By James E. Moss
San Diegans organized their first Historical Society on January 24, 1880, describing it as an organization “for the diffusion of a general knowledge of natural and civil history.” The members demonstrated their broad interests as they set about collecting artifacts for their “cabinet of curiosities,” including such diverse objects as ore samples, the skin of a jelly fish, and a bit of “Pele’s hair” thrown up from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. They debated topics such as “Resolved: That the Indians have a right to the soil of America” and “Resolved: That the Temperance Societies do more injury than good.” They sponsored lectures on hawks and owls, ferns and “forest trees,” as well as on historical subjects.
The Historical Society continued in this vein for slightly less than a decade and then lapsed into inactivity. The community’s interest in things historical found an outlet through such organizations as the Native Sons and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, both of which were first organized in San Diego in 1887; and later, in the Pioneer Society of San Diego, incorporated in 1911. The Pioneer Society began collecting documents and records as well as a few artifacts, which ultimately were to become the nucleus for the present museum and library collections of the Historical Society.
In 1928 San Diegans took a renewed interest in a historical society. On December 13, with George White Marston as founder and first president, the San Diego Historical Society was incorporated as a nonprofit cultural and educational organization. The stated objectives and purposes were “for the discovery, collection and preservation of books, pamphlets, maps, genealogies, portraits, paintings, relics, manuscripts, letters, journals, surveys, field books and any and all other books, articles or materials which may establish or illustrate the history of Western America, particularly the County of San Diego and the State of California, and the publication and dissemination of such historical matter as this corporation may authorize.”
The formal organization of the Historical Society was prompted by a growing concern for the preservation of various landmarks and other historical materials which were being obliterated or obscured by urban growth and population increase. This was true especially of Presidio Hill, where the Franciscan Padre Junípero Serra and Captain Gaspar de Portolá had established the first mission and presidio in Alta California. Many felt that the site was as important as Plymouth Rock. A member of the Board of Directors of the Historical Society wrote in 1929 that: “San Diego has had such an influx of residents in recent years that they hardly had the opportunity of acquainting themselves with the traditions, origin and history of San Diego. . . . And it was primarily for the purpose of disseminating this knowledge that the San Diego Historical Association was formed, and the prelude on the [Presidio] Hill undertaken. . . . San Diego has a double claim to fame,” he wrote. “It was alike, the first point of discovery on the Pacific Coast of what is now the United States [Cabrillo in 1542], and the first place of settlement as well [Serra and Portolá in 1769].”
Motivated by his desire to preserve and protect this historic site, George White Marston, a San Diego businessman and philanthropist, began acquiring land on Presidio Hill in 1907. By 1928 he had about twenty acres. He hired John Nolen, a noted city planner and landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and developed the land as a park. He then constructed an imposing building designed by architect William Templeton Johnson in the Mission Revival style; and the park and building were dedicated on July 16, 1929, to commemorate the accomplishments of Padre Serra and the early Spanish explorers.
Marston presented the Serra Museum building and the park land to the City of San Diego as a gift with the understanding that it would be the home of the newly formed Historical Society. As the crowning feature of the landscape&medash;with a commanding view of the city, the bay, the ocean, and the mountains&medash;Serra Museum in Presidio Park stands as a monument to the heritage of San Diego. Today, Presidio Hill (a designated National Historic Landmark) and Serra Museum symbolize the endeavors of the Historical Society to protect, preserve, and interpret San Diego’s history. Below the museum on the grassy slopes in Presidio Park (now encompassing forty acres, with several historical monuments and markers) are rolling mounds where Historical Society archaeologists are unearthing evidence of the beginning of European civilization on the Pacific Coast of the United States. The artifacts recovered and displayed in the museum offer an opportunity to gain new insights into San Diego’s first century.
When the Historical Society established itself in Serra Museum in 1929, Marston purchased fifteenth through eighteenth century artifacts, furnishings, and works of art in Spain and brought them to the museum for exhibit on the theory that they were representative of the period of the Spanish explorers and missionaries. The museum also became the depository for the Historical Society Library and Manuscripts Collection, which had acquired the records and documents collected by the defunct Pioneer Society of San Diego.
The City of San Diego accepted Marston’s gift of the park and museum reluctantly, and refused to allocate funds for maintenance or improvements. While the city did agree to provide water, Marston continued to pay the expenses of maintaining the park and the costs of any additional plantings or other improvements for nearly a decade.
Early in 1930 Marston hired the Historical Society’s first curator, John Davidson. Davidson and his wife Winifred, along with the second president of the Historical Society, State Senator Leroy A. Wright (who served in that elected office for thirteen years), dedicated themselves to building the library and manuscripts collections. For twenty-four years Davidson worked diligently, but with limited funds, to enhance the collections. When he retired as executive director in 1954, Gerald F. MacMullen was appointed and served for a decade, steadily building the museum collections and adding to the library. During the next five years, the Historical Society had two different executive directors and an interim director. In 1969, on the 200th anniversary of the founding of San Diego, the Historical Society had six employees, an annual budget of $60,000, and 800 members; and in that year the society appointed James E. Moss as executive director.
For forty years Serra Museum served as the major facility for the Historical Society’s projects. In 1969 the society began an expansion program by acquiring and restoring the Villa Montezuma because of its historical and architectural significance, and because it could serve as a combined historic house museum and cultural center. Built in 1887 by Jesse Shepard at 1925 K Street in San Diego’s Golden Hill area, the Villa Montezuma is the city’s most fascinating historical landmark of the Victorian period. A magnificent example of eclectic Victorian architecture with a Queen Anne flavor, designed by architects Comstock and Trotsche, it is a monument reflecting the architecture, life, and times of the city’s most gaudy and exciting boom period.
The Historical Society raised the funds to purchase the property, restore it, and have it surveyed and recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey. The Villa was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it was then deeded to the City of San Diego. In November 1972 the Historical Society opened it as a public museum interpreting the Victorian period, but also with a broad range of educational and cultural activities. The programs and exhibits are directed toward expanding audiences among nontraditional museum patrons, with special emphasis on ethnic culture and traditions.
In 1973 the Historical Society obtained the use of a city owned building in Balboa Park for a permanent archival facility, which also permitted expansion of the accessions and catalog departments.
In 1976 provisions were made for another major expansion when Miss Mary G. Marston, daughter of George Marston, gave her house and gardens to the city and asked that they be designated for use by the Historical Society. George Marston built the structure in 1904 on 41/2 acres contiguous to Balboa Park. Architect Irving Gill&medash;whose simple but bold techniques gained him a national reputation as an innovator in the emerging American style of architecture&medash;designed the building, which has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With the enthusiastic encouragement of Miss Marston, the historic structure is being developed by the Historical Society as an Urban History Center with interpretive exhibits and programs focusing on the early twentieth century in San Diego. When fully developed it also will provide quarters for the Publication and Administrative Offices, and serve as a location for other historical, educational, and cultural activities.
The Society’s Historical Collections took on a new and greatly expanded dimension in 1979 when the San Diego Title Insurance and Trust Company, a subsidiary of TICOR with headquarters in Los Angeles, presented to the Society their splendid Historical Photograph Collection containing in excess of 140,000 images. At dedication ceremonies in April, this magnificent donation was officially accepted and a combination photograph research facility and exhibition gallery opened at the company’s building at 220 A Street in downtown San Diego.
With some 2,220 square feet made available by Title Insurance and Trust Company in the heart of the metropolitan San Diego area, the Historical Society expanded and enhanced its capability to serve the general public as well as scholars and researchers, and increased its visibility and effectiveness as a cultural and educational force. Photographs capture the imagination unlike any other method of historical documentation and have long been recognized by historians as a valuable historical resource. This vast number of photographs from the Title Insurance and Trust Company affords the Society an uncommon opportunity to preserve and interpret a most unique part of San Diego’s past.
With these five facilities the Historical Society provides a full range of historical activities. It maintains a major library, manuscripts, and iconographic collection; engages in the preservation of significant historic structures; conducts a traditional museum program with exhibits and attendant lectures, tours, and educational activities; sponsors an archaeological excavation; and carries on a substantial publication program.
The publication program includes an illustrated quarterly magazine, The Journal of San Diego History, first issued in January 1955; a monthly newspaper, San Diego History News, issued initially as a newsletter in 1963; and, beginning in 1976, a number of books on California and San Diego subjects.
