History of the Science and Education Building in Balboa Park

by Richard Amero

As with so many of the Panama-California Exposition buildings in Balboa Park, the Science and Education Building went through a number of names. Before it was constructed, it was called the Machinery Building and the Arts and Crafts Building. Eventually, the Building and Grounds Committee decided on the Science and Education Building, the name by which it is generally recognized. After the 1915-16 Exposition, the renaming process continued, to correspond with the vicissitudes of the building’s history. It became the Palace of Photography for the 1935 season of the California-Pacific International Exposition and the Medical Arts Building for the 1936 season and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Building in 1939. Amid the parade of changing names, the Park Department designated the building as number 4, which it remained on official records.

The Science and Education Building, built at a cost of $44,328, was of sturdy wood-frame construction with walls of wood lath and plaster. An arcade, running around the south and east sides of the building, gave it the appearance of a rectangle. The arcade was partially free and partially affixed to overhanging pavilions. West and east pavilions, commonly called “wings,” were connected at the north end by a long hall. Wings and hall enclosed an open-air patio. Another open-air patio was located at the southeast corner. Being a mixture of different period styles, the building’s details were provocative enough to make people look twice. They would not have pleased lovers of Classical purity . . . people who don’t like brass bands in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler or the eerie juxtapositions in modern poetry and surrealist paintings. Putting aside exacting standards, the building’s blend of restrained Spanish-Renaissance trim and ebullient Mexican baroque details made sense. Aside from the stately rhythm of the arcades (concealed on the outside by plants), east and west wings were distinguished by ornamental columns, pilasters, pediments and bases surrounding windows, intricate wood brackets and coffering under eaves, and imitation Spanish-tile roofs.

An entrance to a spacious concealed patio in a rollicking Churrigueresue-style interrupted the south-side arcade. Having become acquainted with the fractured columns and energetic volutes on Mexican retablos and facades, Carleton Winslow, Sr. would incorporate them later in his designs of Spanish-Colonial Revival style buildings in Santa Barbara and Montecito, most notably on the facade of the Santa Barbara public library.

As with secluded gardens in Spain and Mexico, the garden inside the patio was intended as a surprise. Since there was so much planting on the outside of the Exposition buildings, the surprise was not as keen as it would have been if the contrast were greater.

Professor of Decorative Design at the University of California, Eugen Neuhaus, who gave the Science and Education Building only passing words of acknowledgment for its dignity and gracious deportment, lavished praise on the garden.

In contrast to the English-garden effect of the Montezuma garden across El Prado, its vegetation is truly tropical. Right at the entrance, at either side of a few steps leading up from the arcade, are standing guard, with outstretched arms, two belligerent-looking Dragon trees, of the Dracaena family. A refreshing area of grass, leads up all around against the solid wall of Bananas, Bamboo, Ferns, Papyrus, grouped in a most effective way to show off its foliage of unimpaired growth. Creeping and pushing through from everywhere, vines of all sorts ramble and clamber over the bushes and trees, in their effort to reach sunlight above. (Eugen Neuhaus, The San Diego Garden Fair, Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco, 1916, pp. 65-66)

A distinctive feature in the patio was the appearance on the east side of an octagonal tower crowned at the top by bright black and yellow tiles , made by the California China Products Company of National City. There were stairs inside. Presumably a window could be opened for a muezzin to summon the faithful to prayers. Since no prototype has been discovered, the tower appears to have been a product of Winslow’s imagination. His son, Carleton Winslow, Jr., described it as Art Deco in style. It echoed another tower in Spanish-Colonial style on the Indian Arts Building, across El Prado on the south, and was one of many towers on the grounds that gave the silhouette made by the Exposition buildings a look of richness, variety and enchantment.

Another patio, in a corner created by angles between the pavilions, followed the turn of the arcade at the Plaza de Panama. Here the crowning feature was an ornate Baroque window high up on a rear wall. A rug hung down from the sill, giving a look of reality to the static scene. Every so often, a senorita would lean over the sill to listen to a serenade from a Spanish troubadour on the patio below. Thick subtropical planting was like that on the south-side patio. The window did not lead to a room as space behind the upper-level wall was open.

Three open arches at ground level established the outlines of the east-side entrance. A Baroque set piece rose above the center arch. It was highlighted by a deep-set round window and by finials rising from a modest espadana. While the Spanish-Renaissance details on the south side of the building came from many buildings in Spain, here the white-plaster, flat facade came from the Church of San Francisco in Puebla, Mexico (Sylvester Baxter, Spanish Colonial Architecture in Mexico, J. B. Millet, Boston, 1902, plate 64). Differences were noticeable, as the elongated Puebla facade was broken and recessed in the manner of an open screen with oblique folding panels. Its surface was made of dark brick, decorated with glazed tiles and with carvings and sculpture of a dark bluish-brown stone. If one could forget this knowledge, and people in 1915 were not aware of it, the flat white facade was impressive. It provided the contrast needed to mark the entrance to a festive Exposition building.

Further to the north, the building terminated in an open-trellis above the arcade that echoed the trellis at the north end of the Home Economy Building on the other side of the Plaza de Panama to the east. On the lower level, the arcade joined an arcade in front of the Sacramento Valley Building, thus providing an axis for a view of a fountain of Pan and of a garden of trees beyond on the back outsides of both the Science and Education and the Sacramento Valley Buildings. Busts, but not whole figures of Pan, were used as motifs in all the patios of the Science and Education Building. Their symbolism and relation to eighteenth-century Mexico were obscure.

The San Diego Union went to great lengths to describe anthropological exhibits inside the Science and Education Building, but did not inform readers of the layout of the building. The Official Guidebook of the Panama-California Exposition helped to fill in gaps, but, until the plan of the building is discovered, much remains unknown. According to the Guidebook, the main portion was the connecting hall between east and west wings, which contained exhibits from the Metropolitan Insurance Company telling how it served the best interests of its clients. The west wing contained a bureau of information, a service division, telephone booths and telegraph offices. The building got its name from exhibits mounted by the National Museum and the Smithsonian Institute in the east wing. As these exhibits were the most costly, difficult to obtain, and informative and because they left a lasting legacy in Balboa Park, they deserve further elaboration.

Under the supervision of Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, president of the School of American Archaeology and director of exhibits, Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, head of the Department of Physical Anthropology at the U.S. National Museum, assembled exhibits illustrating “the science of evolution” from around the world. He arranged for their placement in four rooms of the Science and Education Building.

Room one contained ten models by Mascre, a Belgian sculptor, showing likenesses of men in prehistoric times, from “Java man,” a million years ago, to a man from European forests of twenty thousand years ago. These were supplemented by drawings of early man.

Room two illustrated the development of the human body from fecundation to senility. Exhibits and charts showed the development of the brain, skull, lower jaw and bones.

Room three contained models illustrating racial and sexual differences in the development of mankind. Implications of white racial superiority in this exhibit offended Robert Rydell, professor of history at the University of Montana. (Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair, University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 220-23)

Room four illustrated pre-Columbian surgery. Skulls from Peru showed evidences of clumsy trephining with instruments that were probably made of stone.

Room five, described as an Anthropological Laboratory, contained a library, cases for bibliographic cards, portraits of prominent scientists, instruments for measuring people, and other material of use to anthropologists.

In 1916, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum created a Hall of Ethnology in the central hall, by ousting the life insurance exhibits. Models of Eskimos of Alaska, Zulus of South America, Dyaks of Borneo, and Caribs of British Guiana appeared in dioramas exemplifying family and village life.

The information bureau in the west room must have disappeared for an Archeological Hall was installed portraying scenes pertaining to the archaeology of the American southwest. These exhibits were transferred from the 1915 Indian Arts Building, which in 1916 became the Russia and Brazil Building. The Joseph Jessop loan collection of bows and arrows was also in this room.

In May 1917, the Science and Education Building became the Indian Arts Museum and the 1915 Indian Arts Building (1916 Russia and Brazil) became the Science of Man Building. Sometime after March 1, 1922, the San Diego Museum Association removed exhibits from the former Science and Education Building; the Park Commission then installed a refreshment stand inside the building.

A campaign to repair deteriorating Exposition buildings in 1922 resulted in funds raised from public subscription being made available to repair the building, then being referred to by its old title of Science and Education Building. Skylights were repaired, walls plastered, ornament retreated, footings replaced with concrete, and new wiring put in. Costs for repairs came to $9,511.

