George Marston’s vision of creating the Junípero Serra Museum and passion for preserving the past were solidly within this national cultural trend revolving around history and memory. This national mood pushed Marston to construct a monument to honor the significant historic events that took place on Presidio Hill. In 1907, Marston and 4 others (Kelly, Spreckels, Scripps & Spalding) purchased 14 lots for $6,000. Five years later, Marston bought out his business partners to venture out on his own. John Nolen, an urban planner and landscape architect hired by Marston, created a 9-page planning document for Presidio Hill and Old Town. Nolen’s report suggested the formation of a “permanent local organization or society to take charge of the property.” In 1927, Nolen’s associate, Hale J. Walker, sketched a rough guide for the design of a structure with a tower at the north end overlooking the San Diego River Valley. Marston was so taken with the concept he hired William Templeton Johnson to design what is perhaps Johnson’s greatest public building and one of the most recognizable urban landmarks in Southern California. Johnson’s plans for the Serra Museum were approved in the fall of 1928.
Under Johnson’s supervision, the Kier Construction Company completed the Serra Museum just in time for the dedication ceremony.
Dedication Ceremony — July 16, 1929
Marston’s 22-year long dream was finally realized. The dedication ceremony took place on the 160th anniversary of the establishment of Spanish Colonial rule.
Two thousand people attended the 9:00am solemn high mass led by the head of Father Serra’s own Franciscan order. Following the long mass, military bands from the marine and navy bases played for two hours as growing crowds wandered through the new museum and park. By 2:30pm, there were an estimated 12,000 people in the park. One highlight of the day was the “Historical Prelude” consisting of 5 vignettes that depicted the scenes that took place on the hill 160 years prior.
Religious singing and invocations preceded the secular speeches. C. C. Young, the governor of California, gave the opening address. He praised Marston and San Diegans for preserving the important historic site. Then the mayor of San Diego, Harry C. Clark spoke, adding the prestige of the President of the United States to the proceedings by reading a congratulatory telegram from Herbert Hoover.
When George Marston rose to speak, he was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation. Marston thanked one and all, and then he looked to the future, naming several historic sites in the region that needed preservation. He urged that “we develop all such parks commemorating history into a harmonious whole.” Marston continued with his most pointed and deeply felt passage,
In building the city, let us remember that the material things which will endure longest are those that express the spirit of man in art. In the arts of landscape and architecture the spirit of a city can be preserved for ages.
Next, His Excellency Señor Don Alejandro Padilla y Bell, the Spanish ambassador to the US, delivered a message from His Majesty King Alfonso. He thanked all of the dignitaries on hand for “seeing that [Spanish] traditions are respected, recognized and remembered….”
The day’s final address came from James A. Blaisdell, the President of Pomona College, where Marston was a trustee for over 50 years and President of the Board for 26 years. Blaisdell said it was important “to set these places apart into public possession and to devote them to the permanent offices of memory and inspiration.” Such places should be dedicated with “high ceremony to public protection and respect in order that these memories of the past may be continued as the perpetual challenge of the future.”
Prior to the July ceremony, Mr. and Mrs. Marston gave title of the park and museum to a grateful city council, as it had been Marston’s intention all along that this project would belong to the citizens of San Diego. Within three months of the dedication celebration, the Great Depression hit. Subsequently, a new city council of 1932 reneged on the agreement to take ownership and responsibility for the park. The city council of 1936 finally accepted ownership and responsibility for the gift in 1937. By that time, Marston paid for the maintenance and improvement of his beloved site for nearly a decade.
William Templeton Johnson and the Serra Museum
Johnson described the building as similar to the California missions in its “rugged simplicity” with “thick walls and simple masses, and a sturdiness and frankness in design.” While built “in close sympathy” with the original missions, Johnson emphasized that it was a thoroughly modern building. One of Johnson’s goals was to “preserve the feeling of the missions without making the building too ecclesiastical in appearance.”
The museum was much influenced by mission and Spanish style architecture, as evidenced by the domed tower that recalls the original tower of the pueblo, the long arcade perfect for reflective walking, the red-tile roof, the open timber ceiling, the white stucco walls, and the great room that feels like a chapel.
Sampling from the exhibit and 1929 Trivia Quiz
Journal of San Diego History articles: