Balboa Park’s Botanical Building is in bad shape. This $21.5M investment promises to bring it back to life

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San Diego’s historic Botanical Building, a horticultural and architectural landmark in the heart of Balboa Park, will be absent its regular crowd of locals, tourists and would-be social media influencers this year and next.

That’s because the city of San Diego, with an initial $21.5 million investment of state and local funds, is working to bring back to life the 107-year-old, Redwood lath building that has been crumbling in plain sight.

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The two-year restoration effort, put off for nearly a decade because of financing challenges, began in earnest in January when the Botanical Building was closed to the public and construction fences went up. Now the plants are gone, most moved to a city nursery for storage, the small pond out front has been drained and a noticeable swath of the structure’s frequently photographed lath exterior has been stripped away.

Crews have, so far, primarily worked to assess the building’s condition, which they say is worse than anticipated. The lath, in particular, is so far deteriorated from water damage that most, if not all, will need to be replaced.

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General contractor EC Constructors was last year awarded a $14.2 million design-build contract to complete the work. The firm was selected through the city’s second competitive bidding process after the first solicitation attempt was unsuccessful. The contract appears to be still in flux, as the city and the contractor continue to refine the scope of the job. The total project cost, which could grow, includes staff time and contingency allowances for work in phase one.

A second phase of improvements — namely cosmetic exterior upgrades and reconstruction of a historic pergola — will be paid for and tackled by the city’s not-for-profit partner, Forever Balboa Park.

Most, if not all, of the Botanical Building’s wood lath is damaged beyond repair.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The project, said EC Constructors Senior Construction Manager Jim Summers, is singularly challenging because the Botanical Building is more of a structure than a building, as it was purposefully designed to be open to the elements.

Makeshift structural changes over the decades, including the addition of concrete in the 1930s and 1950s to support the original steel trusses, make restoration work all the more complicated. For example, EC Constructors will need to completely reconstruct and replace the existing 24 steel trusses, installing four at a time to keep the structure from collapsing.

“This is one of the most unique structures in San Diego. There’s no doubt about it,” Summers said.

Repairs are expected to wrap up in December 2023, with visitors returning to see a beautified facade that more closely resembles the original version.

The building will, for instance, get back its famous stucco arcades — or the series of large, picturesque arched windows facing the lawn — which were removed in the late 1950s and replaced with lattice. And the all-new, replacement Redwood lath should once again make the Botanical Building’s roof appear red, instead of its current discolored brownish-orange hue. Visitors may also benefit from the addition of interior lighting, which promises to extend the operating hours of what has always been a free-to-the-public attraction, although specifics still need to be determined by San Diego’s parks and recreation department.

One of just four remaining permanent structures built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, today’s in-repair Botanical Building is a shell of the storied structure that historians say put on international display the region’s remarkable climate, which allows for plants to grow without glass greenhouses.

The Botanical Building has been gutted to prepare for restoration. Pictured is a row of steel trusses that were reinforced decades ago with concrete. The trusses will be reconstructed and replaced by the city’s general contractor, EC Constructors.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“(In 1915), this was demonstrating that in San Diego, with a little bit of shade and some water, these plants could be grown essentially in the open air. So (the Botanical Building) very much contributed to the message that the planners of the exposition were attempting to send,” said Nancy Carol Carter, who is a retired law professor and horticulture historian who has focused much of her research on Balboa Park.

“Subsequent to the exposition, it just became a beloved feature of Balboa Park, and people really enjoyed seeing the plants inside,” she said. “It was a refuge. On a hot day, you can walk into the Botanical Building to this wonderful shade, (with) all these beautiful greens and colors.”

The Botanical Building was inspired by the ideas of wealthy Englishman and renowned begonia expert Alfred D. Robinson, who relocated with his heiress wife, Marion James Robinson, to Point Loma to participate in San Diego’s Theosophical Society, Carter said. Its history is also tied to the park’s takeover by the U.S. Navy during both World War I and World War II, with the last stretch causing the building to be condemned for a lengthy period in 1949. The plant collection was later restored, the arcades were removed and the building was reopened in 1959.