Merchant prince George W. Marston explained the rationale behind the 1922 restoration:

Instead of a collection of exhibition sheds, we have the simulacrum of an old Spanish city. It may be a phantom in some respects, but, it looks like the real thing. The wonder of it amazes me. Built for a day, it has the elements of permanency; historic interest, architectural integrity, beauty of form, color, group relationship and landscape setting. You can cross the great bridge, pass through the stately portal, and find yourself in another world — that’s partly the charm of it — the transition from San Diego to Seville, from California to Spain. (George W. Marston, A Family Chronicle, Vol. 2, Ward Ritchie Press, 1956, pp. 49-50)

The Park Department, on August 29, 1922, tore down north and east walls inside the Science and Education Building for an undisclosed reason and refused to relinquish its refreshment stand, despite a protest from Douglas McKinnon, president of the San Diego Museum Association.

The San Diego Union, on July 29, 1923 and on January 1, 1925, mentioned that Indian collections, that had been removed from the building in 1922, were partly in storage in the California Building, the Art Gallery, and the Science of Man Building.

Belatedly, the Recreation Committee of the Parent Teachers Association and School and Museum Committee asked the Park Board, on December 3, 1931, for permission to use the building “recently relinquished by the San Diego Museum.” Following approval of the request, the building assumed the title of Visual Education and Art School.

Because of falling cornices, fire hazards, and inability to resist earthquakes, Oscar R. Knecht, assistant city building inspector, condemned almost all the temporary Exposition buildings in 1933. His action produced a flurry of protests and a second campaign to raise money. Costs of repairing the former Science and Education Building were estimated at $27,100. Playing his trump card, Knecht declared:

The buildings have no practical value other than to grace the vision of visitors, and with one or two exceptions have never been of any practical purpose since the Exposition, except to house a few studios, and for general storage purposes.

Architect Richard Requa claimed the Science and Education Building could be restored from “from five to ten years” for $9,650, to which Knecht retorted that he was not in favor of a “patch work job.”

As he had done in 1922, George W. Marston appealed to the public for funds, saying,

It is simply shocking to think of the destruction of this wonderful treasure place. Just imagine the desolation of it. It’s like the burning of libraries and the breaking of costly sculptures. (Radio address, KFSD, June 29, 1933)

Repairs began in September after $23,000 had been raised by public contribution and federal relief funds. The skylight glass was replaced and the main roof was repaired.

Another infusion of funding came from the State Employment Relief Association (SERA) to put the buildings in Balboa Park in order for the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition and to put up new buildings. During the first year of the Exposition, the Visual Education and Art School section of the building became the Science Hall, an adjunct of the Palace of Science, actually the San Diego Museum (Museum of Man since 1942), which occupied the buildings in the California Quadrangle.

While confusion exists over which exhibits were where, American Telephone and Telelegraph Company set up exhibits in and around the southeast patio, among which were a “speech inverter” that scrambled and unscrambled voices, an oscilloscope that reproduced sounds in light waves across a darkened screen, and a magnetic recorder that recorded conversations on telephone wires. Replicas of the Monte Alban jewels, sent by the Mexican government, and Alpha, a mechanical robot, were also placed near the southeast section.

The Palace of Photography occupied the mid-east section of the building, facing the Plaza de Panama. Because of the Palace of Photography’s prominent location and title in letters above its entrance, the 1935 Exposition Corporation called the entire building “the Palace of Photography.” Agfa-Ansco Company, Dictograph Products Company, Eastman Kodak Company, and John Sirigo, the official Exposition photographer, were the principal exhibitors. They held photography contests in the Palace throughout 1935 during which Mr. Sirigo gave gold and silver medals and ribbons to lucky winners.

Tenants in center and west sections of the building included Encylopedia Britannica, Eternal Calendar, Grolier Society, Rees-Stealy Clinic, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, West Disinfecting Company, California Optometrists, Folmer Graflex Corporation, Human Betterment Foundation, Fundamental Evangelistic Association, Christian Record (a Braille magazine), and Beacon Book Shop.

In 1936, the entire building was called the Palace of Medical Science. The San Diego Medical Society, the California Medical Association and the American Medical Association installed exhibits depicting “the last word in medical and surgical advancement.” Manufacturers of pharmaceutical products and makers of medical and surgical supplies took up space. X-ray films and pathological specimens exhibited by the Southern California Pathologists Association captured the interests of visitors. Young mothers were, however, more likely to attend the lectures on proper methods of infant feeding and demonstrations on how to prevent diphtheria.

