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The Zoro Gardens as they appeared during an exposition in 1935. The sunken grotto served as a performing space for a nudist colony. (Photo: San Diego History Center)

SAN DIEGO — Balboa Park is often called the “crown jewel” of San Diego, a sprawling urban park and a public asset for the whole family to enjoy.

But did you know, there was once part of the park that parents would shoo their children away from quickly, while other curious onlookers gathered round? Yes, Balboa Park was once home to a nudist colony.

It was set in the Zoro Gardens, a sunken stone grotto and naturalistic glen that featured an open-air amphitheater. You can still visit the gardens today, located between the present Casa de Balboa and Fleet Science Center. But you won’t see any colony denizens prancing around anymore.

Their time in the sun came way back in 1935, during the California Pacific International Exposition, one of several “world’s fair”-style events that helped shape Balboa Park as we know it today.

The San Diego History Center and Balboa Park Cultural Partnership provided these side-by-side photos to give you a glimpse of the gardens during the exposition and the same spot today. Use the slider to see the gardens then and now:

During the exposition, visitors paid to watch nudist performers in shows featuring characters like “Queen Zorine.” Sometimes they wore loincloths. Other times they wore “revealing amateurish costumes, often with shoes appropriate for street dress,” the history center explains.

In a mash-up performance for the ages, the nudists also appeared in a show with “Alpha the Robot,” a giant monstrous machine played by a man in a suit. It was quite the collaboration.

Not all the exposition’s fellow performers were fans of the colony, though. The nudists once feuded with a well-known Burlesque queen, who starred under the stage name Sally Rand.

While performing her own shows elsewhere in the park, Rand refused to visit the Zoro Gardens, saying “her dance, an art form, did not glorify nudism,” according to the history center.

Zoro Gardens nudists protest burlesque dancer Sally Rand for refusing to visit their colony during the America’s Exposition of 1935-36. (Photo: San Diego History Center)

One photo from the exposition shows Zoro performers wearing nothing but sandwich board-style signs, protesting Rand’s inclusion in the festivities despite the snub. A sign, which originally read “Welcome Sally,” was crossed out to read “Down With Sally.” Another simply read: “Unfair to nudism.”

Void of such conflict today, you can still visit the sunken grotto, where its new stars are the butterflies and plant life.

“Zoro Garden’s current residents are equally colorful (but less controversial!),” Balboa Park’s website cheerfully explains. “Monarch, sulfur, skipper, and swallowtail butterflies feast on butterfly bush, blanket flower, Verbena and Lantana.

The butterfly garden has both the larvae and nectar plants needed to complete the creatures’ life cycle. Tiny indentations in the rocks collect small pools of water, giving the butterflies a spot to sip from, too.

If you’re interested in more historic photos, check out the San Diego History Center, which has rotating exhibits throughout the year at its location in Balboa Park.