The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1986, Volume 32, Number 2
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

The following letter, or statement, was written by the founder of San Diego’s Presidio Park and Junípero Serra Museum, George W. Marston. In addition to his achievement with this historic spot, Marston is well known in the city’s history for his remarkable record of philanthropic endeavors aimed at improving the quality of life for all San Diegans. A recent article in this journal (Fall 1985) gave a detailed picture of his splendid accomplishments.

Marston’s remarks on the development of Presidio Park are remarkably lucid and fresh considering they were written in hindsight by a man who was then ninety-two years old. They offer as well thoughtful insight into the birth of what is now one of the shining stars of San Diego’s public parks and gardens. But, more importantly, they are published here for the first time to remind us of the profound things that can be achieved by one person with great personal beliefs and a dream. More than most cities, San Diego’s history has been the record of individuals with dreams. George W. Marston was among the best of these.


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I began to take an interest in Presidio Hill in 1907. Mr. Charles Kelly, one of our early pioneers, suggested to me that something ought to be done to preserve the original site of the first California Mission. I realized immediately the importance of securing this historic ground for public conservation and conferred with Messrs. John D. Spreckels, E.W. Scripps and A.G. Spalding. They agreed with Mr. Kelly and me, and in order to get the land away from private holdings we five men purchased at a cost of $6,000 fourteen lots in the center of the tract (where the cross now stands) and had the deed made to the Abstract Title and Trust Company. Later on the title was passed to the Union Title & Trust Company and was practically in trust for the City.

In the immediate years following we endeavored, without success, to induce the City of San Diego to take the property for public preservation, with payment to us of our cost of acquiring. This adverse action displeased our group very much (particularly the three S members). As five years had passed away and serious complications were in prospect I decided to get personal control of the property so as to hasten the program of making it a public monument. My four partners were more than willing and accepted my payments to them for their cash outlay plus 6% interest for five years. Previously to this I had bought several adjoining parcels of land and continued to make purchases for years afterwards. By 1925 I had acquired about twenty acres on Presidio Hill.

The time had arrived to plan the improvements to set forth the historic significance of the place. My first thought was of a Spanish garden surrounding the cross that had been built in 1915. But the more I considered this the less it satisfied me. The importance of the matter, as I looked at it, justified me in seeking the highest authority for advice. In planning the civic improvements that had engaged San Diego committees for several years from 1908 on I had become acquainted with John Nolen, the city planner and landscape architect for Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was certainly the man for guidance and technical skill. So in that year, 1925, I secured his coming to San Diego for consultation on the problems of Presidio Hill, Balboa Park and the Civic Center.

Mr. Nolen was enthusiastic over the possibilities of Presidio. He said my ideas were good but not big enough. He told me that although a formal garden around the cross, in a setting of trees and shrubs to cover in all about ten acres, would be a development of some beauty, it was not adequate for the “Plymouth Rock of the Pacific”. He pointed out to me that the area between Fort Stockton hill and the high promontory overlooking Camino Real on the east and the old palm on the west comprised at least forty acres. This area should be treated as a landscape unit. Here was a terrain of great natural beauty with opportunities of fine decorative value.

Mr. Nolen’s ideas looked good to me (in a landscape way), but I was rather aghast at the size of the job, about four times as big as anything I had contemplated. He said the city might do it, the city ought to because this ground was the birthplace of San Diego. In the light of the city’s later attitude to Presidio Park, what a pleasant joke! Nevertheless the main purpose in my mind took on a new and greater meaning. I also realized that nobody but George would do it. So I went on with the work not knowing what it would cost in time and money.

The years 1926 and 1927 were devoted mostly to planning and surveying. With the aid of contour maps made by our local engineer, Mr. Nolen was able in his eastern office to design and draft plans for grading, road building, water system and landscape treatment. The dominant feature of his general design was the building now known as Serra Museum. One of Mr. Nolen’s associates, Hale J. Walker, while here on the ground, drew a rough pencil sketch of the type of building that the Nolen office recommended. In a general way Wm. Templeton Johnson used this sketch as a guide and developed the beautiful design that I accepted. This stately building, the creation of Mr. Johnson, architect, and the Kier Company, builders, is the commanding landmark of Presidio Hill and worthily commemorates the great missionary of Spain, Padre Junípero Serra. The building was erected in the six months of January-June 1929 and was dedicated, with impressive services, on the 16th of July 1929, the 160th anniversary of the settlement of Presidio Hill.

In the year 1927 a great deal of preparatory work was done for the proposed park. This included the grading of the principal roadway. But 1928 was the great year of the park development: the removal of a great city water reservoir, the completion of roads and the laying of water pipes. The reservoir was the toughest job encountered in our park building. Hundreds of tons of concrete and steel had to be dug out of the ground and carted away, Photographs that I am presenting with this statement show what an immense work was done. At least I thought it was immense when Watson & Sutton’s bills of $25,000 came in. They were the contractors and they did a good job. The reservoir site filled the space between Cosoy Way and Fort Stockton, now called “The Bowl”. Here are the groups of Monterey and Canary Island pines that enclose a pleasant recreation ground.

