The View From California Tower

Kitty Vieth



After 80 years, the best panoramic view in San Diego is finally accessible to the public again. Built at the entrance of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, the California Tower in Balboa Park reopened in January of 2015 as part of celebrations marking the exposition’s centennial.


The completion of the Panama Canal, a little over a century ago, was so hotly anticipated that a number of cities, including San Francisco, San Diego, and New Orleans, all vied to host the United States’ world’s fair in honor of the event—not unlike our modern-day competitions to host the Olympics. Except in this case, when San Francisco was chosen as the official site, San Diego decided to go ahead and put on its own fair anyway.


While most of San Francisco’s exposition buildings are long gone, many of San Diego’s 1915 structures still exist in Balboa Park (although some of them are reconstructions), including the Botanical Building, the House of Charm, the House of Hospitality, the Casa del Prado, the Cabrillo Bridge, and the centerpiece of the exposition, the California Building, of which the California Tower is part.



The California Building is one of the most recognizable structures in the San Diego skyline, with its big dome and its three-stage tower covered in mosaics that catch the sunlight. It was designed in the Spanish Colonial style by Bertram Goodhue, lead architect for the exposition. Its façade draws inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico.


At the 1915 exposition, the California Building housed an exhibition called The Story of Man through the Ages. Today, the nonprofit Museum of Man leases the building from the city. This anthropology museum focuses on the peoples of the Western Americas and includes collections that date back to the original exposition.


The tower was closed to the public in 1935. In April of 2014, the museum came to us and asked us to help renovate the tower to restore public access in time for the centennial celebration. It’s not a large tower—just under two hundred feet high. But it’s the tallest structure in the area. The viewing area offers views of the whole city, the park, the bay, and the mountains.


When we first climbed the tower, we found that it was full of doors and windows that had been removed from the building over the years, as well as materials from previous exhibits and a lot of dust. As part of the renovation, these were removed, and the building elements were eventually transferred to a storage area that we created on the fourth floor of the tower.


To bring the tower up to code and address safety concerns, we had to take care of a number of things: extend a handrail here, add a handrail there, make the windows operable, and install a gate that keeps people from going up when there’s not a tour in session. The museum is raising money by offering naming opportunities on new benches installed throughout the tower. Each stair tread on the tower also has a plaque on it with a naming opportunity. The plaques are made of etched glass and are lit with LEDs.


Early in our process, the city said that the number of tour participants would have to be capped at 10 people, including two tour guides. That was based on an old code. We conducted research on other towers and tall structures that had one exit, or two exits with constraints, and found that a lot of them allowed more people. After we shared our research with the city, we were allowed to expand the tour group size to 12 plus two tour guides.


We weren’t able to add an elevator—it would have been too expensive and would have impacted the historic museum building too much. So in order to provide access to everyone, regardless of their ability to climb stairs, we created an interactive exhibit on the first floor. It includes live, high-definition video feed from cameras mounted on the ninth floor.


An iPad controller in the exhibit allows visitors to select which camera they want to look through: north, south, east, or west. They can also watch a prerecorded time lapse video showing a full day, from sunrise to sunset. A touch screen provides recorded audio snippets of the tour. If you select the segment about the original design of Balboa Park and the tower, you’ll hear my voice.


I only wish it were possible to add a time travel camera. Then we could look back into the past and see the exposition happening in 1915. But until we learn how to bend the laws of physics, Balboa Park offers a great sampling of Spanish Colonial architecture—and the California Tower now provides a great vantage point from which to see it.


Photos courtesy of Kitty Vieth.

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