The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1986, Volume 32, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

by Gregg R. Hennessey

In 1870 when George White Marston arrived in New San Diego from Wisconsin, he was twenty years old and his future, like that of the new town was unsecured and unclear. Yet, for the next seven decades the two would grow and prosper together, affecting each other in unique and particular ways. Marston would bring strong New England traditions shaped by a semi-rural upbringing in Wisconsin, while San Diego would offer all the potentialities of a new town in an underdeveloped region on the eve of great expansion and growth. Like so many others who would participate in San Diego’s development, Marston would play many roles but none more important than moralist and reformer.

George Marston was a conservative reformer with liberal ideals. Come of age after the Civil War, he was influenced by the generation of genteel reformers who developed the Social Gospel reform movement. Imbued with a feeling of personal responsibility for the welfare of others that guided him in his philanthropic work, Marston developed a personal and slightly paternalistic conception of reform. He was a religious man who believed, as many did in the nineteenth century, in the power of a morally uplifting environment and to that end involved himself in the cultural, religious, and beautification activities of San Diego. His liberal ideals included equal rights for women and minorities, the right of labor to organize and protect itself, and everyone’s right to freedom of expression. These beliefs notwithstanding, his major reform efforts centered on a conservative agenda of park development and city planning. Such projects reflected his strong, personal love of nature; a desire to apply technical expertise and efficiency to social problems; and an implicit belief in the values of his class and culture. The genesis of this mind set can be found in Marston’s upbringing.

George Marston was born in 1850 in the hamlet of Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin. His parents, who were distant cousins, were both born and bred in New England and brought with them all of the religious and cultural traditions of that important region. It is hard, if not impossible, to speak of New England without giving serious consideration to its religious traditions. Marston’s parents represented two of its major Protestant traditions and this is extremely important for an understanding of the mature Marston. His mother, Harriett, was a devout Congregationalist who had a conversion experience in her early twenties before she was married. This was not a camp meeting conversion, but a gradual awareness of sin and guilt followed by a life-long seeking of forgiveness and salvation. Mary Gilman Marston, George’s eldest daughter and the family chronicler, attributes her grandmother’s conversion experience to “the Calvinistic preaching of her village.” Miss Marston further adds about her grandmother that “all her life she kept her strict orthodox beliefs, bringing up her children in an almost Puritan atmosphere, . . .”I Harriett Marston’s devout efforts might have had more success except her husband, George Phillips Marston, was a living representative of another great New England Protestant tradition – Unitarianism. The elder Marston had fallen under the sway of an uncle who had abandoned his own severe Calvinist past to embrace Unitarianism, a new liberal denomination started by his close college friend, William Ellery Channing. Young Marston’s father had a broader, more relaxed view of religion. Unitarian theology, as Mary Marston tells us, “seemed to reflect his sunny nature and philosophical disposition.”2

The young boy’s parents were opposite sides of the same coin and exerted an important influence on him. The mother’s effect on him was very strong and he joined her Congregationalist Church, where she was an ardent and active member. The father was not a member of the church but made no objection, it seems, to his son’s affiliation. This broad-minded father with his open and relaxed outlook taught young Marston tolerance for nonconformists.3

Besides the influence of parents and religion, we need to consider the importance of growing up in rural Wisconsin at mid-century, Ft. Atkinson in the 1850s and 60s was not the frontier, the leading edge of westward settlement. It was, rather, part of the hinterland of the bustling, lake ports of Milwaukee and Chicago, and before the Civil War was included in the rapidly growing railroad network of the North. In twenty years in Ft. Atkinson, Marston developed an abiding love of nature. On the local streams there were fishing, boating, swimming, and ice skating and in the open countryside there were open fields and trees with abundant wildlife and dramatic seasons. At home, his father, a farmer turned merchant, took great care in planting the grounds around their home and when away on business he would write about his concern for the trees and plants and give instructions on their care, earnestly telling the family not to neglect them.4

Settled in 1837 by New England Protestants, Ft. Atkinson was a safe, comfortable, pastoral environment. It was a closely knit community where the words “Catholics” and “Democrats” were heard only in hushed tones. The only foreigners or ethnic group that young Marston apparently encountered was Scandinavian. This was a town, according to Marston’s daughter Helen, where people were judged by their “worth” (meaning character as opposed to money) and were “good neighbors . . . unconsciously practicing equality. . . .”5 This was a town, in other words, that offered little to challenge the accepted values of its founders and did much to reinforce them.

