SAN DIEGO – Walking around Balboa Park, the vibrant colors of Spanish Village might have caught your eye.

From the bright hues on the area’s doors and windows to the checkered-colored tiles on the ground, the buildings in the Spanish Village have a distinctive and immersive feel, unlike anything else in the park.

“When you step off the sidewalk and into the Spanish Village, you’re greeted by these colorful tiles and rustic concrete,” Jeffery Iles, a historian with the Spanish Village Art Center, said to “(It) immediately gives a feeling like you’ve entered a different space than the rest of the park.”

The colors of the Spanish Village’s buildings have become a quintessential Balboa Park image, but many of the things that make the area what it is today – notably the painted tiles on the area’s patio – are a lot newer than one might think.

And artists are behind many of the changes that turned the village into what it is today.

The original Spanish Village was constructed in 1935 for the second year of the California Pacific International Exposition fair held in Balboa Park. 

People walking into the Spanish Village during the 1935-1936 California Pacific International Exhibition fair. The building on the right was removed in 1937 to open up the patio. (Courtesy of Spanish Village Art Center)

The architect behind the village, Richard Requa, wanted to create a space that contrasted the other grandiose buildings in the park, Iles said, ultimately going for a simple, rustic design reminiscent of a small village in Spain.

During the fair, the Spanish Village held different restaurants and gift shops, selling some art and curios. But after the fair ended in 1936, the buildings were left empty until artists moved in the next year.

A painter and photographer named Sherman Trease proposed the idea that the empty rooms could become art studios, allowing the public to come through and see artists create their art.

It remained a hub for artisans until World War II when the Army took over control of the village’s buildings for offices and barracks. The buildings fell into disrepair.

After the war ended, artists were eventually allowed to move back into the Spanish Village in 1948, rent-free in exchange for the artists doing their own repairs.

“The buildings were bedraggled…it needs a bit of a freshening up,” Iles said. “(Someone at the time) said only someone with kind of a whimsical and off-beat outlook on life, only artists, could put their imprint on Spanish Village.”

And they did just that over the years, transforming the cluster of buildings into today’s colorful corner of the park.

“Those color tiles are something people remember and tell other people about,” Iles said. “It’s one of the reasons they come in, or they wanted to come back and visit the tiles.”

The Spanish Village shortly before the opening of the area in 1935 Exposition, with the tiles set without any mortar poured. (Courtesy of Spanish Village Art Center)

Each of the inch-and-a-half thick concrete tiles in the Spanish Village patio was original to the 1935 construction. The pieces, which Iles believes were taken from a building demolished in the early 1930s, were laid hand by hand throughout the area, cemented by mortar poured in between.

“I think the result was the slightly uneven surface that you see,” Iles said to “Each individual tile is a little different.”

The slant of the tiled patio was also part of the Requa’s original plan for the Spanish Village: the slight curve in the ground created a drainage system, allowing the water to flow down and out of the area.

In the 1980s, artists were looking at new ways to draw visitors to Balboa Park into the area. That’s when they decided to paint the tiles.

It was actually quite a controversial move for the artists in residence at the time, since all the tiles were historic as part of the original Exposition construction.

After some debate, the artists in the Spanish Village Center coalition decided on a compromise: they’d paint some and leave others be.

“(The tiles) give off two kinds of vibes: one is the original, unpainted concrete and the other is the brightly painted areas that reflect the artists,” Iles said.

Today, Iles estimates that about 60 to 70% of the tiles are painted across the Spanish Village’s patio grounds.

One of the corners of the Spanish Village Art Center in this undated image. (Adobe Stock)

Artists at the Spanish Village Art Center regularly repaint the tiles, according to Iles.

“The artists feel that that part of our identity is the painted tiles, partly because we paint them ourselves,” Iles said. 

While the tiles reflect the artisans that now occupy the shops and studios, they’ve also become an embodiment of the Spanish Village’s personality and history in Balboa Park.

“The floor is the history, the patio,” Iles said. “The colored tiles excite the visitors that come by and inspire people to come in. It adds to the gaiety and the joyfulness of the place.”

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