How 1960s SD Navigated a Gift to Balboa Park - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

How 1960s SD Navigated a Gift to Balboa Park

The City Council feared it would lose a multimillion-dollar gift for Balboa Park if it did not act quickly and in favor of the proposal the donors had in mind.

 

The City Council feared it would lose a multimillion-dollar gift for Balboa Park if it did not act quickly and in favor of the proposal the donors had in mind.

That familiar-sounding scenario was the talk of the town in the early 1960s.

Two influential families with connections to San Diego wanted to build a new museum in Balboa Park to house Old Masters paintings. The art, worth $2 million, would come from the Putnam sisters, nieces of an inventor whose innovations included a wire used to fasten corks to bottles. And the $1 million for the building would come from the Timkens — Ohio-based ball bearing magnates.

Around the same time, the San Diego Museum of Art, known then as the Fine Arts Gallery, wanted to build a new west wing.

But both plans would mean tearing down original structures built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. The buildings were condemned, but San Diegans had grown attached to the Spanish-Colonial village over the years, and weren’t about to let the buildings go quietly.

The buildings in question were the Science and Education Building to the west of the Fine Arts Gallery, and the Home Economy Building, on the northeast corner of the Plaza de Panama. Here are photos of how it looked originally, from the Committee of One Hundred.

The Science and Education Building:

 

And the Home Economy Building:

 

But the proposed new buildings were starkly different from that ornately decorated Spanish-Colonial style. The Putnams’ and Timkens’ foundation favored a Modernist structure with sharp edges, engineered with modern considerations for lighting art and moving people through the space. The original buildings had never been planned for permanent museums — many were just shells with whitewashed rooms inside for exhibits.

City leaders and citizens engaged in the public discussion of the plans argued over how to retain Balboa Park’s historicity while allowing the park to house the gifts. Public outcry mounted.

“It’s nothing but four walls, a flat roof and a bunch of columns,” Pat Murphy, a member of the Balboa Park Protective Association, was quoted in a November 1961 San Diego Union article as saying. “It’s no more Spanish than a Salvation Army lassie would be if you put a tambourine in her hand.”

But the proposed one-story Modernist building carried its own charm for some local architects, who favored the departure from the stage-scenery-style buildings that were there to begin with.

City Councilman Ross Tharp thought the new building, designed by architect Frank L. Hope, would stick out like a sore thumb.

“Except that it wouldn’t be a sore thumb, it would be a beautiful thumb,” replied City Manager George Bean, adding that it was “wrong to assume that modern architecture cannot be as beautiful as historical architecture,” according to a Union article.

In response to the public outcry over the design, and the city’s uncertainty, Walter Ames, the attorney representing the families’ foundations, took the donation off the table.

A 1961 editorial in the Union newspaper proclaimed “Gift Horse Kicked.”

“The City Council, unable to decide, unsure of the right of things, afraid to act, has kicked away a tremendous cultural asset to the city,” the newspaper seethed.

Soon, city leaders called Ames back and pleaded with him to reconsider, without architectural strings attached.

We’ve been looking at episodes from the park’s 140-plus-year history of big changes and controversies, as controversy came to a head in July over a plan to remake the park’s western entrance with a new bridge and a paid parking structure. The opponents of the plan sued the city Monday.

The Timken example offers an interesting look at how the city has navigated philanthropy in the park in the past. The current controversy in the park also involves philanthropy. Crying broke, the city has asked for philanthropists to step up to take on deferred projects and complete needed maintenance for the city’s crown jewel, especially as the 100-year anniversary of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition nears. Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs is the most prominent philanthropist involved in the plan to reroute cars away from the Plaza de Panama, reserving that space for pedestrians. He’s faced criticism about vehemently pushing his plan despite cries the project will damage the park’s historic character. When the City Council approved the plan in July, several councilmembers commented they didn’t want to risk losing Jacobs’ commitment to raising or personally contributing the lion’s share of the $45 million project.

Back to the Timken controversy: the city’s begging worked. But they still had to deal with unhappy residents.

As we learned in our earlier look at the 1915-1916 exposition, some of the old exposition buildings were falling apart and were never meant to be permanent. (Park designer Bertram Goodhue had even said that “only by thus razing all of the temporary buildings will San Diego enter upon the heritage that is rightfully hers.”)

But park archivist Richard Amero wrote that the original exposition buildings carried an “essential friendliness.

It was that, and “their associations with the glamour and opulence of a vanished past that made these buildings so endearing to people,” he wrote.

A 1961 San Diego Magazine piece summed up the situation the city’s decision created:

But now, if the gift is re-instated as seems likely, for better or for worse, the city has embarked on a new, dangerous — and highly challenging — experiment: the partial rebuilding of Balboa Park attempting to preserve the best of the old … at the same time creating new architecture compatible with the old and as good or better than the beloved if sham Spanish relics of 1915. It is going to be an awfully difficult job under the best circumstances — calling for rare architectural excellence and taste — but it hasn’t a ghost of a chance at success if it is done with the to-hell-with-the-public spirit which has marked the Timken wing controversy.

Soon after the Timken opened in 1965, a citizen’s group launched to keep fighting to preserve the existing original buildings. That group, the Committee of One Hundred, is still around.

And it’s still fighting the modern additions along El Prado.

“We believe it’s a realistic prospect that, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, one of the two modern buildings on the Plaza de Panama will outlive its usefulness and be replaced by a replica of the original 1915 Exposition Building,” said Mike Kelly, the Committee’s current president.

The current director of the free-admission Timken Museum, John Wilson, told us recently he enjoys the juxtaposition of his building’s architecture with the surrounding ones on El Prado.

Anything is complemented by something that is different to it, which is why you have sweet-and-sour pork. The Putnam Foundation wanted a modern building, and there was a very strong trend of building modern museums to house the artwork of the past.

This building is all about art and making sure there are no barriers to seeing art.

But nearly 50 years after the building’s opening, Kelly doesn’t behold the same beauty.

“The Timken Museum is a wonderful asset and should certainly stay in Balboa Park,” Kelly said, “but its modern building has always been out of place.”

♦♦♦

Here are two postcards showing the buildings in question, from the 1915-1916 exposition. These come from David Marshall, an architect who’s worked on restoring several Balboa Park buildings. Here’s Marshall’s 2007 article for the Save Our Heritage Organisation’s magazine about 10 original landmarks in the park that are no longer there.

The Science and Education Building was replaced by the west wing of the San Diego Museum of Art.

 

The Home Economy Building was replaced by the Timken Museum.

 

Coming in future posts: Freeways cut through the park and the U.S. Navy expands its hospital’s footprint in Balboa Park.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

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