A final aspect of young Marston’s life in the midwest to be considered before moving on to San Diego is education. For two years he attended Beloit Academy, a preparatory school for Beloit College, and then spent one year at the University of Michigan. His letters to his parents during this period convey an eagerness and joy in learning and in being intellectually stimulated. In addition to his regular studies, he constantly sought out other lectures and cultural activities for enjoyment, enrichment, and education. References to religious beliefs became increasingly intellectual and he was very stimulated by the ideas of religion. At the same time, he wrote excitedly about his science classes in Chemistry and Zoology. Characteristically, his study of birds in the University’s laboratories was a particular pleasure for him. This budding scholarly experience was cut short in 1870 by his father’s decision to emigrate to California for health reasons.6

We have no record of the young man’s response to this change, but he must have felt at least some disappointment. After growing up in a small, insular community he was enthusiastically embracing the larger, richer world of learning that lay beyond Ft. Atkinson.

In the West, Marston would have many more experiences that would broaden and challenge him. But most of the basic characteristics that would guide him in the years to come were established in those first two decades in rural Wisconsin: first, a strict and independent Protestantism softened by tolerance and charity and supported and reinforced by a homogeneous community; second, a love of nature and the out-of-doors but, significantly, not dependent upon its vagaries and cruelties for a livelihood; and third, an introduction to the joys and importance of education and the larger world that lay within it. All of these things would coalesce in Southern California into a magnificent series of public benefactions that affect the region today.

George Marston’s father suffered greatly all his life from asthma and other respiratory ailments. Like so many others, he came to California for the supposedly more healthful climate. During his initial visit from the Fall of 1869 through the Spring of 1870, he lived mostly in San Jose with friends. He visited San Diego in March and was impressed by the fledgling town’s milder weather, superb harbor, and great expectations. Dramatically improved in health during his California sojourn, the elder Marston declared in a letter to his son that he would never spend another winter in Wisconsin.

In October of 1871, one year after George and his father arrived, the Marston women began to arrive. First came his mother, Harriett, and sister, Lilla, followed a year later by sister Mary. The family lived in a small house at Eighth and C streets, and were full participants in the small community’s life. The young Marstons were active in the nascent cultural life, singing, playing the piano and organ, and even acting. George seems to have been a live-wire at parties with parlor tricks, sleight-of-hand, and impersonations. He was also very active in the Presbyterian Church, teaching Sunday School and regularly attending the Wednesday night prayer meetings.10

During this same period, George had left his employ at Horton’s hotel to clerk in Aaron Pauly’s general store and then moved on to Joseph Nash’s general store, where his new friend Charles Hamilton worked. After a year the two young men bought out Nash, with borrowed money, and ran the business profitably for the next five years. Hamilton and Marston became lifelong friends, each marrying a daughter of Lewis and Elizabeth Gunn. Besides business and families, they shared other things as well. Both men participated in the Benevolent Association (a local charity group), they organized the Free Reading Room Association (the forerunner of the city library), they were members of the volunteer fire department, they were officers in the Chamber of Commerce, and they served on the city council during the boom years of 1887-89.11

What these two men represent is the rise of a ruling class. Starting with Alonzo E. Horton, the founder of the new town in 1867, the leaders of San Diego have been predominantly white male Protestants who were Republican businessmen. For the most part their roots extend back to the upper midwest and New England with their shared culture. The exceptions to this general profile such as several prominent Jews, the occasional Democrat, and some first generation immigrants from Europe and Canada, while adding variety to it, serve mostly to reinforce its homogeneous character. Thus, the people who migrated to San Diego in the latter half of the nineteenth century had generally similar values, backgrounds, and aspirations and early established themselves and their culture as the dominant one.12

