Participant Observer

Culture Cottages of Balboa Park
One of San Diego's unique treasures that has escaped the notice of many of the city's residents are the International Cottages of the House of Pacific Relations (HPR) in Balboa Park. Balboa Park has the distinction of being the nation's largest urban cultural park, the home of fifteen museums, the Organ Pavilion, and the San Diego Zoo, and is visited by hundreds of thousands of San Diegans and tourists each year. Yet many long-time residents are unaware of the many programs and opportunities provided by the HPR cottages, located off Presidents Way at the South end of Balboa Park.

By Shanti Hofshi
Photos by Emily Johnston-O'Neill

How Things Got Started

One of San Diego's unique treasures that has escaped the notice of many of the city's residents are the International Cottages of the House of Pacific Relations (HPR) in Balboa Park. Balboa Park has the distinction of being the nation's largest urban cultural park, the home of fifteen museums, the Organ Pavilion, and the San Diego Zoo, and is visited by hundreds of thousands of San Diegans and tourists each year. Yet many long-time residents are unaware of the many programs and opportunities provided by the HPR cottages, located off Presidents Way at the South end of Balboa Park.

The International Cottages were originally constructed in 1935 as temporary buildings to be used as part of the California Pacific International Exposition of 1935 - 1936. San Diego business leaders hoped to put on a local exhibition, utilizing exhibits and performers from the 1933 World Fair held in Chicago, as a means to draw attention to the city and encourage business development. Balboa Park had already been the scene of a previous exposition, the 1915 - 1916 Panama-California Exposition, held to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, and to spotlight San Diego as the first American port of call for northbound ships traveling through the canal. A Spanish-Colonial Revival style had been adopted for the buildings in the 1915 expo, and a similar style was carried over to the new buildings for the 1935 exposition, including the HPR cottages. Interestingly, over half of the construction at the time was performed by Federal relief workers. The exposition itself was a great success, and many of the buildings from that time have remained in constant use to this day, though they were requisitioned by the Navy between 1941 and 1947 to provide additional facilities for the nearby Naval Hospital during the war.

Today's HPR consists of 31 different national groups, 20 of which have permanent buildings in the park and the rest of which utilize the "Hall of Nations" building on a rotating basis. Several new countries have joined the HPR in recent years, the latest of which is the House of India, which became a full member in 2006. HPR also hosts several events at Balboa Park. All the houses are operated by a volunteer membership, a mixture of recent immigrants, descendents of past immigrants, and individuals who have no ties to the culture other than simple interest.


Precarious Dancing!
Precarious Dancing!

The Lawn Programs

On Sunday afternoons, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., cottages are open to the public, showcasing crafts, artifacts, art work, music, videos, and other cultural information from their respective countries. Volunteers are present to provide samples of ethnic pastries to visitors and to answer questions about the cottages and their activities. One house is featured each week, serving a fuller range of traditional food and presenting a "Lawn Program" from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the HPR stage, featuring music, song and dance numbers performed by members of the cottage or by groups brought in for the occasion. HPR programs are attended by a wide assortment of people and for myriad reasons. Many San Diego "regulars" come every week to sample the ever-changing assortment of pastries, to stroll through the beautiful park grounds or to meet up with friends. Others come to support their favorite country or performer whenever their Lawn Program is on the stage. Some bring visiting friends from overseas to compare the cottages to what they have in their home country. Interspersed with local San Diegans are tourists from Alaska to Florida and Japan to Mexico, wandering through the cottages, sampling exotic foods, taking pictures of the displays, and sharing their plans and experiences from past or future trips abroad.

Swirling Hungarian Dancers
Swirling Hungarian Dancers

The Ethnic Food Fair

Beyond the weekly programs, the HPR also holds an Ethnic Food Fair on the last Sunday in May, where all the houses offer some of their regional specialties to the public. The HPR also participates in Balboa Park's "December Nights" program, which takes place the first Friday and Saturday in December, again offering a variety of food and entertainment. Both events have been very well attended in past years.

Hungry?
Hungry?

Other Activities to Participate In


Many of the cottages offer additional activities on a weekly, monthly or one time basis, such as language, music, singing, dance, craft, cooking, and history classes. Over the years, HPR groups have also presented concerts, lectures, art exhibits, movie nights and much more, either in the HPR buildings, or in coordination with museums and other cultural groups throughout the city.

Groups of children from local San Diego schools can be seen with their teachers going through the cottages on the third Friday of each month, where they have a chance to experience the cultures they learn about in a more interactive manner. Several cottages have groups for children or youth and organize activities targeted at those age groups. The HPR Queens Organization, an affiliate of the HPR, provides an opportunity for young girls aged 10 - 21 to represent the cottages in community events or in support of charitable causes. Another affiliate group, the Ladies Auxiliary, supports the HPR and cottages, and offers an inexpensive luncheon, on the second Wednesday of each month, featuring an ethnic fair, often accompanied by entertainment coordinated with the menu theme.

Queen of the House of Hungary
Queen of the House of Hungary

A Multicultural Treasure!

San Diegans should be proud of the HPR, a rich and diverse cultural center, run entirely by volunteers, and providing a wide array of activities and programs to the San Diego community and to visitors to our city. If you've never before seen the HPR International Cottages, take advantage of the opportunity, whether to experience the traditions of your own heritage, to interact with people from another culture, to expand your education, or to share your own knowledge and expertise with others.



Additional information about HPR activities can be found at the HPR website:

http://www.sdhpr.org

Singer
Operatic
Wonder

Shanti
Shanti Hofshi
Shanti Hofshi is Secretary of the House of Ireland, where he has been teaching the Irish Gaelic language for the past 5 years.
Photos by Emily Johnston-O'Neill


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