A park with everything from dinosaurs to Shakespeare
BACK in 1915, when a world's fair could really put a place on the map, the then-little town of San Diego decided to put on an exposition -- in honor of the newly opened Panama Canal -- that would make the country sit up and take notice. The city fathers proudly imported the best talent money could buy in the way of architects and landscapers, who adorned the local park with a graceful row of buildings in a Spanish Colonial style. Faades had tropical luxuriance and sweep on the coolness of beige-pink stucco.Skip to next paragraph
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Even though the buildings were supposed to be temporary, the designers were generous with detailing: decorated tiles and ornate balustrades, garlanded pillars and colonnades of arches, all copied from buildings designed to last for centuries.
This turned out to be prescient, as the buildings are still here, all having been snapped up for various cultural uses. Every time fire, war, rot, structural weakness, development, or other problems threaten them -- as seems to happen every generation or so -- indignant citizen groups intervene.
As a result, San Diego had a cultural heart long before other cities even thought of the idea. To name just a few of the attractions here in Balboa Park: There is the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Man, the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center, the San Diego Museum of Art, the Timken Art Gallery, the San Diego Hall of Champions (a sports museum), the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Old Globe Theater. Some of these are housed in buildings built since the 1915 Exposition, but most are in the same Spanish Colonial style.
By far the most famous institution in the park is the San Diego Zoo. Most tourists, rightly, head directly for the zoo, which is huge and marvelous and takes a day all by itself.
But if you have a bit more time, the rest of the park has much to recommend it, particularly for families whose members have lots of different interests. That each museum is small is compensated for by the amount of variety in a small area and the general gorgeousness of the landscape.
The Museum of Natural History is run by one of the oldest societies of natural history in the country. ``The people who came here were adventurous and nature lovers,'' explains museum spokesman Mary McNeely. Much of it is occupied by rather old-fashioned-looking displays of stuffed animals and birds from the area. But a temporary exhibit called ``The Beasts Are Back'' features life-size computerized dinosaurs from Japan. The monsters move their heads, stomp their feet, give out hollow mechanical squeals,
and in the case of the woolly mammoth, move their heads and swing their long plush noses.
The first ``beast,'' a Stegosaurus, was so realistic that several very small children were removed screaming. Older children seemed delighted; one little girl held out her doll toward an affable-looking Apatosaurus, and a boy wanted to pat the nose of the fearsomely toothy Tyrannosaurus rex 20 feet above his head.
Across the way from the Natural History Museum is the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Science Center, which opened in 1973. The museum part encourages a hands-on approach and has for youngsters the allure of a video arcade. The day I was there, children were all but bouncing off the walls, tearing from one educational puzzle and gadget to the next. There was a ``whisper gallery,'' a kind of gyroscope you could sit on, and a device for teaching you to draw a design backward in a mirror, among other del ights.
But the highlight is the Omnimax Theater, with its all-enclosing curved screen and supersharp picture. This season's offering is ``Chronos,'' a beautiful and dreamlike film that uses time-lapse photography to show sun and shadow patterns flowing over famous sites such as Stonehenge and the Grand Canyon.
Starting this month and ``very eagerly anticipated,'' according to spokeswoman Pam Crooks, is a movie filmed by astronauts aboard the space shuttle, giving viewers the feeling of being in space.