The Junipero Serra Museum
April 1, 1962
By Bill Virden
In the middle 1920’s, Presidio Hill was a barren waste of wild oats, cactus and scrub vegetation, surrounding the crumbled walls of the original Spanish presidio and the equally delapidated earthworks of the later American strong-point, Fort Stockton.
It might be that way today, or covered with who knows what, had it not been for the foresight of the late George W. Marston. This was California’s birthplace, and through his efforts it has been preserved as such, for all time.
Mr. Marston aroused the interest of other civic-minded San Diegans, and began the laborious task of searching out the titles to the many parcels of land, all privately owned, which adjoined some 15 acres of city land purchased from the old San Diego Water Company in 1901; San Diego used to get its water from wells and a pumping-plant in the bottom of Palm Canyon, just east of where the Junipero Serra Museum now stands.
By 1927 Mr. Marston had acquired 20 acres and succeeded in having this land, and the city’s adjoining 15 acres, dedicated as a park. Then came the building of the museum, a superb Spanish missionstyle structure, designed by the late William Templeton Johnson, one of the city’s leading architects. It was formally dedicated July 16, 1929, on the 160th anniversary of San Diego.
So faithfully does the building capture the spirit of colonial Spain that tourists sometimes indignantly insist that it is in fact the old Spanish mission itself. Actually, of course, the original Mission San Diego de Alcalá founded by Father Junipero Serra on July 16, 1769, was a crude out-building of the Presidio, located west of the now existing parking lot below the Museum.
There was constant friction between the Indians and the soldiers, and so with an eye to eliminating this trouble, and because of the greater accessibility of farm land, a new, permanent mission was built in 1774. This is located about six miles up Mission Valley, to the north of U. S. Highway 80. From a vantage point on the East porch of the Museum, visitors can view the Mission up the valley.
It was Serra, a Franciscan monk from Mallorca in the Balearic Islands, who conceived the idea of a string of missions, a day’s journey apart, as an integral part of the plan to colonize “New” California. In 1769 he accompanied the land expedition of Don Gaspar de Portolá, up from the tip of Baja California, and dedicated the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, first of the 21 missions which were to reach to the north of San Francisco. Serra died at Carmel in 1783, without seeing the completion of his tremendous task.
The museum is of reinforced concrete construction, and its hollow walls are a yard in thickness; the roof is of tile over massive timbers, and the building is tile floored throughout. On entering the museum, note the tile on the floor in the doorway; they were taken from the original flume which ran from the Mission Dam to the Mission. In 1958 several of these were duplicated, the originals having worn down to the point of being dangerous. Above the gift shop at the south entrance of the building is the library, containing many hundreds of volumes on California history, with heavy emphasis on that of San Diego County. It is extensively used by members of the San Diego History Center and by historians, graduate students, and the press and radio. The main exhibit room is about 25 by 50 feet, into which were moved the beautiful items of antique furniture, which Mr. Marston had brought over from Spain when the museum was built. In 1961 it was found necessary to bring the Concord stage-coach, valued at $10,000, into this room, because of increasing incidents of vandalism while it was housed under the loggia. The coach is now the star attraction of the Museum, having been completely restored in 1961. This coach made its last run in about 1910 from Foster to Julian, California. Also in the main, or “Spanish” room, are numerous new exhibit cases, two of them housing well done dioramas depicting San Diego’s early history. Leading off the main exhibit room is the Pioneer Room with relics and antiques having to do with San Diego’s early American period.
The high, domed tower at the north end of the building not only is a striking feature of its architecture, but also provides space for the storage of hundreds of bound volumes of early San Diego newspapers, with two additional rooms set aside for preparation of exhibits, and for artifacts not currently on display.
After its gift to the city by Mr. Marston, who originally operated it privately, the museum was operated for several years under the Park Department, with Civil Service employees. Now it is operated by the San Diego History Center, under a contract with the city. With a membership as of 1962 of close to 1100 members, the local group, which owns all of the exhibit material, is the second largest county historical society in California. In addition to its permanent displays the museum features several special exhibits, for one or two days each, during the year. These special events include the annual Button Show, the annual display of old-time model railroad equipment, and the annual Gun Show. At the latter, as a public service, experts are on hand to assist local citizens in identifying and evaluating antique firearms from their own collections. The museum is open every day of the year. In 1956, the first year of the “electric eye” counter, attendance was 97,200; in 1961, it was 132,000.
Presidio Park is situated on a high bluff at the cross-roads of San Diego. Highway 101 leads to Northern California, and intersecting this is Highway 80, San Diego’s exit to the East, which runs directly below the museum. Standing on the west side of the museum porch a visitor has a sweeping panoramic view of the Pacific, with San Diego’s fabulous Mission Bay aquatic park, in the process of completion. Going around the building to the north porch and looking across Mission Valley is the spectacular University of San Diego, a Catholic University. On the east side of the building, the porch offers a view of Mission Valley looking east, including Hotel Circle, the new shopping areas and finally Mission San Diego de Alcalá Also from this point glance down into the beautiful Palm Canyon, with its winding paths and picnic facilities. The park is a beauty spot of trees, shrubs, and lawns, and contains many features of historical interest.
Walking down hill at the bend of the road to the right is the “Presidio Wall” which was recreated approximately on the location of the easterly limit of the Presidio; a series of lawn-covered mounds, in straight easterly-westerly lines, are all that is left of the crumbled adobe ruins of the original buildings. One room, at the far northwest corner on a bluff overlooking Mission Valley, was left uncovered, and here one may see the original tile floor of this Spanish building nearly two centuries old. While in this area note the large bronze Indian statue, the work of a noted sculptor, the late Arthur Putnam. Cross the road onto the lawn and observe the famous Serra Cross, built in 1913 by the Order of Panama, and faced with broken fragments of the original Spanish tiles. Climb to the cross which has behind it, in a sunken, tree-shaded vale, the equally famous bronze statue of Father Serra, also by Putnam. This statue has always been a delight to amateur photographers.
Going up the hill, to the south, at the top of which is the highest point of land in the park, surrounding the flagpole, will be found the open trenches, now landscaped, which were Fort Stockton. Nearby is a commemorative marker to the Mormon Battallion, whose overland journey from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego is still the longest infantry march in history. Near the flagpole is the old bronze cannon El Jupiter, cast in Manila in the Eighteenth century, and once a part of the Spanish defenses of San Diego.
Although tiny, in comparison with the great Balboa Park in the center of the city, Presidio Park affords many joyous and pleasant hours to citizens and visitors alike on weekends and holidays with its many picnic and cook out areas. During school sessions literally thousands of San Diego County School children are given guided tours of the park and the Serra Museum. The project, conceived by Mr. Marston in the 1920s, has proven to be a tremendous asset to the City of San Diego.