The California Building – San Diego Museum of Man

The California Building, home to the San Diego Museum of Man, was constructed for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. It was designed by noted architect Bertram Goodhue as a design hybrid, blending Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo details to present a unique Spanish-Colonial façade. Its design hints of Gothic influence with inspiration from Spanish churches in Mexico.

A symbol of San Diego, the California Building served as a magnificent entry to the 1915 Exposition.  It was complemented by a Mission-style building constructed directly across the promenade from the California Building and attached to it with two arcaded passageways. Massive arched gateways enclosed the structures to form the Plaza de California. The south side of the plaza included the beautiful St. Francis Chapel (used for weddings today) and its impressive Spanish-style altar.

Perched atop tiers of stone ornamentation on the California Building’s façade are sculpted historical figures and busts. These were created by the Piccirilli Brothers, who were skilled marble carvers in Italy before immigrating to the United States in 1888. Facing the building, visitors can see the façade’s sculpted figures and busts, molded from modeling clay and plaster, in descending order:

  • Junipero Serra, father of the California missions, is the figure located at the top of the frontispiece.
  • Charles V of Spain is the bust below Serra on the right.
  • Philip III of Spain is the bust below Serra on the left.
  • Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542, is the figure below and to the right of Serra.
  • Don Sebastián Vizcaíno, a Spanish sailor who named San Diego Bay, is the figure below and to the left of Serra.
  • Gaspar de Portola, the first Spanish governor of Southern California, is the bust below Cabrillo.
  • George Vancouver, an English navigator, is the bust below Viscaino.
  • Fray Antonio de la Ascension, a Carmelite historian, is the figure on the lower right.
  • Father Luis Jayme, Franciscan missionary, is the figure on the lower left.

Two coats of armor appear on the California Building’s façade:

  • The Coat of Arms of Mexico is on the upper right.
  • The Coat of Arms for the State of California is on the upper left.

The United States Shield is featured at the apex of the façade, above Serra’s figure.

The California Building, unlike the Spanish-Colonial churches in Mexico that inspired Goodhue, is notably plain and gray. Color highlights appear on the green woodwork of the frames, the deeper green of the ironwork, the brown of the door, and the colored tiles on the dome and tower.

Though the building façade is impressive, the three-stage tower is iconic in San Diego. The outline of the tower is Spanish, but its details and color are reflective of Mexico.  The shining tiles, sparkling glass beads, and graceful proportions of the tower complement the central dome, as well as the two minor domes behind the California Building.

The California Building has been mentioned more often than any other San Diego building in studies of American architecture. The building is included in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the California Quadrangle. And the California Building tower is recorded in the Historic Buildings Survey in the Library of Congress.

Also part of the San Diego Museum of Man’s footprint is the Irving Gill Administration Building constructed in 1911. This building was the first structure in Balboa Park, serving as the planning headquarters for the entire Panama-California Exposition. Today it houses the offices for SDMoM staff. The City of San Diego owns the San Diego Museum of Man buildings and recently began work on facility improvements, including the California Building dome and the structures surrounding the California Plaza.