By George A. LaPointe
Editor, California Garden
Presidio Park, where California began, is one of San Diego’s choice possessions today because of the foresight and generosity of the late George W. Marston. There he built the Junipero Serra Museum, and planted the barren hill around it with trees and shrubs. The picture at the top of the page shows the museum shortly before its completion in 1929. Today, many years later, the Museum seems even more at home on its hilltop, and the park of 38-odd acres is a wonderland of grassy slopes, brush-covered hillsides, and trees and shrubs of uncommon interest.
The idea that ownership of this historic site should rest in public hands originated with three men, Mr. Marston, G. Aubrey Davidson, and Col. David C. Collier. It was Mr. Marston’s persistent effort over a period of years, however, which finally resolved the tangles of ownership and made possible the conversion of a pasture for Old Town goats into the present historical and horticultural monument.
After Mr. Marston, the credit for Presidio Park goes to landscape architect John Nolen, architect Templeton Johnson, decorator Ross H. Thiele, who journeyed to Spain to collect furnishings for the Museum, to the San Diego History Center, which developed and maintains the Museum, to landscape architect Roland S. Hoyt, who carried out the planting of the grounds from 1928 to 1933, and to the City Parks and Recreation Department.
Inevitably, the location of the Museum was dictated by the terrain. In 1927, Hale J. Walker, John Nolen’s assistant, and Kenneth Gardner, San Diego City Planner, sat on a stone near the present location of the University of San Diego, and, looking southward across Mission Valley, sketched a simple, domed building on the commanding promontory. This was to become the Serra Museum.
Roads and paths were laid out with the same respect for terrain, and with a strong sense of history. Fort Stockton remains in a nearly natural state; the re-built wall at Mission Valley rim defines the original limits of the old Spanish settlement. A polygonal bastion, which history showed as a feature of the fortifications, was built near the Serra Cross, which stands on the site of the original Presidio.
The President of the American Society of Landscape Architects once called Roland Hoyt to congratulate him on the Park, exclaiming that the planting was so natural, so free, that one had the feeling that it hadn’t been planned. Mr. Hoyt explained that the impression was correct: the actual planting had been designed on the ground. The only landscape plan in existence is a record of planting, drawn after the fact.
Mr. Hoyt’s extensive knowledge of plant materials and profound sense of appropriate planting for this region led him to use a combination of native and exotic plants. The natives are less prominent today, since the Park is now dominated by large trees. But go back thirty years …
Near the upper entrance, the area known as The Bowl, originally a reservoir, was designated for development as an outdoor theater, and the belt planting of pines was laid out with that idea in mind. The open bowl, today a beautiful sweep of lawn and one of the most popular picnic spots in town, was filled with California poppies studded with masses of blue lupine. The steep hillside to the east of the Eucalyptus Grove was covered with some forty Fremontias, which thrived on the and slope. A count of blooms on those forty bushes was abandoned when it reached 2000. Mr. Marston was particularly proud of them, and the gardeners had strict instructions not to water them without specific instructions. As anyone who has worked with natives will understand, the gardeners, unfamiliar with the desiccated look of such plants during their dormant season, thought they were dying from lack of water. They took turns going back at night to give the Fremontias an extra ration, and delivered their death blow.
As the site of both the first mission and the first white settlement in California, Presidio Park has religious and historical significance. Perhaps, too little recognized, beyond its obvious beauty, is the Park’s horticultural importance. In the following article by Chauncy Jerabek, California Garden — and the San Diego History Center Quarterly — have attemped to fill that gap.