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.
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.
Then there's the San Diego Museum of Art, which specializes in Italian Renaissance and Spanish baroque art and 19th- and 20th-century American art. Look for their special exhibits: Showing until Oct. 13 was an exhibition of Dutch and Flemish masters from the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts.
Right in front is the Timken Art Gallery, the private collection of two reclusive sisters, Anne and Amy Putnam. The Timken is the sort of small museum that encourages the visitor to spend a lot of time with each picture. Uncluttered rooms and natural lighting display fine examples (one each) of David, Boucher, Rubens, Rembrandt, Corot, Benjamin West, and Bruegel. Not only is the Timken free, but docent tours are frequent.
There is also the San Diego Aerospace Museum, a doughnut-shaped building full of reproductions of old planes, mostly hanging from the ceiling with little signs on them saying, ``Yes, it flies,'' plus enchanting old photos (of people doing the Charleston on the wings of biplanes, for instance), World War II recruiting posters, and more.
Parents of very small children should take them on the park's miniature steam train; there's also a railway museum, open only on weekends.
Not every attraction of Balboa Park is a museum. On weekends all sorts of performers flock here, such as a clown who twists balloons into dachshunds and giraffes, a unicyclist on a tightrope, and a man who plays guitar and sings hobo-cowboy songs.
A favorite spot for performers is by the long pool filled with neat rows of waterlilies in red, lavender, white, and yellow. At one end is a domed latticework greenhouse. Inside is a nice place to rest; you can listen to the sound of fountains, while the lattice creates patterns of sun and shadow on ferns and other plants.
The narrow temperature range is also a plus for many of the attractions in the park; winter and summer being, to a New Englander's notion, practically indistinguishable, a lot of things are possible here that aren't in less favored climes: the park's outdoor organ pavilion, for example.
Just walking around Balboa Park is pleasant, for San Diego is known for its near-perfect climate. No wonder San Diegans are all so good-tempered, I thought on a blue-and-gold day, as one beaming person after another handed over an ice cream or pointed me on to yet another museum.
Balboa Park has not one but two idyllic restaurants. The Museum of Art has a sculpture garden where you can sit and eat gazpacho and quiche under a picnic umbrella surrounded by handsome bronzes. Across the way is the Caf'e Del Rey Morro where I drank peach ices under a trellis and watched with interest the doings of a wedding party on the terrace below.
Next to the Museum of Art is the Old Globe Theater, which has three stages: an intimate theater-in-the-round, an outdoor theater (with the zoo as a backdrop), and a proscenium theater. Shakespeare's plays and others of the period, as well as some modern plays, are presented in repertory. I took the Globe's backstage tour (Sundays at 11), and learned all about the problems and expenses of a theater, including the wigs of human hair at $100 an ounce, the full-time cobbler to make boots, the dyer to coordinate all costumes down to the tights and trim, and the vulnerability of an outdoor theater to outdoor influences (such as the police helicopter hovering over, looking for a child lost in the zoo).
That afternoon it was a choice between seeing the Globe's play ``Painting Churches'' -- said to be charming -- or going off to get lost in the zoo myself. Balboa Park is full of tough decisions like that. Practical information:
It's best to approach the park with a degree of flexibility; all the museums are individually run, have different hours, prices, ages for children's rates, etc. All, however, are open late Thursday evening, and the Reuben Fleet Space Museum is open late every night. The Timken is closed the month of September.
In the winter, the natural history museum leads whale tours, complete with onboard naturalist who gives a lecture.