Probably the most unfamiliar famous person involved in the formation of San Diego was John Nolen. Ever heard of him? Local historians are very familiar with the extensive city planning that Nolen created over a span of years from 1908 up to 1927 under contract with the City Council.
The closest any recognition came to recognizing Nolen’s contribution to city planning was in 1937. When Harbor Drive was planned for the Embarcadero, the planning commission intended to call it Nolen Drive but Harbor Drive ended up getting the nod. Finally in 2015 John Nolen received local recognition in the form of a rooftop lounge at the new Marriott Courtyard in the Gaslamp. The Nolen Lounge has been decorated with photos of Nolen planning schemes for Balboa Park in 1927.
It seems like a strange way to recognize the person who brought so much innovation to the development of the city. However, it’s about time there is something local that recognizes his city planning influence that shaped San Diego and continues today.
The Nolen Plan of 1908 visualized a grand layout of major streets and promenades that connected Balboa Park to the bay front. Historians are familiar with “San Diego – A Comprehensive Plan for its Improvement” a treasure of grand schemes, many of which were achieved.
I have a copy of that book which is like reading a history primer for the early 20th century in San Diego. For instance, the appointed Civic Improvement Committee included among others Melville Klauber, George W. Marston and Julius Wagonheim (Chairman), all of whom are considered the city fathers for the development of modern San Diego.
Besides the interesting text, the book is full of historic photographs and many city maps and proposed layout plans for new development. Photographs from many of the famous cities of the world are presented for models of what a grand city can look like.
Nolen as a landscape architect was a great advocate for open spaces within the urban area by the use of mini-parks and broad avenues with ample landscaping. He was especially interested in developing a “Paseo” that began in Balboa Park and became known as the Cedar St. Mall ending at the waterfront with a monumental Civic Center at the terminal. The Cedar St. Mall was a popular project for many years under the sponsorship of George Marston, but it never was achieved as Nolen had planned.
Much of the Nolen concepts from the 1908 report were used to develop Balboa Park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. His update of the city plan in 1927 was also a guideline for expansion of the Balboa Park for the 1935 – 1936 California-Pacific International Exposition.
In the preface of 1908 Nolen Plan, the author wrote “San Diego has the location and the physical foundation in general for an important, perhaps a great city. Its people are awake to its needs and are resolved to meet them. It stands therefore upon the threshold of a truly sound and far-reaching development; when to superb natural advantages and human enterprise are added a sound public policy and a comprehensive plan of action, who can doubt the outcome.”
A segment of the report is devoted to a system of parks, anchored by what was then known then as City Park. The 1400 acres of natural canyon and mesa in the heart of the city had been Pueblo Land that was dedicated to the City Park in 1868 but never developed at the time of the Nolen report.
Besides encouraging the development of City Park, Nolen also recommended a series of parks including the bay front, Point Loma, La Jolla, Mission Cliffs, Torrey Pines Mesa and Fort Stockton (Presidio Park in old town). He also suggested a name for City Park – Cabrillo, but Balboa ended up as the designated park honoring another early explorer of the Pacific Coast.
Nolen’s concept for the grand “Paseo” was proposed as follows in his report. “The people of San Diego will do well to recognized today that the two great central recreation features of the city, now and always, are the City Park of 1400 acres, and the Bay Front, and that the value of both will be increased many fold if a suitable connecting link, parkway, or boulevard, can be developed bringing them into direct and pleasant relation. I recommend the acquisition of public authorities of the dozen small blocks between Date and Elm streets, stretching from the entrance to the City Park west to the Bay Front. Here on this hillside at comparatively small expense can be developed what I have called, after the custom in Spanish and Spanish-American cities, “The Paseo”, a pleasant promenade.
Nolen’s map for this scheme shows an interesting array of public buildings and spaces. The Union Station was in the same location on Broadway with a large Bay Front Plaza and pier at the harbor. The Paseo was a block wide from Fifth Avenue to the waterfront with a series of parks and open space. On the Esplanade at the waterfront was an aquarium, a casino and an art museum.
In later years, The Paseo was renamed the Cedar St., Mall ending at the harbor front with a complex of government buildings. The current County Administration Building was built in the 1930s, but the mall from Balboa Park to the waterfront was never accomplished.
John Nolan (1869 – 1937) was a professor based in Cambridge, Massachusetts but visited San Diego many times over the 20 years to consult with city officials. He encouraged citizens and civic leaders to think big with imagination about the potential future of the city as an important tourist attraction.