In the enchanting sepia tones so characteristic of early 20th-century photography, this large vintage photograph depicts the Open Air Pipe Organ in San Diego’s Balboa Park. This massive pipe organ was built on the spot for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The Austin Organ Company was commissioned to construct it by the brothers John and Adolph Spreckels, who subsequently donated this technological wonder to the city of San Diego.
The organ contained more than 5,000 pipes, ranging in length from 12 inches to 32 feet, and was housed in an ornate vaulted structure with highly embellished gables. An open-air forum was constructed in front of it to host large audiences. The organ became an attraction during the fair, and each day, concerts were held in the open forum fronting it. To this day, the more than a century-old organ still draws crowds each Sunday for Balboa Park’s free weekly concerts.
The photograph was produced by the Bunnel Photo Shop in San Diego in 1921.
The Panama-California Exposition
The Panama-California Exposition was a global showcase hosted in San Diego, California, from January 1, 1915, to January 1, 1917. The exposition commemorated the inauguration of the Panama Canal and aimed to promote San Diego as the primary American harbor for vessels heading northward after passing through the canal. The fair took place within the expansive urban surroundings of San Diego’s Balboa Park, which was constructed for this very purpose.
The Spreckels Brothers
John Diedrich Spreckels (1853-1926) was the son of Claus Spreckels, a German-American industrialist who founded the Spreckels Sugar Company in San Francisco. During the late 19th and early 20th century, John established his formidable transportation and real estate domain in San Diego. He was deeply engaged in San Diego’s growth as a commercial hub, an ambition he partly pursued through his involvement with the Hotel del Coronado and the San Diego and Arizona Railway. Nevertheless, his most lasting impact was the construction of Balboa Park for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915. He did more than build, though. Spreckels also served as vice president on the fair’s organizing committee, being junior only to the board’s president, Ulysses S. Grant.
When John Spreckles died in 1926, his eulogy cast him as “One of America’s few great Empire Builders who invested millions to turn a struggling, bankrupt village into the beautiful and cosmopolitan city San Diego is today.”
John’s brother, Adolph Bernard Spreckels (1857-1924), was a California businessman who took over the Spreckels Sugar Company from his father. Among the many endowments to his hometown was the California Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum. His wife Alma was called the “great-grandmother of San Francisco.”