home Balboa Park Step back in time

Step back in time

The aptly named San Diego History Center has positioned itself as a fulcrum of sorts for exhibits that encompass other museums throughout the county. And in just a few months, the center will shine as it showcases its historical documents and collections that emanate from the inception of Balboa Park in 1915.

San Diego History Center
San Diego History Center

Walking through the door of the San Diego History Center (the name changed in 2010 from its previous San Diego Historical Society) is like stepping into another world — a world where eras mix and merge. Artifacts and stories beckon from all directions in one of the greatest repositories of local history in America.

“We are the Smithsonian of San Diego,” said Executive Director Charlotte Cagan, referring to the center’s extensive holdings that date back hundreds of years. “Our collections are among the largest on the West Coast.”

The center’s three floors house nine exhibit areas, 15,000 historical artifacts, and 45 million documents. Visitors can peruse exhibits or use the research library to access books, manuscripts, original maps, public records, and photographs documenting the history of the San Diego region, including Coronado. The Coronado photographic collection alone numbers 783 images, all of which can be purchased in person or accessed online at sandiegohistory.org.

The center was founded in 1928 by George Marston, a prominent politician, businessman and philanthropist acclaimed as “San Diego’s First Citizen,” in order to discover, collect, and preserve the history of the San Diego region. Marston acquired land on Presidio Hill above Old Town and commissioned noted architect William Templeton Johnson to design the Junipero Serra Museum, which served as the Historical Society’s home for more than 60 years. The center moved to its present location in Balboa Park in 1982. Cagan was named the center’s executive director in 2012, after serving for a year as acting director. Prior to joining the center, she served as the director of marketing and planning at the Mingei International Museum.

The center hosts a number of temporary exhibits and programs, including current programs:

Presidio to Pacific Powerhouse: How the Military Shaped San Diego

Through Jan. 4, 2015

This collaborative exhibit tells the story of San Diego’s relationship with the military. The exhibition is in 10 different locations, including the Coronado Museum of History and Art, which has displays on the Navy SEALs.

Sin Diego: The Stingaree’s Transformation from Vice to Nice

Through Nov. 2

This exhibits showcases the development and eventual clean-up of San Die-go’s infamous red-light district, much of which has been transformed into today’s thriving Gaslamp Quarter. The term “Stingaree” originated, some say, because visitors to the neighborhood got “stung” by the many vices found there. During its heyday at the turn of the 20th century, the Stingaree boasted 71 saloons, 120 bawdy houses, and numerous opium dens and gambling establishments.

Balboa Park walking tours

The center also conducts walking tours of Balboa Park, led by public programs manager Gabe Selak (a former Coronado Museum of History and Art employee). Among a host of facts and trivia on the making of Balboa Park, Selak will point out the structures that stood in 1915 and the elements of the park that were changed to prepare for the second exposition in 1935. Reservations are required at (619) 232-6203, ext. 129. $10 per person.


San Diego History Center celebrates Balboa Park’s centennial with special exhibits

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition that created Balboa Park welcomed more than 2 million visitors and put San Diego on the map. Now, said the center’s Executive Director Charlotte Cagan, the San Diego History Center is pulling out all the stops to commemorate the event.

“It was an unbelievable experience for people who came here, and we are going to re-create some of the awe and wonderment,” Cagan said. “There were no televisions; movies, still silent, were just starting out, and automobiles were just beginning to be in circulation. People came here to see all that was new in the world. They were almost overwhelmed, in a positive sense, by what they found. Everything under the sun was brought in here.”

Special exhibits include:

San Diego Invites the World: The 1915 Expo

Nov. 21, 2014 – Dec. 31, 2015

This exhibit will showcase memorabilia from the exposition, including photographs, silent film footage, and the 600-pound guestbook signed by attendees.

“We own so much of the memorabilia, the programs, the souvenir books … we even have the receipts of how much they took in every day,” Cagan said. “Now we are re-creating that incredible experience a hundred years later and giving people a real flavor of what took place here in 1915.”

Ingenious! The World of Dr. Seuss

Jan. 9 – Dec. 31, 2015

All 44 of Dr. Seuss’ books and many examples of his more serious artwork, some of which is specific to the San Diego region, are included in the exhibit. Dr. Seuss, known locally by his real name of Theodor “Ted” Geisel, was a longtime resident of La Jolla. “You will see artwork that was painted in his La Jolla studio,” Cagan noted. “It’s recognizable San Diego landscape, which is quite marvelous and exciting.”

Masterworks of the Exposition Era

Jan. 9 – Dec. 18, 2015

For months, San Diego History Center employees have been scouring the country to track down original paintings that were displayed during the 1915 exposition, said Cagan.

“We own three ourselves, and we have a whole curatorial group playing detective to locate these paintings,” she said. “Some are in museums, some are in private collections, some are in galleries, and we’re assembling an extraordinary exhibition.”

San Diego History Center

Casa De Balboa,

1649 El Prado, Suite #3,

sandiegohistory.org, (619) 232-6203

Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Research Library (lower level)

Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m., Closed Saturday & Sunday

Poster from the 1915 exposition: the exposition was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and to put San Diego on the map.
Poster from the 1915 exposition: the exposition was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and to put San Diego on the map.
San Diego History Center Executive Director Charlotte Cagan
San Diego History Center Executive Director Charlotte Cagan
Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel
Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel
California Tower by Maurice Braun, 1915. Collection of the San Diego History Center, gift of the Thomas W. Sefton family.
California Tower by Maurice Braun, 1915. Collection of the San Diego History Center, gift of the Thomas W. Sefton family.

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