The first thing that strikes you when visiting San Diego’s Balboa Park is the unique and stunning architecture of the park buildings. One of your friends or a passerby might mention that the structures were built for a World’s Fair here in 1915. That explanation unfortunately leaves out the most important part of the story. Balboa Park was the site of an audacious act of rebellion. A dangerous gamble hatched at the start of the 20th century to transform a small town into a great city. It’s time to learn the truth. The Panama-California Exposition presented on these grounds was an Outlaw World’s Fair held without international sanction and in opposition to the official event in Northern California.
Blame the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is one of the greatest engineering feats in history. By linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the canal ushered in a new age of global trade during the dawn of the twentieth century. Such a monumental milestone in human history could not be left unexploited by enterprising businessmen and shrewd marketers.
California’s pacific coast seemed the perfect location to hold a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal. After all, ships from Europe could now use the canal to visit the state. There was just one problem, both San Diego and San Francisco wanted to get in on the action and each city was willing to do whatever it took to win.
San Diego vs. San Francisco
In the early 1900s, San Francisco was the largest pacific port in North American and one of the most populous cities in the United States. It wanted to show the world the new and modern metropolis that had arisen from the ruins of the Great Earthquake of 1906. A World’s Fair in celebration of the Panama Canal would advertise the city as the premier destination for goods coming to North America.
Compared to San Francisco, San Diego could barely call itself a city. One of the smallest urban areas in the US, it’s population was only a sliver of its northern cousin. Regardless of its size, the business interests of San Diego were hungry to promote their city to the world. As the closest US pacific port to the Panama Canal, they believed the city’s location would help it grow into a major shipping destination. A World’s Fair in San Diego would bring millions of new visitors and business opportunities to Southern California.
The City by the Bay was not about to let some upstart town on the Mexican border steal it’s moment in the sun. It used all its influence to overshadow San Diego’s expo aspirations, including convincing both federal and state governments to withhold funding. San Francisco’s campaign succeeded and the city won official World’s Fair status for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition.
San Diego however, would not be deterred from its dreams of becoming an international city. Combining contributions from wealthy citizens and municipal bonds, the city was able to finance the project on its own. Choosing a name sure to confuse potential visitors to the official expo, San Diego christened their outlaw world’s fair the Panama–California Exposition.
The Panama–Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco on February 20, 1915 to great fanfare. Over 18 million people visited the fair during its 9 months of operation. Unfortunately, there are very few remaining structures from the expo which can be visited today. Only three buildings still exist, one of which is a reconstruction. The San Francisco fair was a success in its day but was not a transformative event in the history of city. For San Diego, the outcome would be dramatically different.
The Panama–California Exposition would prove to be one of the most important events in the history of San Diego as well as a major cultural milestone for Southern California. Opening on January 1, 1915, it beat the start of the San Francisco expo by almost two months. It also ran longer than that rival fair, lasting a full two years until finally closing on January 1, 1917.
In the second year, it was renamed the Panama–California International Exposition as international exhibitors joined the event; including several who relocated after San Francisco’s fair ended. The expo welcomed almost 4 million visitors, more than 100 times the population of San Diego in 1915.
Seeking to design structures that had never existed before, architect Bertram Goodhue created an entirely new architectural style, Spanish Colonial Revival. Visitors were so enamored with the evocative design of the fair’s buildings that Spanish Colonial Revival became an overnight sensation. For the next twenty years, it would be one of the primary architectural styles in both California and Florida. Much of Southern California’s distinctive style was born in Balboa Park in 1915.
100 Years and Still Growing
The fair also won over one very influential and powerful visitor. Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly declared to the media that he was so impressed with the city and the expo that future naval bases would be built in San Diego. Those facilities were just the start of San Diego’s growth into an American metropolis.
Today San Diego is the second largest city in California and has grown more populous than it’s former World’s Fair rival San Francisco. It is a major commercial and naval port. Over 100 years later, all the dreams of 1915 have been accomplished. The Outlaw World’s Fair put San Diego on the map and lead to a century of prosperity and growth.
This article is part of a DIY Travelers ongoing series, Return to the World’s Fair, a guide to former World’s Fair sites all over the world. We travel to these locations and discover what remains of the fair grounds and buildings. Whether empty fields, ruined buildings, or vibrant urban centers; we guide you on how best to enjoy your visit to a long lost World’s Fair.