The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1979, Volume 25, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
GREGG R. HENNESSEY
The Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park, one of the most widely recognized landmarks in San Diego, will be fifty years old this July. A major symbol of the city, it is synonymous with the history and beauty of the area. Constructed in 1929, this remarkable building, which dominates the park and provides a magnificent view of both the mountains and the ocean, was not part of the orginal park plans. In fact, the idea of constructing a museum was not put forth until nearly twenty years after the initial efforts to preserve the area were first begun.
In 1907, five men—Charles Kelly, George W. Marston, John D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps, and A.G. Spalding—purchased fourteen lots above San Diego’s Old Town for $6,000.00 to preserve the site of the first Spanish mission in California. These lots were in the center of what is now Presidio Park. After five years of futilely attempting to interest the City of San Diego in the project, Marston bought out the others. He understood that the only way a fitting memorial to the first European settlers of California would be realized was through the dedication of a single individual. As the scope and importance of the project grew in his mind, Marston began the largest and most significant of his many philanthropic efforts for the city.
George White Marston arrived in San Diego on October 24, 1870, two days after his twentieth birthday. His family came west, as so many others had, to find a more healthful climate. Over the next three-quarters of a century, Marston and the city would grow together, each affecting the other in significant ways. He made his fortune in business but dedicated his best efforts in life to public service. From the beginning of his life in San Diego he was involved with the social, political, cultural, and spiritual betterment of his community. Of the many activities that Marson initiated or supported over the decades, none interested him more nor received more constant attention than park development and city planning. In addition to Presidio Park, he was the major force in the development of Balboa Park and Borrego Desert Park. He also served for many years on the Park Commission and was President of the State-County Parks and Beaches Association. Because he understood the need for a rational plan to guide future growth, he initiated the beginnings of modern city planning for San Diego. The present, Marston believed, owed the future the very best effort it could muster to ensure health, comfort, and beauty for all people.
Marston continued to purchase land in the area for the proposed park until he had acquired twenty acres. As the nature of the original idea had evolved far beyond a simple memorial garden covering a few lots to a park of several acres, Marston sought professional landscaping and planning advice. In 1925 he engaged the services of John Nolen, a city planner and landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nolen was well-known to Marston and San Diego for in 1908 Marston, at his own expense, hired him to develop an urban plan for the city. Marston recalled that the planner “was enthusiastic over the possibilities of Presidio” but thought the park should be larger. A tract of forty acres, at least double what Marston owned, was advised as a more suitable landscape unit. This offered a terrain of great natural beauty with opportunities of fine decorative value. Nolen also suggested that a suitable monument be built in the park. He told Marston that a building was needed at the top of the hill to serve as a monument and to set the tone of the park. Some months later Hale J. Walker, an associate of Nolen’s, drew a rough pencil sketch of the type of building to serve as a guide for the designing of Serra Museum.
Neither Walker nor Nolen had any preconceptions about the style or specific nature of the building. Walker’s sketch merely showed a structure with a tower at one end, which greatly appealed to Marston. The man that Marston chose to design the new museum was William Templeton Johnson. A leading local architect, Johnson was reaching the height of his powers in the late 1920s. He was a traditionalist rather than an innovative designer and championed Spanish Colonial and Mission architecture. The numerous public buildings he designed for San Diego reflect this romantic influence of Mediterranean styles. Johnson believed that the history and natural environment of San Diego lent themselves in a most propitious manner to these particular architectural forms. His forceful application of romantic European traditionalism, in the estimation of one local critic, “has most shaped the character of San Diego in the first half of the twentieth century”.
Johnson worked on the design for Serra Museum in 1927 and 1928, one of the busiest periods of his professional life. During this time, he was chosen to design the United States’ building for the 1928 Exposition at Seville, Spain. Locally, he also designed the San Diego Trust and Savings Building and the Samuel I. Fox Building. This flood of work, particularly his trips to Spain, slowed his completion of the Serra Museum project.
Work on the park itself was also begun during this period. Roads were laid out and graded, a concrete city reservoir was removed, and planting was begun. Nolen developed landscaping plans in his Cambridge office from contour maps prepared by a local engineer. The proposed museum building became the dominating feature of the park. Nolen wrote to Marston in June 1927 that several details of the park plan would be determined by the type of architectural treatment Johnson used for the museum. “The dominating architectural note is of course this main building,” the planner said, “and we want all details such as gates, arbors and benches to reflect [this].” He further urged Marston to expedite Johnson’s work.
