Clio Logo
The California Building is the central feature in Balboa Park, and a landmark structure in the state, made famous by its remarkable architecture and use in a number of well-known movies, including Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). Built in 1915, the the building currently houses the San Diego Museum of Man. It has been included in the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Museum of Man today (
  • California Building, date unknown (
  • California Building, 1915 (

The California Building was constructed in preparation for the Panama-California Exposition, which had been planned since 1911 and was held in 1915. The city had originally wished to host a World Exposition, which was an extremely popular economic and cultural festival tied to narratives of national identity, modernisation, and frequently colonial power. Of key importance in contemporary exhibitions and expositions was ethnography, and its related disciplines of ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology. However, San Diego’s ambitions to host a World Fair weren’t fruitful, as the city was deemed too small to host an event of that size.

Bertram Goodhue, famed for his designs of Los Angeles’ Central Library, was commissioned to design the building. Goodhue made use of a combination of Plateresque, Baroque, Churrigueresque, and Rococo architectural styles in his completed vision. The structure itself is notably monochrome, apart from the selective use of verdant green woodwork and metalwork. It features a large central dome, in addition to two smaller ones. The main dome is resplendent in multi-colored tilework field by the local California China Products Company of National City. The phrase Terram Frumenti Hordei, ac Vinarum, in qua Ficus et Malogranata et Oliveta Nascuntur, Terram Olei ac Mellis ("A land of heat and barley and vines…a land of live trees and honey") is integrated into the base of the sixty foot tall dome in black and white tiles. Of particular note is the building’s one hundred and eighty foot tower, eight stories high and embellished with glass beads.  The building’s façade is particularly beautiful, as it makes use of a combination of Spanish-Colonial and Gothic characteristics. It features carved stone busts and figures carved by the renowned Italian marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers, including those of kings Charles V and Philip III of Spain and a number of Spanish and English sailors and explorers who were linked to the history of San Diego. The façade also depicts two coats of arms, those of Mexico and of California state.

Numerous other iconic structures were made for the Exposition, such as the Cabrillo Bridge, the Casa de Balboa and Casa de Prado. Another spectacular Mission-style building located opposite the California Building was once connected to it by two arcaded passageways, creating what was known as the “California Quadrangle.”  Many of these were so spectacular and popular amongst the residents of San Diego that the original flimsy structures were rebuilt with stronger materials, thus becoming permanent features in Balboa Park.

The California Tower opened with an enormous central exhibition called The Story of Man Through the Ages, designed by Dr. Edgar Lee Hewett of the School of American Archaeology. This was the most ambitious exhibition of its type to have ever been assembled in the country, involving trips to Guatemala, Alaska, Siberia, Peru, Africa, Europe, and as far as the Philippines in order to collect the required artifacts and fossils.

The tower closed to the public in 1935, and for eighty long years remained vacant, though the rest of the California Building formally began operating as the Museum of Man in 1942. Renovations began on the derelict tower structure alongside developments taking place in the surrounding Balboa Park, which were completed in 2015. Today the anthropological museum is devoted to the exhibition of artifacts from cultures all over the Americas and the globe. It features extensive collections on Southern, Mexican, and South American peoples, and even a selection of Egyptian mummies. 

“The California Building,” San Diego Museum of Man, accessed August 2016,­building/ 

“History of the Museum of Man” San Diego Museum of Man, accessed August 2016, 

Sandi Hemmerlein, “Photo Essay: The View from Above Balboa Park's Former Expo Grounds,” Avoiding Regret, 2016, accessed August 2016,­essay­view­from­above­balboa.html

Christina Orlovsky Page, "Inside the Icon: The California Building," San Diego Magazine, May 22, 2015, accessed March 19, 2017,