City Manager R. W. Flack, on October 13, 1936, decided to allow the San Diego Museum to return to the west end of the building. State Societies would hold meetings in the middle portion, and the DeVol School of Art would occupy the east wing.

In 1939, the Veterans of Foreign Wars surrendered its quarters in the O’Rourke Zoological Institute to the San Diego Zoological Society and moved into the central portion of the building. Calling itself the San Diego Academy of Fine Arts, the Visual Education and Art School continued to occupy the eastern section, and the San Diego Museum Association retained its quarters in the western wing.

Like all the other tenants on El Prado and in the Palisades, the Veterans abandoned the building during World War II. It appears never to have been used as a hospital ward. A map prepared by the U.S. Naval Hospital, date unknown, shows that the building was converted to use as a nurses’ quarters. Otherwise, there is no information about uses to which it may have been put.

The City Council established an informal and possibly illegal policy that obliged the U.S. Navy to restore the buildings in Balboa Park, at government expense, to “the condition they were in before they were taken over.” The U.S. Navy concluded separate agreements with the Fine Arts Gallery, the San Diego Museum, and the Natural History Museum in March 1943, that were more generous to the tenants of these buildings, paying for the expenses of removal and for the curatorial expenses of staff.

It is easy to describe the history of the Science and Education/Palace of Photography/Medical Science/Veterans of Foreign Wars Building after World War II as a hiatus occurred during which nothing happened. The Fine Arts Society had requested and received promises that it could tear down the Science and Education and Home Economy Buildings to the west and east sides of the Fine Arts Gallery and replace them with new wings to the Gallery. It was understood that the new buildings would conform to the Spanish-Renaissance and Spanish-Colonial styles of buildings along El Prado and in the Plaza de Panama. Indeed, architect William Templeton Johnson had already drawn up plans for a replacement for the Home Economy Building. Johnson knew a lot about Spanish-Renaissance architecture. He had many books on the subject, which upon his death became the property of the San Diego Public Library. He knew little about Spanish-Colonial architecture in Mexico and South America and how it differed from the more formal and standardized aspects of Renaissance and Baroque buildings in Spain.

There was irony in the Fine Art Gallery’s request for new buildings for the Gallery’s director, Reginald Poland, admitted that, even with the new buildings, the Gallery would “not be able to display all its art treasures at one time.” A 1957 Citizens Study Committee and a 1960 Master Plan for Balboa Park prepared by the Harland Bartholomew planners of St. Louis concurred that the Medical Arts and American Legion Buildings should be demolished. The stalemate was that there was no money with which to put up the new buildings.

Matters came to a head on September 14, 1961 when the San Diego City Council approved plans to replace the American Legion Building with a boxlike affair with showy grills, designed by San Diego architect Frank Hope, to house the Timken-Putnam collection of art, and on November 9, 1961 when the Council approved plans by San Diego architects Robert Mosher and Roy Drew to replace the Science and Education/Veterans of Foreign Wars Building with a new building with 24 feet high tapered columns and precast aggregate concrete walls. These replacement buildings did not harmonize with the Fine Arts Gallery nor with the surviving Exposition buildings on El Prado.

Mrs. Pat Murphy, an officer of the Better Government Association, commented at the time that Mosher’s and Drew’s design was “nothing but four walls, a flat roof and a bunch of columns. It’s no more Spanish than a Salvation army lassie would be if you put a tambourine in her hand.”

Having established an Olympian position regarding the architecture preservationists wanted to keep, architecture critic James Britton was caustic about the “practical” buildings destined for the east and west sides of the Fine Arts Gallery. In acidity, his words exceeded the anger of less articulate writers:

The City — in its respect for money — is perfectly willing to let the Fine Arts Society have its own way in designing its wings because the money will come from public subscriptions or from private gifts-with-strings-attached rather than out of the city exchequer.The Putnam trustees are lawyers and bankers. They are ill-qualified to distinguish good from bad in architecture though they surely know what they like. What they like in a case like this in unbreathing monumentality, and Hope’s busy office will turn it out with businesslike dispatch.


