It was landscape architect John Nolen who introduced the idea
of a building in the park. He felt that something in the order of a monument was
needed to top the hill above the presidio and suggested that the monument be in
the form of a structure in which historical material could be preserved. A rough
sketch of such a building was drawn by one of Mr. Nolen’s associates, Hale J.
Walker, and its basic outlines were followed by the architect of the museum,
William Templeton Johnson.
Mary Marston remembers that much thought went into
preparations for the building. Her father had three objectives; to have the
building be a tribute to Father Serra, to house the San Diego Historical
Society, and to compliment the park.
It was essential to preserve the atmosphere of mission
architecture. This was accomplished through simplicity of design, the selection
and color of materials, and through the use of the long arcade. The museum was
designed to take advantage of the commanding view up Mission Valley and east to
the mountains, and west over the bay and the sea.
The building is an authentic example of Spanish mission style
architecture. Mr. Johnson, its designer, was one of the city’s leading
architects, The construction material used was reinforced concrete. The walls
are three feet thick and hollow. Massive timbers and tile comprise the roof and
tile is used for flooring material throughout the museum.
The original tiles in the doorway were taken from the flume which the
Franciscan fathers constructed to irrigate their crops in Mission
Valley. Later many of these tiles were duplicated and replaced when they became worn and dangerous.
The most striking feature of the building is the tall tower
at its north end, From the ground level on the west side of the building this
dome is 81.7 feet high. The tower is capped by a bronze weather vane in the
figure of a California bear which constantly turns its f ace to follow the
The tower is functional as well as artistic. Inside its walls
is space for storage, offices and display rooms.
Exhibits are on view in the large central display room within
the museum. The room has an open timber roof. Behind the display room is the
library. Exhibits are changed often, the selection being made from the society’s
large collection of artifact material
A jury of visiting architects in 1931 said of Serra Museum,
An outstanding modern example of the best of our heritage of mission
architecture, admirably fitted to a commanding site and expressing with
remarkable vigor the fine simple dignity of Father Serra.