1928, 29 and 30 were the heavy planting years. The larger eucalypts, pines, palms, acacias, etc. that are seen now were planted then. The most of them were small plants, but the palm near the cross and the olive trees on the museum grounds are old transplanted trees. One of the palms, with necessary earth around its roots, weighed 20 tons. The general shrubberies of the central park were also planted then, among them many native shrubs, such as California holly, rhus, sumac and Catalina cherry. In these three years mentioned the foundation of Presidio Park was laid and its general features established.

The ten following years, 1930-1939 were given largely to maintenance, although in 1930 and 1931 heavy planting continued. 1935 was the year of heaviest cost on account of the paving of roadways. Before the paving our regular force of men had built permanent storm gutters on both sides of the main roads. Presidio is a place of hills and the rush of storm waters was something to contend with in the early days. The torrents that once ripped up banks, terraces and roadway now slip rapidly along the gutters and through underground conduits to San Diego river.

An outstanding work of this period was that of the Public Works Administration, a national government service. This was virtually a contribution of $200,000 to the city and an extremely pleasant assistance to me. The outlook structure at the head of Franciscan garden is one of the W.P.A.’s large building services. As their work on the park was limited to structural expense rather than maintenance our superintendent got several miles of trails, pathways and ditches built by them. The SERA of California also gave a more limited amount of work.

When Mr. Broell took charge of the work in 1932 there was very little, if any, grass to be seen. From this time on green lawns were placed in open areas, giving the fresh and finished appearance that makes for beauty. Through this period the necessary lavatories were built, at quite a cost for plumbing; several picnic areas established, with ovens and other conveniences; automatic water sprinklers established; and the building of Franciscan garden with its Spanish fountain and charming grotto. Minor improvements, too numerous to mention, were also added.

The most important extension of the park in this period was the acquirement of the valley and hill land eastward of the museum. At the mouth of the canyon were the old houses and remains of a pumping plant that once served the city reservoir on the high land above. Between 1937 and 1940 this section was transformed into a beautiful valley of grass covered low lands and hill sides of native shrubs. The two hill tops were converted into a kind of elevated esplanade with a connecting roadway to Camino Real in the river valley. Automobiles can now be driven to this fine view point to enjoy another prospect of Serra Museum and the surrounding country. The designing and executing of this hill project and roadway was the work of Superintendent Broell and he deserves great credit for it. He also designed and built the rock grotto of Franciscan garden which is a pleasant place for picnic parties (and even for weddings!).

At this point I should like to make a grateful acknowledgment of the personal assistance that has been given to me in this park enterprise. Mr. John Nolen and his associates furnished the basic plan which was followed quite closely in the earlier years. It was of the greatest value and Presidio Hill for generations to come will bear the marks of the Nolen design. Owing to the distance of Mr. Nolen’s office from San Diego it was impossible to get detailed instruction. But I had for a time the assistance of Roland S. Hoyt of San Diego, and later on general advice from Ralph D. Cornell of Los Angeles. But in the main I myself was the “landscape architect” for several years. As I was versed in landscape books and had been a park commissioner for three terms, with Balboa Park and personal gardening experience, I felt considerable confidence and did the best I could. I can now see my many mistakes and am more than ever convinced that continual professional advice is needed for fine landscape work.

My first foreman was Percy M. Carter who had been a gardener on my residence grounds. He was foreman of a force of eight or ten men for three years beginning in the early part of 1928. He lived in the park lodge on Taylor Street and met his death very suddenly, from heart failure, falling down near the old palm that he had tended so well. Mr. Carter was a faithful and competent man for the work entrusted to him and his associates and myself felt his loss very deeply.

For some months after this one of the workmen named A.H. Cragin acted as foreman until his ill health and subsequent death closed his work. For some time previously, while Mr. Carter was foreman, I had employed Roland S. Hoyt as landscape architect. From 1928 to 1933 he was my principal adviser, and in 1931 practically park superintendent. Mr. Hoyt’s thorough knowledge of California plants was very useful during this period of the most extensive planting. Later years have proved the judgment and good taste of his tree and shrub selections. Most of the important plants that compose the older groups were placed by him. His services in the early days of our park making are gratefully remembered.

