George White Marston (1850-1946)

georgemarstonGeorge Marston was one of the great community servants in the history of San Diego.

He was born in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, on October 22, 1850. In 1866, he entered the preparatory department of Beloit College, where he played right fielder for the baseball team. He then worked in a grist mill and clerked in a bank, before attending the University of Michigan as a pre-med student for one year in 1869. He came to California with his father in 1870, first to San Francisco and then on to San Diego in October on the sidewheeler Senator. The population of San Diego was about 2,300 when they arrived, two days before his twentieth birthday.

Marston’s first job in San Diego was as a clerk in the Horton House hotel, which had opened just one week before his arrival. Among his duties there was brushing the dust off visitors’ clothing before they entered the hotel. After six months at Horton House, he took a job with Aaron Pauly and Sons general merchandise store, warehouse and wharf office. Starting in 1872, he clerked for storekeeper Joseph Nash for five years before he and a partner Charles Hamilton bought out Nash for $10,000. In 1872, Marston and Hamilton helped open a free reading room. In 1873 he was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, and later its president.

In 1878, Marston married Anna Lee Gunn, a teacher in the San Diego Academy – together they had five children. Hamilton and Marston split up the business, Hamilton concentrating on groceries and Marston on dry goods. The Marston Company ultimately became San Diego’s leading department store. It not only provided him wealth, but it led to buying trips to San Francisco and New York, and experiences there built his interest in park development and urban planning — the two areas in which he made his greatest contributions to San Diego.

In 1882, Marston served on the first board of trustees of the public library, and was instrumental in the founding of the YMCA in San Diego. In 1887-1889, he served on the San Diego city council. Marston ran for mayor of San Diego in 1913 and 1917 and lost both times, after critics somewhat unfairly painted him as unfriendly to business and interested in beautification rather than growth. In the 1917 mayoral election the controversy over differing visions of the city’s future came to be known as the “Smokestacks vs. Geraniums” debate. Marston believed in business, of course, but was tagged by Louis Wilde as “Geranium George” for favoring planning and civic beauty. Wilde (smokestacks) defeated Marston in 1917, but the debate over these two visions for San Diego continues today.

Although Marston supported reform ideas including equal rights for women and minorities, workers’ rights to unionize, and freedom of expression for all, his reformist impulses manifested themselves most significantly in a conservative agenda of park development and city planning.

In 1902 Marston put up $10,000 so the Park Commission could hire Samuel Parsons, landscape architect for the City of New York, to prepare the first comprehensive plan for Balboa Park. Later he again contributed his personal funds, so that the City Council could hire John Nolen, one of the nation’s outstanding city planners. Nolen prepared the city’s first comprehensive plan in 1908, and returned in 1926 to draw up a more detailed plan, which was adopted as a guide to San Diego’s urban development. He donated the Serra Museum, designed by William Templeton Johnson, and Presidio Park, with its architectural remains of the San Diego presidio, to the people of San Diego.

Irving Gill designed Marston’s home and had extensive contact with him through the early planning of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in City Park. Marston served as chairman of the Building and Grounds Committee for the Exposition.

Marston had a lifelong interest in the Pomona College and Claremont’s Associated Colleges. He was the first president of the board of trustees and remained an active member of the board for over fifty years.

Marston was a founder and first president of the San Diego History Center in 1928; he had been an organizer and served as Trustee of the San Diego Public Library; he was one of the founders of the YMCA in 1882, served on its board for 62 years, as president for 22 years; Trustee of the San Diego State Normal School; City Council member; Park Commissioner; chairman of the Parks and Beaches Association. He raised funds and donated his own money to help start what are now Torrey Pines and Anza-Borrego Desert State Parks.

A plaque to his memory on one of his gifts, the Serra Museum, says:


Friend of His Fellow Men
Lover of All Growing Things.
Piece by piece through many years he
acquired these acres, the site of the
first Spanish settlement in California.
He erected this building, he planted the
trees and shrubs and maintained their growth
with tireless devotion, and when the
barren hillside had blossomed into beauty,
he presented Presidio Park to the City he
loved as a memorial to Father Junipero Serra.

Marston was known for his love of ice skating. He was still skating at the age of ninety. When he died in 1946 at age 96, George Marston was truly regarded as “San Diego’s First Citizen.”

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