Zoro Garden – San Diego, California - Atlas Obscura
Free iron-on Atlas Obscura badge when you preorder our new kids’ book. Shop now.

San Diego, California

Zoro Garden

Swarms of butterflies cannot compare to the awe inspired by the publicly-funded nakedness once displayed in this sunken garden. 

Peeping toms will be sadly disappointed to find that the Zoro Gardens within today’s Balboa Park are a mere shadow of the former glory that once existed among the lush, sunken beds beneath their feet.

Originally constructed for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-16, the stone garden was destined for a much more titillating purpose as San Diego prepared to host 1935’s Pacific International Exposition. In advance of this spectacle, a sideshow promoter by the name of Nate Eagle and his partner, Stanley R. Graham, were miraculously given the green light to install a “nudist colony” for the public’s enjoyment. 

Located adjacent to the Palace of Better Living, curious attendees were admitted to the open-air amphitheater for a mere 25 cents, whereupon they found live actors paid to play the role of “nudists” sunning themselves, performing faux-religious ceremonies, or playing volleyball. The women wore g-strings or nearly-invisible stockings to slightly enhance their natural figures, while the men wore loincloths. Prominent (read: sketchy) holes in the surrounding fence allowed cheapskate-voyeurs the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the display through the cracks. 

Despite its purported mission to explain the “ideals and advantages of natural outdoor life,” the Nudist Colony was immediately petitioned as indecent. But as no laws existed at the time pertaining to this specific type of nudity, authorities’ hands were tied. Only internal jockeying for the position of the Colony’s resident Queen finally brought the exhibition to a close after multiple season runs. 

Today the Zoro Gardens once filled with frolicking free spirits still stands, only repurposed as a butterfly sanctuary. The rocky outcroppings make perfect water pools necessary to support monarch, sulfur, and swallowtail butterflies. To all sides grow plants necessary to fuel the complete life cycle of these delicate creatures. Visitors are now free to wander the gardens, where a much more fascinating transmutation than the mere shedding of clothes is on display every day of the year.