When Hamilton and Marston split in 1878, Charles took the hardware and groceries while George took over the dry goods. At about the same time Marston married Anna Lee Gunn. He was twenty-eight and had been in San Diego eight years. For the next twenty-five years Marston worked hard to raise a family and establish his business. During the 1880s he moved his store twice and his home four times – both to bigger and better quarters each time. He regularly worked twelve and more hours a day, made frequent buying trips to San Francisco and New York City, and, for a short period, got involved in banking. Marston was a conservative businessman who refused to speculate seriously in real estate during the boom period and who left banking for fear of making, in his words, “a big blunder.” By the turn of the century, Marston had a large new four-story building at Fifth and C with an electric elevator, a hundred employees, and a very secure position in the community.13

In 1902 George Marston publicly offered to pay $10,000 to hire a professional planner to develop an improvement plan for the 1,400 acre City Park. He did this in conjunction with a call from the Chamber of Commerce to begin developing the park in order to preserve it from constant threats of encroachment by private speculators. This episode marks Marston’s serious and important entry into San Diego’s public affairs. For the next four decades, Marston, perhaps as much as anyone, would influence the type of city San Diego became. He not only participated in the public debate, he helped mold and shape its major elements, and gave legitimacy to new environmental ideas that today are part of the mainstream political dialogue.14

George Marston was a conservative reformer, His attitudes and ideas were shaped by specific reform trends during his life as well as his own particular background. A better understanding of him and his work can be attained by considering these larger reforms and how they influenced him. America has always been preoccupied with reform, the effort to make over society. These efforts were often religious endeavors aimed at secular problems. This was the realm and the nature of Marston’s reformism. Mary Marston writes of her father that “Religion was the motive power of father’s life. It gave him a practical guidance as well as inspiration for living . . . It led … to his part in the movement within the church for social action. It influenced his business principles and his political views.” Significantly, Marston did not merely rely on Sunday sermons and his own predilections for guidance. He was also influenced by the writings of important social and religious reformers of the period such as Horace Bushnell, Theodore Munger, Walter Rauschenbusch, and others.15

In the 1870s and 1880s a growing segment of citizens became increasingly shocked by the savage nature of modern industrialized society and its devastating effect on the urban poor. Reform efforts began to materialize to improve their condition. Much of the effort came from American Protestantism, which had discarded a pessimistic, other-worldly Calvinism to stress the social aspects of Christianity and the possibilities of improving the human condition in this life. Horace Bushnell (1802-76) was an early leader of this effort and developed the important doctrine of “Christian Nurture,” which argued that the proper environment created Christian character. He also developed the conviction that the most important principle of Christianity was love. His God-is-love theme helped lead to what later became known as the Social Gospel reform movement. These ideas gave strength to social reform through moral conviction. It was an easy step to argue, as Theodore Munger (1830-1910) did, that personal regeneration and salvation required a favorable social environment, and that individuals were so entwined in the social fabric that to save them one had to first save society. The traditional view that moral depravity caused poverty and vice was reversed to the idea that an unchristian character was the result of social conditions.16

The Social Gospel was the result of several factors including the secularization of religion, the growing demand for religion to deal with social questions, and the mounting wave of criticism of industrial capitalism. The Social Gospel emphasized social responsibility as a means to salvation. Reformers went into slums to preach salvation and moral uplift, and they joined efforts to make business more socially responsible. Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918) developed the most serious body of thought in the movement. He wrote that the incorporation of Christian theology into political questions would produce a more relevant Christianity. Social developments had superannuated traditional or individual Christianity and thus the primacy of the community took precedence over the rights of the individual. He vigorously attacked capitalism as anti-Christian and urged that liberal Christian ethics be the basis for societal reforms. For Rauschenbusch, sin was a social evil rather than a personal transgression and his reform efforts were directed primarily at society’s institutions.17

