One hundred years ago, the city of San Diego created Balboa Park to host the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, which was attended by President Woodrow Wilson. The exposition was a way for San Diego to advertise itself as the first U.S. port for ships arriving from the east coast via the new Panama Canal.

Seedlings and trees planted in Balboa Park in 1915 grew to create today’s spectacular botanical garden, which was the vision of horticulturalist and San Diego pioneer Kate Sessions. Although the exposition’s buildings were meant to be only temporary, some of them became permanent fixtures in the park. The Spanish Colonial style of architecture reminds visitors that California, as well as San Diego, was once owned by Spain.

Considered a crown jewel of the city, Balboa Park is so large that it is home to nearly 20 museums showcasing the arts, history and natural history, the military, sciences, sports and technology. Balboa Park includes the “world famous” San Diego Zoo. Not only is it a zoological park full of animals, but it is also an impressive botanical garden in its own right featuring a forest of ferns and an orchid house.

While Balboa Park promotes its centennial throughout 2015, the House of Sweden and other houses — known as “the international cottages” — are celebrating 80 years of spreading peace, understanding and goodwill. In 1935 — decades before Walt Disney Co. coined the expression, “It’s a small world, after all” — a campus of houses representing different countries was built.

This “mini-United Nations” coincided with Balboa Park’s hosting of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. Visitors that year included then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and his rival, the former President Herbert Hoover. The House of Sweden and the international cottages outlasted the League of Nations and are consequently older than the United Nations. Each Sunday a different house serves its traditional foods and entertains the public with music, folk dancing, singing and other live performances.

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Then as now, members of the House of Sweden included new immigrants, descendants of immigrants and people with a special interest in Swedish culture and history. Year in, year out and year round, the house has sponsored Swedish language lessons and cultural presentations. It has close alliances with the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA), Svenska Skolan and the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce.

From 1997 to 1999, the House of Sweden underwent an extensive renovation, which was financed by $50,000 of donations and fundraising activities. The cottage’s interior was painted to resemble the light and bright décor of Swedish artist Carl Larsson’s home, which is a major tourist attraction in Sweden. Swedish retailer IKEA donated Pergo flooring to the project.

Each year the House of Sweden joins the houses of Denmark, Finland and Norway in hosting Nordic Night, an evening of dining “al fresco,” which is a lovely tribute to Scandinavia. All the international cottages participate in Balboa Park’s International Christmas Festival, also known as December Nights. The event kicks off with a traditional Swedish Saint Lucia “festival of lights” procession. Photographs of students wearing white robes and crowns of lighted candles have become an icon of Balboa Park’s holiday season.

To help Balboa Park commemorate a century of existence, the House of Sweden is offering a smorgasbord of festivities, including food for thought, during its annual Midsummer event in June. What’s more, the house will be open the entire week leading up to Sunday, June 21, which marks the summer solstice as well as Midsummer.

To highlight Balboa Park’s 100th anniversary throughout 2015, the city of San Diego is requiring all of its international houses to expand their hours and be more accessible to the public. Although the pressure on the nonprofit volunteer organizations to do more is immense, it’s an opportunity to educate people about different national traditions and recruit new members.

A week of Midsummer activities
The House of Sweden has a variety of educational activities planned for the six days before Midsummer. There’s a little something for everyone, but the central theme is story-telling.

A “mini” Ingmar Bergman film festival is set for Monday, June 15. Smiles of a Summer Night and Autumn Sonata are in the mix of classics to be shown, but special requests will be considered. Biographical information about Bergman will be on hand.

The House of Sweden’s crafts group, Pysselgruppen, will demonstrate skills and answer questions on Tuesday, June 16. The talented members of Pysselgruppen use clay, papier mache, salt dough, yarn, cloth, paint, paper and wood to make greeting cards, figurines, hats, pot holders, trivets and other colorful folk art.

A “church chat” is scheduled for Wednesday, June 17. Pastor Staffan Eklund, of Svenska Kyrka in Los Angeles, is participating in the House of Sweden’s public outreach before Midsummer. Pastor Eklund will talk about matters material as well as spiritual. The history of Christianity in Scandinavia and the development of the Lutheran Church in the United States are possible topics of conversation.

Members of the Swedish Women’s Educational Association (SWEA) are graciously serving coffee and buns on June 18 and 19. The women might also bind wreaths for display.

Activities on Saturday, June 20 are centered on kids and family fun. House of Sweden volunteers will read children’s literature, fairy tales and some of Astrid Lindgren’s popular Pippi Longstocking stories. Other books, games and coloring books with Swedish images will be available.

All the festivities culminate on Sunday, June 21 with a dance around the maypole. Live entertainment will include Ylva, her women’s chorus and Balboa Park’s International Dancers, and volunteers will serve plates of Swedish meatballs, cookies and beverages.

By Suzan Hagstrom
Freelance journalist, recording secretary and editor for the House of Sweden in San Diego’s Balboa Park and author of Sara’s Children: The Destruction of Chmielnik, a nonfiction World War II history text.