Balboa Park: Looking back and forward

Posted: August 5th, 2016 | Columnists, Featured, Growing Balboa Park | No Comments

By Ann Wilson | Growing Balboa Park

Looking back: Celebrating the zoo’s centennial

I count my blessings that the U.S. Navy stationed my father in San Diego. My parents liked San Diego so much that we never left. They bought a home in Point Loma, where I lived until I left for college.

If there is one iconic institution that represents America’s Finest City, it is the San Diego Zoo. It has been part of the lives of most San Diegans as long as we can remember.

Some of my own fondest childhood memories are from Balboa Park and the zoo. I attended ballet class in the park on Saturday mornings and after class, my mother would take my brother and I to one of the museums or to the zoo.

“Back in the day,” most everything was free, or available for a very low entrance fee. I remember climbing the Moreton Bay fig tree behind the Natural History Museum, along with lots of other kids. There was no fence back then and no rules against climbing trees.

The author remembers climbing this Moreton Bay fig tree, located behind the Natural History Museum, as a child. Today access to the epic tree is restricted. (Photo by Ann Wilson)

The author remembers climbing this Moreton Bay fig tree, located behind the Natural History Museum, as a child. Today access to the epic tree is restricted. (Photo by Ann Wilson)

I’ll also never forget the day at the Children’s Zoo when my brother leaned over and put his hand in the pool where baby sea lions were frolicking. One small sea lion swam up to him and nipped him on the finger. His finger bled a little bit and he screamed bloody murder. My mother told him not to do it again and we continued enjoying the zoo. Needless to say, there is no such sea lion exhibit at the zoo any more. I also remember when the zoo bus drivers were supplied with loaves of Wonder Bread. They would lob slices of Wonder Bread, just like a Frisbee, at the bears to make them sit up and clap their paws. Wonder Bread for the bears has gone the same way as child-accessible sea lion exhibits.

This year, the San Diego Zoo celebrates its 100th birthday and the city is showing its appreciation and affection for the zoo in many ways.

The Friends of Balboa Park will be recognizing the zoo as our Millennium Award honoree for 2016. This award is presented at the Friends’ annual “Salute to Volunteers and Visionaries” luncheon, to recognize and honor individuals and institutions that have made important contributions to the park.

The luncheon will take place Oct. 18, at the Balboa Park Club, starting with a reception from 11 a.m. to noon, followed by lunch and the program. We will also be presenting “inspiration awards” to five dedicated volunteers who come from the various institutions in the park. These unsung heroes contribute many thousands of hours of service in the park each year and its organizations couldn’t function without them.

The zoo’s theme for its Centennial Celebration is “It Began With a Roar.”

The theme for the Friends of Balboa Park’s luncheon is “Gardens That Roar,” as we are honoring the zoo for its amazing horticulture, which has literally “grown” over the last 100 years.

The story goes that founder Dr. Harry Wegeforth would walk around the property that would later become the zoo, with a pocketful of seeds and a cane that was sharpened on one end. As he walked, he would poke holes in the earth with his sharpened stick and drop a few seeds in each hole — San Diego’s very own Johnny Appleseed.

Today, the zoo boasts more than 700,000 plants. To see what the property looked like before Dr. Harry began planting seeds, take a walk in Florida Canyon.

By comparing the two sites, you can see what a total transformation has taken place over the years. Local lore says the plant collection at the zoo is actually more “valuable” than the animal collection, but who can put a price on either? They are both priceless treasures that San Diegans are fortunate to have in our own backyard.

Did you know there are eight plant collections in the zoo? There are collections of acacias, aloes, bamboo, coral trees, cycads, figs, orchids and palms. Each of these collections is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

You can take your own self-guided tour of the plant collections and gardens at the zoo. Go to to download a guide, or pick up a hard copy at the zoo at Guest Services.

In addition to its vital work to protect animals and ecosystems throughout the world, the San Diego Zoo is also engaged in saving plants in the U.S. from extinction.

The Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) oversees over 500 collections of plants in its Native Seed Bank at the zoo’s Safari Park in Escondido. The zoo works closely with the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), which is led by its president, Dr. John Clark. The CPC is now based in San Diego with Dr. Clark also serving as director of plant conservation for ICR.

These are just a few of the reasons we are honoring the zoo’s “Gardens that Roar” in October. Please join us for our luncheon on Oct. 18 to honor and celebrate the zoo’s horticultural achievements. For more information and to receive an invitation, please call our office at 619-232-2282 or send an email to

Looking Forward: Plaza de Panama plan revived

On June 30, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer held a press conference in Balboa Park to announce the re-launch of the Plaza de Panama Plan, a project that would remove vehicular traffic from the central mesa once and for all.

Originally proposed in 2012, the plan will address a number of decades-long challenges in Balboa Park: inadequate parking for the park’s patrons, employees and volunteers; and the inefficient and unsafe vehicular and pedestrian circulation to and within the park’s central mesa.

The plan encompasses a number of key features. The space known as Plaza de Panama — the large open area outside the Museum of Art — will be returned to its original 1915 configuration, removing vehicular traffic that currently intermingles with pedestrian foot traffic, which is a clear safety hazard.

In addition, starting at the east end of Cabrillo Bridge, the El Prado will be closed to cars, while a new bypass bridge will re-route eastbound vehicles from Cabrillo Bridge behind the Mingei Museum, toward a new underground parking garage with 2.2 acres of new gardens behind Spreckels Organ Pavilion.

In total, the plan will ultimately restore 6.3 acres of car-free parkland to Balboa Park.

The Friends of Balboa Park support this transformational plan. By acknowledging the evolution of the ever-growing urban environment surrounding the park, the Plaza de Panama plan offers the best option for Balboa Park’s future. It represents a practical compromise between the intrinsic needs of the park’s internal and external stakeholders and preservation of the historic fabric and character of Balboa Park. The vision and implementation of this plan reflect the best ideals of a public-private partnership, bringing together the support of city officials, the park’s resident institutions and affinity organizations, the philanthropic community, and the citizens of San Diego.

—John Bolthouse, Friends of Balboa Park Executive Director, contributed to this column.

—Ann Wilson is a native San Diegan and has been a board member of the Friends of Balboa Park since 2009. She can be reached through their office at 619-222-2282 or

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