The Social Gospel is an important key to Marston’s beliefs and actions, especially the idea of the proper environment being essential to building moral character. Marston’s dedication to rational city planning, parks and open spaces, and civic art and beauty shows his commitment to this concept. A very religious man, Marston came to maturity with the rise of Social Gospel theology, which stressed social responsibility as a means to salvation. His civic actions in San Diego were a manifestation of his religious beliefs. Nevertheless, while the Social Gospel railed against capitalist excesses and exploitation of the poor, it offered no serious alternatives and in fact accepted the existing system seeking only to soften its impact, Social gospelers were well-educated middle and upper class men and women. Their efforts to help the poor were grounded in their religion and were well-intentioned but off the mark. They mostly offered moral regeneration when people needed proper housing and health care, legislative protection, and strong labor unions. The means that late nineteenth century Christian activism needed to reach its ends was political power. It found them in the early twentieth century.

The Social Gospel movement formed an important part of the beginnings of the urban reform movement that gained national attention at the turn of the century as the Progressive Movement. Progressivism was an intense period of reform efforts from about 1900 to 1920, which was complex, fluid, and multifaceted. While difficult to pinpoint its unifying characteristics, the movement was a major part of a permanent change in American political life. Progressives shared Social Gospel concerns about irresponsible corporate power, festering urban slums, and a lack of social justice. To these they added their own concerns over political corruption, environmental waste and abuse, and inefficiency. Rather than rely on moral suasion and personal good works inherent in the Social Gospel approach, Progressives turned to politics and government intervention for protection of the commonwealth. Responding to national and local problems, reformers emerged from every major class and region in America to advocate bewildering, confusing, and often conflicting objectives. Nevertheless, Progressives did mount some strong challenges to older institutions and ideas and created enough political power to secure some important changes in society.18

The Progressive era provides another key to our understanding of Marston. It brought forth the necessary public education and political action to help Marston formulate and move forward a particular plan of reform. San Diego lacked the serious political, environmental, and industrial pathologies of larger and older urban areas, but Marston felt the reformist impulse nevertheless. He had the vision to see a need for certain opportunities that, if grasped at that moment in time, would enable San Diego to avoid potential future problems. Reformers raised questions about the promises and failures of American life and reminded the nation of its principles and responsibilities. Marston tried to give life to some of those promises and principles. Combining his religious beliefs, as enunciated in the Christian activism of the Social Gospel, with the political reform impulse of Progressivism and its emphasis on efficiency and rational planning, Marston was able to initiate and participate in a remarkable series of public projects.

Marston’s conservative and liberal reform impulses reflected both the Social Gospel and Progressivism. While he voiced support for many liberal causes such as equal rights, free speech, and labor reforms he spent most of his time and money on the more conservative projects of city planning and park building. These appealed to his own conservative personality and lined up well with the Social Gospel ideas that dominated his world view. In addition, these activities were easily accepted by the community in general causing little friction, which was a very important element for Marston. More liberal and controversial issues could and often did divide groups in San Diego and Marston tended to stay away from them publicly. He followed his own conscience on such issues but usually did not try actively to persuade others, except by his own example.

In his own dry goods business, for instance, his employees enjoyed short hours, good wages, and superior working conditions, an unusual situation in the rapacious business environment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Marston openly supported labor’s right to organize, a position not widely popular among employers of the day, especially in San Diego. He was also a member of national organizations that supported prolabor legislation, protection for children and female workers, and workmen’s compensation insurance. Despite these pro-labor positions, he allowed the contractor who built his new store in 1912 to use non-union labor and this may have cost him the mayoral election the following year. Marston believed in comparable worth, paying women the same salaries as men in similar positions. At the same time, however, few women held higher paying jobs in the company.19

In a similar vein, Marston took an interest in personally helping Chinese immigrants in San Diego. He was an active supporter of the Chinese Mission school and its related church activities. Begun in 1885, the Mission sought to “Americanize” the Chinese by teaching them English, converting them to Christianity, and socializing them into American culture. Americanization was a misguided effort by the nascent social welfare profession to persuade ethnic minorities to abandon their cultural heritage and adopt the predominant Anglo-Saxon culture. Typically, Marston gave of his time and money to the project. While he believed in individual rights and freedom of expression, he did not see the contradictions posed by the Americanization philosophy he supported. More important still is the fact that while he supported these well-intentioned efforts to help the Chinese, Marston failed to speak out on behalf of the Japanese as his own Progressive Party led a vicious and successful campaign to enact exclusionary laws against them20 These contradictions do not negate Marston’s beliefs in the ideals he held. Rather, they show how human he was since at times he was inconsistent or indecisive on issues in which he could have been a stronger, more active leader.