The plans were completed and accepted in the fall of 1928. Marston informed Nolen that a good design was in hand and that work would begin in February. A dedication ceremony was planned for July 16, 1929, the l60th anniversary of the arrival of Fray Junípero Serra and the establishment of Spanish colonial rule in Upper California. That left only five months to build the museum. Construction was awarded to the Kier Construction Company under Johnson’s supervision. The work proceeded without any major difficulties and was completed before the July ceremony.
The Junípero Serra Museum is the finest example of Mission style architecture in San Diego. A truly beautiful structure with an appealing simplicity of design and resolute character, it reflects the strong cultural sense of Spanish colonials who had a firm understanding of their place in the world and their duty in life. Johnson wrote of his work that “the Junípero Serra Museum is designed in close sympathy with the spirit of the architecture of the missions, [which] all had thick walls and simple masses, and a sturdiness and frankness in design which gave them much charm.” The purpose in his mind was to “preserve the feeling of the missions without making the building too ecclesiastical in appearance.” A jury of visiting architects in 1931 praised the museum as an outstanding modern example of the best of Mission architecture. Johnson considered it his finest achievement in the Spanish Colonial style, and architectural historians since have repeatedly agreed with his judgment.
The building is concrete with white stucco walls, tile roof, and rough-hewed open timber ceilings. The large museum room evokes the feeling of entering the nave of an old Spanish church with its red tile floors, plain white walls, high beam ceiling, and clerestory type windows. In the northeast corner of the building is a vaulted library room. An open terrace surrounds the building and provides views of Mission Valley and the mountains to the east, Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the outlying mesas to the north. A long arcade, partly covered by an open arch walkway, vividly recalls the architecture of the original California missions.
The most prominent feature of the Serra Museum is the seventy-foot tower at the north end of the building. From the top balcony a sweeping panorama unfolds in all directions. A bronze weathervane of the California Bear tops the outside dome. The tower contains three display levels. The first is a small room with a slanted roof and a window. The next level is a large gallery with a double arched window and a small balcony on the north wall. Above this, at the top of the tower, is a small open level with a high domed ceiling.
With a fine sense of historical appropriateness, Marston decided to furnish the museum with authentic fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century Spanish furniture. The furniture provides an excellent link with the Spain of Father Serra. Early in 1929 Marston sent Ross H. Thiele, his store’s interior decorator, to Spain to find the appropriate pieces for the museum. Thiele traveled the length of the peninsula finding items in Seville, Granada, Madrid, Burgos, and Catalonia. In Madrid he found a seventeenth century walnut table that was ten feet long. An uncommonly large antique, the table met exactly the needs of the main museum room. A huge chest with geometric panels on all sides was found in the Altamira Palace in Seville. It was originally placed at the end of the long table in the center of the room. Two long church benches and some large chairs, all from seventeenth century Catalonia, were placed around the table.
In Burgos, Thiele purchased a large armario with intricate lattice work doors and carved drawers. This piece was originally used to hold church vestments. The most valuable of all the items is the vergueno, a decorative cabinet and writing desk with trestle support. Made in Toledo, it came from the collection of Arthur Byrne, an authority in Spanish furniture and arts. The oldest piece in the collection is a fifteenth century Catalonian chest, with simply carved oak paneled sides and a great iron lock and escutcheon on the front. Various candelabras, smaller tables, wall hangings, and an old brasier completed the rare collection. Marston’s records show that he spent over $7000 on the acquisition of this collection. Today it is one of the finest of its kind in the west and its value is incalculable.
The dedication of Presidio Park and Serra Museum began at 9:00 A.M. on July 16, 1929, with a solemn high mass led by the Very Reverend Novatus Benzing, the provincial of the Franciscan order in the western United States. In the early afternoon a pageant was held which recreated the first contact between the Cosoy Indians and Father Serra and his company. Because of eighty-five degree heat that day, three-quarters of the twelve thousand people who watched the pageant left afterwards. The remaining three thousand witnessed the formal dedication ceremony. Governor Clement C. Young, Mayor Harry C. Clark, the Spanish ambassador to the United States Señor Don Alejandro Padilla y Bell and James A. Blaisdell, the President of Claremont Colleges all gave speeches. In the evening a colored light show on Presidio Hill ended the day’s activities.
George White Marston was seventy-nine years old in the summer of 1929. He had been in San Diego for fifty-nine years and had worked on the Presidio Park and Serra Museum project for over two decades. A reluctant Depression-era City Council would cause Marston to maintain the park and museum for another twelve years. When the city finally did take over maintenance and responsibility for the gift, Marston’s records showed he had spent nearly $400,000 to acquire the land, plant and maintain the park, and build the museum. This easily constitutes the most generous gift ever given to the city of San Diego by a private citizen. And the Serra Museum and its furnishings, which cost over $100,000, are the most significant gifts ever to be placed in the trust of the San Diego Historical Society.