In 1932 I appointed Percy C. Broell foreman of the working force and some time later he was given the title of superintendent. At this time (1942) he has been in charge of all the work at Presidio Hill, including the work of the SERA and the WPA, for ten years. It was very fortunate that such a competent man as Mr. Broell was found in our staff of workmen. He was well prepared for the job and his capacity increased from year to year. Broell and I made a good team. I was ahead of him in landscape designing and he was ten times my better as a plantsman and practical mechanic. When he was laying water-pipe, mixing mortar or putting plants in the ground I never interfered, but when trees were to be placed and harmonious groups composed I was very bossy. Mr. Broell has had a large, important part in the construction of Presidio Park. I am indebted to him for years of loyal and competent service. The park itself is his best commendation.

My relations with city councilmen were not always as pleasant as they were with the workmen. Between 1928 and 1940 there were necessarily many dealings with the city council, that is, with three different administrations. At the very beginning I had conferences with the first group and they were very favorable and cooperative. The most important matter for their decision was my question whether the city would add to my twenty acres some ten acres for park purposes, which were adjoining my property. This included three fourths of Fort Stockton hill and the abandoned reservoir site. This was settled favorably and in 1929 Mrs. Marston and I deeded our land to the city and the city council dedicated their part. From that time on I improved both sections as one park.

The council of the next period 1932-36 was composed of men who “knew not Joseph” and saw no use in having any more park land in San Diego. The idea of a memorial to our first pioneers and the founders of Pacific coast civilization did not appeal to them. They practically annulled the former council’s land dedications on the technical claim that it was done by resolution instead of by ordinance. They were willing however that I should go on planting and maintaining. It was a situation that was perfectly helpless to me. They controlled the water and a third of the land. I had to submit and humbly thanked them for the water which was not a tenth of my cost load.

There was a kind of political revolution in 1936 and a new council was elected that took the same attitude of friendliness to the Presidio enterprise that that earlier council had. Consequently in 1937 new deeds and park dedication papers were drawn and executed. In my files is a letter from Allen H. Wright, city clerk for many administrations, in which he says: “This now completes the whole transaction and I am sure that you must feel relieved that everything is duly and legally settled.” As my gift to the city had hung in the balance for several years I was indeed “relieved” to have it at last accepted.

In 1940 nearly ten acres more were added to the park, partly by adjoining city blocks and partly by my purchases. This new land includes the canyon running up to Arista Drive and some high land north of the canyon. It is now undeveloped but has attractive natural features and will provide in the future a new entrance into the park from Arista Drive down the canyon to Camino Real near Serra Museum.

In July 1937 the city assumed the workers’ payroll and I continued to carry the cost of plants, general materials and sponsorship of WPA and SERA projects until January 1940. Excepting a few special contributions from me in 1940 the city has maintained Presidio Park and has been fairly liberal in the budget provision. I am gratified with the interest and support that the present city administration gives to the park and the Junípero Serra Museum.

It has often been suggested that either the park or the museum should bear my name. It was of course my wish that they should be named “Presidio” and “Serra”. Presidio Park is a historical monument, a tribute to the great missionary and the soldiers, sailors, priests and artisans of the Spanish race who settled on this hill in 1769. Its historical significance is not at present fully appreciated by the general public. And yet, I am confident that time will justify its building and enhance public consideration.

It is very gratifying to me that the San Diego History Center occupies the museum and has already acquired, catalogued and placed on exhibition a large collection of Pacific Coast historical material, especially local records, etc. A great public service is being done by President Leroy A. Wright and his associates, particularly Mr. and Mrs. John Davidson.

Excepting my mercantile business this Presidio Hill undertaking is the largest work of my life. Including the acquiring of land, beginning in 1907, I spent a good part of thirty years attending to it. For 12 years I was on the ground almost every day unless absent from home. It was an enjoyable work in the main notwithstanding some difficulties and disappointments. There is great satisfaction in planting trees and seeing them grow. (That is, seeing their growth some five or ten years later!)

Who plants a tree,
He plants a joy
That many eyes shall see.
He plants a heritage
For the coming age.

My wife, who was born in the pine clad mountains of California, was a lover of the woods and she encouraged me in the planting of trees. She was also much interested in the California records that are being conserved in the Serra Museum. As Mrs. Marston joined me in transferring our Presidio real estate to the city she was a joint giver of the park lands. It also gives me pleasure to mention another native California woman whose cooperation was valued highly, Miss Kate Sessions, the queen gardener of San Diego. In looking over my early ledger accounts the item “Plants — K.O. Sessions” is one of the frequent entries. Her good old nursery lives now in the trees of Presidio Park. Another source of pleasure to me is the kind comment that is often given by the neighbor residents of Old Town, Presidio Hills and Mission Hills in expressing their satisfaction in living close to the park and enjoying daily its green lawns and shaded walks. Parks are one of the blessings of a peaceful community life and I hope that Presidio will always be a refuge from the “maddening crowd” of the city. It has a still wider and more vital purpose and meaning, — to be a lasting living symbol of the new western world receiving the first missionaries and bearers of European culture and Christianity.

[signed] George W. Marston
San Diego, California
June 19, 1942