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ASLA Nominates Balboa Park
For Cultural Landscape Designation

By Vonn Marie May

Balboa Park

As it stands today only a small portion of Balboa Park is historically designated. The American Society of Landscape Architects, San Diego Chapter wants to change that. In September they officially submitted a nomination for a full boundary Cultural Landscape designation to the City. It remains pending and your support would be most appreciated.

San Diego's decision to set aside an inordinately large tract of land for purposes of a public park only 18 years after California statehood and the city's municipal incorporation, and with a very small population, was a significant act in itself. The City fathers at the time were far sighted and had a visionary civic understanding for the potential of growth. Contemporaneous with this set aside was the birth of the nation's first comprehensively planned 'Greensward' later to be known as New York's Central Park; the first prodigious example of a public park designed in the 'Picturesque' style.

The creation of the City Park reservation was one of the most heroic land gestures in San Diego history, but the subsequent diligence required to protect the boundary is yet another layer of significance. The battle to deconstruct the set aside was constant, from the State Legislature's ratification in 1870 for thirty years thereafter, until the first comprehensive professional master plan could address its totality. Relentless efforts to whittle the acreage of the reservation away persisted but were turned back by citizen initiatives and principled leaders every step of the way.

With the urging of horticulturist Kate O. Sessions, San Diego's Merchant Prince George W. Marston and others, a Park Commission was formed and a top national Landscape Architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. was commissioned to produce the park's first master plan addressing the full 1400 acres. The compelling commitment of these three people in particular, Sessions, Marston, and Parsons, created the beginning of a first class setting, comparable to any in America at the time for a large central city park. Their lives and work make them outstanding personalities each on their own, but in this setting they were quite a powerful force in effecting a project of this magnatude.

From the ethics of the landscape 'Picturesque' design movement, Parsons was considered a distinguished interpreter of the style. Known as a standard bearer and continuum of the Olmsted legacy, no other American Landscape Architect of the day was better suited to the task of taking the blank canvas of San Diego's city park land and transforming it to a world class park environment. Parsons was also the co-founder of the century old American Society of Landscape Architects, originating in his New York City offices in 1899, on the threshold of a new century.

Parsons' design approach was the application of principles from the styles he ascribed to onto the open land, respecting every natural feature and contour. The plant palette was one of heroic evergreen tree canopy--mostly exotic-a complimentary and sometimes flowering understory and drought tolerant ground cover. In consultation with Kate Sessions, he developed a horticultural vision of great reflection and solace speaking for the late Victorian sensibilities. Park planning in America was at its emergent genius and serendipitously San Diego benefited greatly, it would be a different park, indeed, without the thoughtful design plan asserted by Parsons.

Also included with the Parsons influence are the sites of pre-1910 parts of the park; Kate Session's Park Nursery, Golden Hill Park, and any and all memorial groves planted that contributed to the character of the park prior to the Expositions.

The following is the ASLA's excerpted position statement:

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is presenting a gift to the citizens of San Diego, the designation of Balboa Park as a Historic Landmark. The mission of ASLA is to lead, to educate and to participate in the careful stewardship, wise planning and artful design of our cultural and natural environments.

The Historic Landmark designation is primarily an honor. It is intended to raise public awareness of the historical significance of Balboa Park and to serve as a guide for future planning.

Balboa Park is a treasured public resource and ASLA believes the entire park and its contributions to San Diego should be understood and integrated into the park management to benefit future generations. Currently, buildings and features in the park have Historic Landmark designations, yet the park as an open space and landscape setting for those buildings and features is not designated.

Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park

Cabrillo Bridge, 1914. Coons collection


The park exemplifies the picturesque ideals of designing within the natural topography, accentuating view opportunities and planting groups of majestic trees in natural, rather than formal patterns. In developing the plan, Landscape Architect Samuel Parsons recognized the site's varied topography and unique setting between expansive mountains and the wide ocean. He saw the park as a distinct collection of "harbors, bays, islands, promontories, mountains and miles of open lands." Although the "miles of open lands" are now a city, much of the park has matured in to the original vision as designed by Parsons. The park entrances and circulation roads we use in Balboa Park today were laid out by Parsons. Many of the trees planted nearly 100 years ago remain towering above and framing distant views of the mountains and the bay.

The designation would require that proposed alterations in the park would be reviewed by the City's Historical Resources Board. Once the historic designation is established, a detailed study must be made to determine how to interpret and apply the historic significance. That study would be incorporated into the Balboa Park Master Plan. The National Park Service, Historic Landscape Initiative is a program provides guidelines and tools for the treatment of historic landscapes that can be used to conduct the study.

It was my honor to work with the ASLA in authoring their nomination of Balboa Park to the City's list of landmarks. It is important to know that before the expositions there was the best of park planning and early implementation, all before 1915. By 1910 more than 14,000 trees had been planted. All of the circulation; Park Blvd., Florida Canyon, Balboa Drive, Golden Hill loop road, the precursor to the Cabrillo Freeway and all of the carefully selected entrances had been chosen and constructed. Balboa Park is one of the nation's most significant large urban parks and deserves to be recognized as such.

2001 - Volume 32, Issue 4

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