Return of the West Arcade
By David Marshall
Looking eastward in El Prado, 1915. Courtesy David Marshall Collection
There's not a more picturesque or famous location in San Diego than Balboa Park. The backbone of Balboa Park is El Prado, the east-west roadway that gives order to the collection of famed 1915 Spanish Revival exposition buildings that have become San Diego's architectural legacy. Both sides of the Prado were designed with continuous arcades, which functioned as walkways that sheltered pedestrians from the sun and rain. The arcades also visually reduced the scale of the tall exposition buildings and helped create a cohesive linkage between the many structures along El Prado.
In the early 1960's, two of the most important buildings on the north side of the Prado were torn down. The Home Economy Building and the Science and Education Building were temporary buildings that flanked the Plaza de Panama for the 1915-16 and 1935-36 Expositions. Once the buildings fell into disrepair they were thoughtlessly demolished instead of being reconstructed. The Timken Gallery and west wing and sculpture garden of the San Diego Museum of Art soon replaced the buildings. Unfortunately, the new buildings completely disregarded the Spanish architecture of the Prado and eliminated the continuous arcades that helped to link all of the Prado buildings together.
In the early 1990's, the first step in returning El Prado to its historic appearance came when the Committee of One Hundred funded the reconstruction of the arcade that once was a part of the Home Economy Building. The Committee of One Hundred, led by Pat DeMarce, is an organization that was created to help preserve the Spanish Revival architecture of Balboa Park. The reconstructed arcade achieved two beneficial results: it helped continue the east half of the arcade all the way to the Plaza de Panama, and it screened the incompatible modern architecture of the Timkin Gallery from El Prado.
For the past few years, in an effort to recreate the last missing piece of the Prado arcade, the Committee of One Hundred has been proposing to reconstruct the west arcade that was once a part of the Science and Education Building. The arcade was over 300 feet long and extended from the Museum of Man building all the way to the Plaza de Panama, in front of where the Museum of Art's west wing and sculpture garden now sit. SOHO strongly supported the idea of reconstructing the west arcade and helped to persuade the city to amend the Central Mesa Precise Plan, the governing document for all Balboa Park, to allow for its reconstruction.
Science & Education Building, 1915. Courtesy David Marshall collection
The problem with the Committee of One Hundred's plans was that the proposed design was not a historically accurate re-creation of the 1915 arcade. In fact, it represented a simplified and stripped-down arcade that never existed in the park. The size, arch spacing, and ornamentation were not accurately depicted, and the Moorish-influenced main entry portal that once led into the south courtyard of the Science and Education building was wrongly omitted. The four-sided entry portal had a unique design that included a red tile roof and many ornamental flourishes.
The other disconcerting element of the proposed arcade was an oversized archway that was added to accommodate fire truck access for the Old Globe Theater complex and give the Globe a grand entry on El Prado. Unfortunately, the 22-foot-wide archway had no historical precedence, and it would significantly alter the historic look and scale of the arcade. There exists a wealth of accurate information documenting how the original arcade looked; there was no reason to create a non-historic building in the heart of Balboa Park's National Historic Landmark District.
SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons and I expressed our concerns about the Committee of One Hundred's arcade design to the San Diego Historical Resources Board on November 28, 2001. We argued that the only appropriate design for the Prado was a historically accurate arcade that followed the National Park Service's Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Reconstruction. The Standards say, in part, "Reconstruction will be based on the accurate duplication of historic features and elements." The proposed west arcade was not an accurate reconstruction and would have created a false sense of history. In addition, the Central Mesa Precise Plan states that "missing historic elements should be reconstructed wherever possible."
The Historical Resources Board agreed and voted to put the issue on hold until a new design could be generated by architect Gayne Wimer. Immediately after the Historical Resources Board meeting, the Committee of One Hundred, Mr. Wimer, the City Park and Recreation Department and SOHO, began a cooperative effort to resolve the design issues. Subsequent meetings included historian Will Chandler, Michael Crowe from the National Park Service, Angeles Leira from the Historical Resources Board and Bob Medan from the San Diego Fire Department.
The result of these meetings was a successful redesign of the arcade that is historically faithful while still meeting the goals of the Committee of One Hundred. The new west arcade design closely matches the 1915 arcade and will incorporate the detailing, arch spacing, column bases, moldings, cornices and parapets of the original design. In addition, the latest design includes the Moorish entry portal that faces El Prado.
Historian Will Chandler was able to locate the original 1913 ink-on-linen drawings at the downtown library's California Room archives. The new design was greatly enhanced by copying the highly detailed original construction drawings. After an on-site meeting with the San Diego Fire Department, it became clear that the fire truck access issue could not be eliminated from the new arcade. The Committee of One Hundred's latest plans for the west arcade include a much-improved archway design that is smaller, simpler, and does not loom over the Prado as the previous design had done. This "new improved" design was approved by the Historical Resources Board on January 25, 2002.
The Next Step
Now it's time to get the west arcade built! Future issues, like the design of the light fixtures, paving, materials, railing design, and paint colors, all are important to the success of the west arcade, and SOHO looks forward to continued cooperation among those involved in this project. Hopefully, the Science and Education Building will be reconstructed one day as well. I'm happy to say that the revised west arcade design would be fully compatible with a future reconstruction of the Science and Education Building behind it.
SOHO applauds the efforts of the Committee of One Hundred and their architect to replace the gone-but-not-forgotten El Prado west arcade. There's an ongoing fundraising effort to help pay for the arcade and, if you wish to help the cause, contributions can be made to the Committee of 100. Thanks to the cooperation of all those involved, the revised arcade design achieves the beauty and historical integrity that Balboa Park deserves.
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