As a reformer, Marston was active in the politics of his day. He was, as he called himself, an “independent” in political matters. Raised a Republican, he never hesitated to swing back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, choosing the person or the party most likely to push for reform. He was an internationalist all his life, believing in the interdependence of all peoples. The English system of Conservative and Liberal parties appealed to him and he hoped for their establishment in America. He was very active in California’s reformist Progressive Party. In a 1914 speech he said that “The Progressive Party in the state stands for the betterment of the social order . . . and has stood by real social issues rather than obsolete principles and precedents.” In 1924, he voted for the last Progressive Presidential candidate, Robert La Follette. In 1928, he voted for Republican Herbert Hoover21 By 1932, Marston was disgusted with both the Democrats and Republicans and in a stinging letter to a local Republican fund raiser outlined his disdain:

I wonder how you got the idea that I was a Republican. I did vote for Hoover four years ago and sent you a check for the campaign, but I also voted for Wilson and for Cleveland and very much prefer the political platform of the Democrats to that of the Republicans. However the Democrats are deteriorating badly these days and are controlled by the big financiers of the country as the Republican party is.

In our little San Diego field you and I are both in the plutocratic, aristocratic and big financial privileged class! But there is this difference between us. I am willing to admit that we get too big a share of the good things of life and that we ought to be good enough democrats to let the people in general have a larger share. So long as high tariffs continue and big military expenses, etc. this will never come to pass. Therefore, I am still a non-partisan, entertaining hopes that sometime a liberal, progressive party will be established in the United States. I am not a Socialist, but this year I am inclined to vote for Norman Thomas as a protest against both of the dominant parties.

Marston did, in fact, vote for the Socialist Thomas in 1932 and for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats thereafter since, as his daughter Mary wrote, “The social aims of the New Deal were in accord with his political beliefs.”22

In San Diego Marston was the preeminent Progressive. He was an organizer and first president of the local party organization, the Lincoln-Roosevelt Club; ran twice unsuccessfully for mayor; and initiated and sustained the city’s most successful Progressive reform effort, city planning. In his mayoral campaigns of 1913 and 1917, Marston articulated his vision of an efficient and well planned city that balanced growth with beauty. That he failed both times reveals his weakness as a politician, and his inability to transcend his class and convince the working class that his vision would mean economic prosperity for them as well as a beautiful environment.23 His foresight is celebrated today, but forgotten, however, is his inability to broaden his appeal. This shortcoming may very well have lessened the benefits of planning he knew were so worthwhile. In a revealing letter during the 1913 campaign to Albert G. Spalding, Marston admitted he had little ambition for political campaigning:


Public life is really distasteful to me; I am not a good mixer, and I think this is one reason that makes it hard for people to elect me. Notwithstanding my real sympathy for the laboring man and the real vital interests of the community, my way of getting at it is more or less misunderstood.

His daughter echoed these sentiments years later when she wrote, “Contention and wrangling were foreign to his nature; he did not ‘enjoy a good fight ‘.”24

Even if Marston had enjoyed a good fight and been elected, it is doubtful he would have accomplished much or been reelected. San Diego entered the new century with a slow but generally steady rate of growth. For many, however, this was not good enough, and the local citizens’ frantic search for prosperity and recognition as an important town can be seen in their wild vacillation at the polls. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the voters returned only two mayors to office for a second two-year term – at the turn of the century and during the war years. Most others fell to voter disappointment over a lack of significant economic growth. In addition, local government was split between reformers and those backing the status quo, effectively causing a stalemate in local affairs.25 Given the short term of the office, the fickle nature of the electorate, and the lack of unity among local officeholders, it is remarkable that this quiet man allowed himself to be drawn into the fray not once but twice. Perhaps he was responding to reformer Walter Rauschenbusch’s admonition to demand perfection but not to expect to get it.