“The Botanical Building was intended to be permanent, whereas what’s now known as Casa del Prado was not intended to be permanent,” Carter said. “The Botanical Building was going to be the center of horticulture within the park. So it was going to be this centerpiece in a beautifully kept-up garden area.”

More recently, after years in decline, the park staple is finally expected to see brighter days.

The promise of a restored building is long overdue. Renovation talks date to 2013 when the now-defunct Balboa Park Conservancy had hoped to make improvements in time for the park’s 2015 centennial celebration. As the city’s not-for-profit partner, the conservancy was leading the restoration effort, and even helped advance the project’s schematics, but a lack of funds and complications associated with the public-private partnership thwarted actual construction work.

A close-up of one of the 24 concrete-reinforced steel truss structures holding up the Botanical Building. EC Contractors is removing the existing trusses and replacing them, without concrete, in keeping with the building’s original design.

(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In 2019, an $8.26 million grant from the state of California appeared to resurrect what was, at one time, an $11 million project. However, escalating project costs continued to sideline the project. The work was later split into two phases, with the city taking over all of the pressing infrastructure needs and interior repairs, and the conservancy tasked with financing and completing exterior hardscape improvements and landscaping.

Last year, the conservancy merged with Friends of Balboa Park. The combined entity, Forever Park, assumed responsibility of the second phase. The city’s new not-for-profit partner, which recently hired Elizabeth Babcock as its first CEO, declined to share the anticipated cost for phase-two work, citing unknowns related to the full scope of the city’s efforts.

Meanwhile, the city, since hiring EC Constructors, has expanded its duties — and potentially its budget — to include reconstruction of the interior gardens. Discussions for this scope of work are ongoing, and the timing and cost have yet to be determined, a spokesperson for the city said.

To fund phase one, San Diego is supplementing the state’s contribution with $300,000 from the city’s capital outlay fund and $580,156 from the regional park improvement fund, said Rania Amen, who is the director of San Diego’s Engineering and Capital Projects department. The city also has taken out a $12.6 million loan, she said.

A restored Botanical Building brings with it not only a prettier face but a more practical layout with wider pathways, state-of-the-art LED light fixtures and a water-conserving irrigation system. Phase-one work also includes plumbing improvements and a back-of-house bathroom for city workers.

“I do think it’s unfortunate that it has taken this long for the project to get underway,” Carter said. “But I think this is going to be a project that the city of San Diego can be very proud of. And as we already know, this building is a favorite point for photographs for millions of visitors to the park every year, and I think it can only reflect well on us as a city.”

A rendering of the historically restored Botanical Building at Balboa Park.

(Courtesy, City of San Diego)

There are, however, still questions about what the surrounding grounds will look like when visitors return to the iconic site.

“Our plan is to open at the completion of phase one,” said Andy Field, who is the director of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation department. “Our hope is (not to close) again after we open. So we hope the other work can be done outside or can be done without impacting the public’s use of the space.”

Forever Balboa Park’s phase-two timeline is still being defined and exterior work may be ongoing when the building is finished, a spokesperson for the nonprofit said.

“While our immediate focus is on project management and fundraising, it is Forever Balboa Park’s vision for expanded accessibility and enjoyment of the Botanical Building and gardens by people of all ages and abilities that drives our work forward,” Babcock said.

Also unclear is whether or not the space will double as a private event venue.

Language on a now-deleted conservancy webpage suggested the nonprofit was looking to, “develop (a) new model for self-sustaining operations” with “flexible use of facility and grounds.”

David Lundin, who is president of the Balboa Park Heritage Association and has filed suit against the city in the past, has publicized concerns based on the language. The currently free attraction is at risk of being turned into a revenue-generating site at the expense of public access, Lundin has written in multiple emails to the mayor and city leaders.

“The building historically has been funded by the city’s general fund. And that’s remaining, there’s no plan to change that,” Field said.

The parks director said the public will continue to have free public access to the destination during usual daytime hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., once the Botanical Building reopens. The department will also evaluate whether to extend the attraction’s hours, he said. The city, he added, has not developed a framework for permitting private events, or sought approval from the Balboa Park Committee, as would be required.

“Our intention is not to have a bunch of events and close out the public,” Field said.