The Historical Society’s collection of documents and artifacts has reached major proportions and contains a remarkable and continually increasing amount of materials dating from 1542 to the present, including approximately 3,000 catalogued artifacts reflecting the history of San Diego and over 15,000 books, reports, unpublished manuscripts, theses, and dissertations concerning all facets of San Diego’s development.
The San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection covers a wide range of source material. Strong in twentieth century materials as well as documents of the earlier periods, and with a rapidly increasing number of records relating to San Diego’s urban history, the collections are balanced, covering all periods. There are a number of published and unpublished accounts of the ranchos established in San Diego County. Among these is the collection assembled by Captain William Murray Kerr, U.S.N. Ret., and the account book and ledger of the W.W. Fish Baja California Ranch, 1842-1861 and 1880-1883. In addition there is a splendid collection on the American period in the oral history section, with over 470 typescripts from tape-recorded interviews with early settlers.
One of the strongest sections of the library is that dealing with people. In addition to the material contained in diaries and the typescripts and tape-recordings, the library has a complete file of San Diego business directories, county histories, and census records for 1850, 1860, and 1870 for San Diego County. This collection is augmented by biographies of individuals in 374 notebooks which contain primary material on thousands of San Diegans. There are also larger accumulations of the records and letters of persons active in the life of San Diego.
Cultural and social organization materials include fraternal and patriotic societies, lodges, literary and musical clubs, and churches. There is a large mass of material on civic improvements, which cover parks, harbor developments, city planning and public housing, health (hospitals and doctors), and the 1915 and 1935 Expositions. The society has recently embarked on a program for the preservation of historic houses, and the library contains data on individual houses plus information on streets and a complete section on place names in San Diego County.
There is material on the natural resources of San Diego County covering mineral, timber, and land resources. This is supplemented by files on the flora, horticulture, and agriculture of the region. Because San Diego County is semi-desert, water is a resource of primary importance. The holdings of the library range from the U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Papers and overall studies of the Colorado River to local reports and the early water projects of Colonel Ed Fletcher and reports and studies of the irrigation districts formed in the county.
The Historical Society conducts an active campaign to acquire business and industry records; files and publications on banks, utility companies, land developments, the fishing and canning industry, manufacturing, shipping and transportation companies, and wholesale and retail stores. In the last few years a program has been inaugurated to increase the holdings of architectural drawings. Today the library has over 450 drawings of schools, churches, residences, and public buildings throughout the San Diego area’ The library is also the depository for official city and county records, with present holdings exceeding 2,000 linear feet. Covering the period 1873 to 1950, these records include minutes from the Board of Supervisors, Board of Aldermen, and Common Council; correspondence from the County Sheriff’s Office, and proceedings from the superior, municipal, and probate courts.
The Historical Society makes special efforts not only to collect materials on various ethnic groups in San Diego County, but also to stimulate research and writing in these and other areas through an Annual Institute of History. The institute awards monetary prizes and arranges publication of winning papers in The Journal of San Diego History.
Observing its fiftieth year as an incorporated educational and cultural institution, the San Diego History Center has taken its place as one of the nation’s most energetic and successful historical societies of its kind. With an annual operating budget of $410,000 for 1979, a staff of twenty-five and a membership numbering 2,500, the Society has developed a broad based program for achieving the goals outlined in its Articles of Incorporation. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and has enriched the lives of thousands of San Diegans of all ages. As the San Diego History Center further expands its programs and holdings, it will continue to remain a prime influence in San Diego’s future development.
The Journal of San Diego History, XV (Summer, 1969), Published by The San Diego Historical Society.
Marston, George W. Manuscripts and Papers. San Diego History Center Library and Manuscripts Collection, San Diego, California.
Marston, Mary Gilman. George White Marston, A Family Chronicle. 2 Vols. Los Angeles: Ward Richie Press, 1956.
San Diego History News, XXIII (February, 1977), Published by The San Diego Historical Society.
San Diego Magazine, V (July, 1929), Published by The San Diego Chamber of Commerce.
Whitehill, Walter Muir. Independent Historical Societies. Boston: The Boston Athenaeum, 1962.