Man behind the Expo:

Gilbert Aubrey Davidson

In 1886, as an 18-year-old, G. Aubrey Davidson moved to San Diego with his parents and soon became a bookkeeper in the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railway office. He relocated to their Los Angeles agency two years later. In 1907 he gave up the railroad career and returned here, where he became founder and president of the Southern Trust & Savings Bank and its successor, the Southern Trust & Commerce Bank of SD.

Davidson served as president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce in 1909, when he proposed the idea of hosting a World’s Fair to call attention to San Diego and bolster an economy still shaky from the Wall Street panic of 1907. The Panama Canal was scheduled for completion in 1915 and we would be the first American port on the Pacific Coast north of this new shorter connection to the East Coast.

San Francisco also wanted to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and won the right to host the officially recognized Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Preparations here went ahead without formal recognition and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1916 would change the face of Balboa Park and the future of San Diego.

On January 1, 1915, an opening day a crowd of 15,000 people visited the Expo in Balboa Park. As Exposition president G. Aubrey Davidson gave the official opening address at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. This is a prescient excerpt from that speech:

These buildings of this Exposition have not been thrown up with the careless unconcern that characterizes a transient pleasure resort. They are a part of the surroundings, with the aspect of permanence and far-seeing design. They might endure for a century and still appear the things of beauty which they are. Time will hallow them with its gentle touch.”

As the 2015 Exposition Centennial approaches, we celebrate the foresight of those who gave us San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition and the heart of Balboa Park.

About the Author: Michael Kelly is president of The Committee of One Hundred, which this Friday will honor Davidson for his vision with its first Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Award. (This article will be featured in the “Pioneer” chapter of the upcoming HQ7.)