SAN DIEGO – For Balboa Park visitors, it’s hard not to notice the construction going on at the Botanical Building.
The building, which is one of the most photographed landmarks in San Diego County and is home to thousands of plants, has been stripped down to the bones, leaving just an outline of the garden’s iconic façade.
So, visitors might be asking, what’s going on with the Botanical Building?
The Botanical Building is currently in the midst of a major $21 million renovation project to revitalize the building and surrounding gardens, spearheaded by the City of San Diego and private partners organized by Forever Balboa Park.
The garden, originally built in 1915 for the Panama-California Exposition, had over a century of weathering that caused the structure to severely deteriorate, according to the city – from warped wood and dry rot to structural decay to the steel underneath.
Issues with the garden’s irrigation, plumbing and electricity have compounded that devaluation, contributing to what Forever Balboa Park describes as a loss of historical integrity.
With the last major renovation to the building happening back in the 1950s, it was time for a major beautification and updating of these vital things to keep the gardens open for visitors, prompting the City of San Diego to set out on this project back in 2016.
The Botanical Building was officially closed off to the public in 2022 for the renovation, split into two phases.
Construction is currently in the first phase of the project, which focuses on the building itself and is being handled by the City of San Diego. The second phase will turn to updating the surrounding gardens and will be led by Forever Balboa Park.
Because of the Botanical Building’s condition prior to the renovation, city engineers and crews had to bring the building down to its bones to complete an investigation of the structure itself to get an understanding of what needed to be done.
This included the removal of nearly all the plants to store in a Parks and Recreation nursery, according to the city, and selective demolition of the building.
“What currently remains are the foundations, supporting steel trusses, minor elements of wood framing and a handful of larger plants and trees that are being protected in place during construction,” Tyler Becker, a public information officer for the City of San Diego’s Engineering & Capital Projects Department, said in an email to FOX5SanDiego.com.
“Crews are currently working on necessary repairs to the steel trusses and shoring up the existing truss structures to replace the truss bases to return them to the original design from 1915,” Becker continued.
Restoring elements of the 1915 design is at the heart of this project, Forever Balboa Park CEO Dr. Elizabeth Babcock said to FOX5SanDiego.com – bringing back distinctive features of the original building including Spanish Colonial Revival style windows, arched doorways and the cupola roof.
“The facade was really different,” Babcock said. “When you look at the original picture, it has this beautiful, (maybe) stucco front. A lot of that had been taken away or removed.”
Additional upgrades will be made to the building to “get a 21st-century touch,” according to Becker, with the addition of a new interior lighting system, irrigation and planter upgrades, the expansion of walkways to accommodate those with disabilities and multi-purpose rooms.
Phase I is currently estimated to be about 35% complete, according to the city. The original date of completion was estimated to be December, however, the winter storms and need for unanticipated, additional structural repairs has extended the date of completion to next spring.
Once the construction to the building is complete, the Botanical Building will reopen and Forever Balboa Park will begin the renovations to the garden grounds around it in smaller sections, which is expected to take about another year.
More about the planned renovation project can be found here.
When the construction concludes, Forever Balboa Park hopes to bring a handful of new programs to the garden with the new renovation like internships and job training in things like horticulture and landscape architecture, as well as performances and other live events for park visitors.
“My vision for this would be that we’ve got every K-12 student in San Diego, and hopefully from around the region, coming to visit and it becomes a real hub for learning,” Babcock said.
“I’m really excited about what it represents for people’s experience in the park,” she continued. “It’s going to be a fun and lively, vibrant space.”