpiece it is today.
Balboa Park began as 1400 acres of land set aside in 1868 by San Diego civic leaders. Known then as “City Park”, the scrub-filled mesa that overlooked present-day Downtown San Diego sat without formal landscaping or development for more than 20 years. (Today the Park’s total land parcel has been reduced to 1,200 acres.)
The first steps in Park beautification were made in 1892, largely due to the contributions of Kate Sessions. Sessions offered to plant 100 trees a year within the Park as well as donate trees and shrubs around San Diego in exchange for 32 acres of land within the Park boundaries to be used for her commercial nursery. Several popular species, including the birds of paradise, queen palm, and poinsettia were introduced into the Park’s horticulture because of Sessions’ early efforts. In fact, many of her original trees are alive and visible today. It is no wonder that Kate Sessions earned the title “The Mother of Balboa Park” at the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.
Just after the turn of the century, a master plan for Park improvements and beautification was formally introduced. Supported by a City tax levied in 1905, the process began in 1903 and continued through 1910. Water systems were installed, planting continued, roads were built, and the Park began to take on much of the familiar look of today.
As San Diego was set to play host to the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and “City Park” was a less-than-memorable or distinctive name for such an internationally prestigious event. In 1910, Park Commissioners announced plans to re-name City Park and the public was eager to throw potential names into the hat, including San Diego Park, Silver Gate Park, Horton Park, and Miramar Park. After months of discussion and great public interest, the Park Commissioners decided on the name Balboa Park, chosen in honor of Spanish-born Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, the first European to spot the Pacific Ocean while on exploration in Panama. The Panama-California Exposition Digital Archive is a permanent Digital Archive of documents, images, audio, and video related to San Diego’s 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Learn more.
For a more detailed history of the Park, check out the City of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation dedicated Balboa Park page or enjoy a short film created by the San Diego Tourism Authority called Balboa Park – The Jewel of San Diego.