If George Marston did not enjoy contention and wrangling but still sought perfection, then a consideration of his efforts in park development and city planning will provide a fuller understanding of his legacy.

George Marston’s many involvements in various park development projects and his unceasing advocacy for intelligent urban planning were all of a piece. It was in this realm that he rendered his highest public service to San Diego, satisfied his reformist impulses, and met his need for Christian activism. The history of parks and city planning forms a crucial part of the reform efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Urban parks were a reform effort with several conservative aims.26 Parks were an attempt to bring nature back into the city, offering some relief from congested living and industrial blight, The idea, in part, was that natural surroundings, even artificially constructed ones, provided a healthier environment for city living. In addition, it was hoped that parks would give the urban lower class a respite from its mean circumstances and provide morally uplifting surroundings, Finally, parks were seen as mechanisms of social control providing a safety valve for class tensions and urban discontent. These conservative aims inherent in park development harmonized well with the similar goals of the Social Gospel movement.

City planning, was, in many ways, a natural extension of the urban parks movement.27 Setting aside land or retrieving land for parks were conscious but limited planning decisions, As concerns grew about more serious issues, such as public sanitation, housing conditions, transportation congestion, and civic aesthetics, reformers began to conceive of urban problems and possible solutions in more comprehensive terms. City planning grew from these concerns and became a struggle to gain rational control over the urban environment. Coming to maturity during the Progressive era, planners attempted to join physical reform with the political and social reforms of the day. While planning in its formative days flirted with liberal ideals, the profession quickly came under the conservative influence of its major patron, the business community.28 Like park development, city planning became another conservative reform effort.

In San Diego, Marston’s first major public work was in developing Balboa Park. Indeed, long before he made his generous pledge of $10,000 in 1902, Marston was committed to the preservation and enhancement of the park. Established in 1868. as the 1,400-acre City Park, this exquisite, unparalleled urban open space has been under constant attack by speculators, developers, and government agencies ever since. In 1871, when Marston was but twenty-one years old and had been in San Diego only a year, he led a successful effort to defend the park. In 1870, the State Legislature confirmed the establishment of City Park, but the following year a new bill was quietly introduced, at the behest of some land speculators, to repeal the earlier legislation. Marston and three or four others quickly formed a 11 public safety committee” and sent a petition with nearly 400 signatures to Sacramento to defeat the bill. During the 1880s Marston continued his interest in the park, petitioning city trustees to allow him and others to make improvements at their cost, opposing (unsuccessfully) a gift of 100 acres for a school and charity homes, and creating the Chamber of Commerce’s Park Committee. In the midst of the 1890s depression, Marston privately offered to pay $7,000 for a park development plan by Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York City’s Central Park and America’s preeminent landscape architect. Marston made his offer on the condition that the plan keep intruders out of the park.29 This condition, as well as his earlier activities, demonstrates Marston’s strong, nineteenth century belief that parks were meant to be retreats from the urban setting, a place where people could go to reflect and be uplifted by the beauty of nature.

In 1902 Marston persuaded the Chamber of Commerce to call for the development of the park to preserve it from constant threats of encroachment by private speculators. To assure the endeavor’s success, the $10,000 was offered to employ ” . . . the best available landscape talent for a comprehensive plan.” Marston hired Samuel Parsons, Jr., official landscape architect of Greater New York, former Superintendent of Central Park, and ardent student and admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted. Parsons was a strong advocate of the “Picturesque” park tradition. First used in eighteenth century England, this style advocated curvilinear landscaping that highlighted existing natural features and provided “pictures” of nature with sporadic groups of trees and wandering smooth lawns and winding lakes. The plan, which was completed by mid-1903, contained all the major elements of the Picturesque tradition including the relegation of buildings and formal gardens to the park’s periphery.30 This was a design that certainly met Marston’s expectations about the nature and purpose of urban parks.