[Mosher’s and partner Drew’s] tendency is toward honest simplicity, but this will not be a sufficient answer along El Prado, where “high style” is called for to maintain the mood established by the designers of 1915.


The disparity of approaches on the two wings is an esthetic crime of which no worthy Fine Arts Society would be guilty.


The Fine Arts Society has defaulted on a major art-of-architecture problem, and there appears to be no one in city government concerned enough to see that a master plan of architectural esthetics is developed before any new buildings go up in the park. (San Diego Magazine, November 1959, p. 70)

Britton was aware that replacing the Home Economy and Science and Education Buildings with buildings that did not match their style and scale would do irreparable harm to the esthetic character of El Prado; no matter how well such buildings might be in other settings. Britton was not alone in this belief. Beginning with G. Aubrey Davidson in 1915 and Eugen Nehuaus in 1916, citizens, critics and architects have stressed that new buildings on El Prado should be copies of the old or so similar that their presence would not vitiate the integrity of the overall scheme.

The ideal solution, then and now, would have been to replace the Science and Education Building with a copy, modified slightly to accommodate the uses of an art museum. This would have entailed the creation of a large basement, as was done when the Commerce and Industries Building, the Foreign Arts Building, and the Indian Arts Building, originally built in 1915, were rebuilt.

As the Science and Education Building lacked a second floor, except in small spaces over entrances on El Prado and the Plaza de Panama, it would have been easy to add a second floor over all its sections. Because false fronts disguised the upper levels, giving the impression that there were rooms behind them, instead of roofs and open space, a second floor would not have interfered with the original design.

In 1964-65, the majestic Palace of Fine Arts, near the Golden Gate Bridge, built of staff for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, was reconstructed in permanent materials because people in San Francisco has fallen in love with its romantic image. In 1964-65, the 1915 Science and Education and the 1915 Home Economy Buildings were replaced with buildings in modernistic architectural styles. Unlike San Franciscans, San Diegans allowed this destruction to take place because they lacked the will to challenge those with power and to raise the money required to reconstruct buildings that comprised, in Panama-California Exposition master architect Bertram Goodhue’s words,

… a city-in-miniature wherein everything that met the eye and ear of the visitor were meant to recall to mind the glamour and mystery and poetry of the old Spanish Days. (The Architecture and Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco, 1916, introduction by Bertram Goodhue, p. 6)

Kevin Starr, librarian for the State of California, has written about the Mexican connection. People in the United States have viewed this connection differently over the years. Starr wrote that the popularizers of the San Diego Exposition in 1915 wanted a fantasy of Mexico without Mexicans. Architect Goodhue had a warped view of Mexicans.

. . . in Southern California may be found . . . the tenderest of skies, the bluest of seas, mountains of perfect outline, the richest of subtropical foliage, the soft speech and unfailing courtesy of the half-Spanish, half-Indian peasantry — even much in the way of legendry that has wandered slowly northward in the wake of the padres. (The Architecture and Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco, 1916, p. 5)

Goodhue’s imagination was so filled with the theatrical palaces and churches of Vice Regal Mexico that he lost sight of the real situation in Mexico in which the “half-Spanish, half-Indian peasantry” were struggling to rid themselves of the semi-slavery that had been their lot since the Spanish conquest.

As Starr has said, San Diego has a special relation to Mexico. The name “California” applies both to its lower and upper divisions. Tijuana is a twin city. The future of San Diego and Tijuana are intertwined. Each city needs the other for the greater prosperity of both. Demographers predict that within the next decade people of Mexican extraction will outnumber all other people in Southern California. Therefore, San Diego has a decisive and unavoidable Mexican connection, both in its past when Spanish soldiers moved down from the Presidio to establish residences in Old Town and ranches throughout the area and in the present when consumers, workers and goods flow back and forth across the border. Far from deploring this situation, San Diegans should remember the ways they benefit from Mexico. It is Mexican food they sometimes eat; it is Mexican clothes they sometimes wear; it is Mexican music they sometimes listen to; and it is Spanish-Mexican architecture they enjoy in Balboa Park.

San Diegans honor Mexico and themselves when they try to make the Prado section of Balboa Park the shining “city on a hill,” that Bertram Goodhue, Carleton Winslow, and Frank P. Allen set out to create. It is within the providence of citizens not only to recreate this image, but to make it better.

Return to Amero Collection.