The city worked hard for the Parsons Plan. Between 1902-05 San Diegans raised over $11,000 to pay for its initial implementation. Marston spent almost $21,000 of his own money between 1902-04 for park improvements and for the Chamber’s Park Committee expenses. This was over and above the $10,000 he paid for the plan itself. In addition to money, Marston gave enormous amounts of free time to the park project. As chairman of the Chamber’s Park Committee and after 1905 president of the city’s first Park Commission, it fell to Marston to direct and represent the project. There were meetings, interviews, appearances before the city council and public works board, and addresses to social and service clubs. When controversies arose he responded in quiet, rational tones designed to ameliorate, educate, and reassure. Despite these dauntless and prodigious efforts, only a small part of the Parsons Plan was realized. By 1908, ten miles of roads had been completed with an additional eight miles either under construction or planned. Also, over 14,000 trees and shrubs were planted. Very little of this remains today. The 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, conceived in 1909 halted the Parsons project and changed the nature and future development of Balboa Park.31

The efforts to develop the park did not exist in a vacuum, of course. They were part of the larger urban planning reforms that were rapidly gaining ascendency in the early 1900s. Indeed, as early as 1864, Horace Bushnell, the Protestant reformer whose ideas had influenced Marston, made a direct plea for the creation of “a city planning profession . . .” to help create places of beauty and rationality.32 The possibilities of such an approach were first demonstrated in America at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, when the great “White City” rose up on reclaimed lake-front land. Notwithstanding its ephemeral nature, the “White City” dramatically illustrated to twenty-seven million visitors, George Marston among them, the aesthetic and practical possibilities of planning. The City Beautiful movement, which was inspired by the Chicago fair, began advocating city planning and emphasized the “White City’s” main ingredients: monumental architecture, civic art, and elaborate parks. The “White City” example inspired literally thousands of local reform efforts at civic improvement and art, its main message being that beauty was the key to urban reform. The Progressive movement, which was taking shape during this same period, would ultimately strip away most of the frills of the City Beautiful idea and attempt to replace them with human and economic concerns.33

San Diego and Marston participated fully in these events. Around the turn of the century, several neighborhood improvement clubs were started, as was the larger Art Association of San Diego. While the Parsons Plan was being worked on, Marston and others began thinking about the possibilities of a planning scheme to direct the city’s future. In 1907, Marston addressed a joint meeting of the newly formed Civic Improvement Committee of the Chamber of Commerce and the Art Association. He advocated a plan conceived by local architect William S. Hebbard to convert Horton Plaza into a civic center with public buildings and to make D Street (now Broadway) into a handsome thoroughfare leading to a “pleasure ground” at the harbor. Once again Marston pledged the necessary funds to hire a professional planner for the purpose.34

Looking east as he had for the park planner, Marston retained John Nolen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the founding leaders of modern city planning. Trained as a landscape architect at Harvard University, Nolen approached urban planning with some of the aesthetic and naturalistic concerns inherent in Picturesque park theory and also as part of the City Beautiful ideals. Nolen was deeply impressed by the natural beauty of San Diego and his 1908 plan reflected that. The plan had five major elements recommended for consideration: public plaza and civic center, bay front development, small open spaces, streets and boulevards, and a park system.35 Failing to take note of serious housing and sanitation problems in Mexican and Chinese neighborhoods, Nolen chose instead to focus on the more conservative aesthetic and economic priorities of his patron, George Marston. San Diego’s first city plan combined some of the Progressive ideas regarding efficiency with the older concerns of the City Beautiful movement. It was a transitional plan between these two movements and did not threaten local interests in any serious way. This first plan failed to gain many victories despite the basic soundness of its recommendations. Marston moved quickly on the civic center proposals but made no headway before leaving on a six-month tour of Europe in 1909. Besides the loss of his advocacy, several other reasons contributed to the plan’s lack of success, including the 1915 exposition, World War 1, and, most importantly, the desire for quick growth.36

The 1915 Panama-California Exposition held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal was the greatest and most successful self-promotion campaign San Diego ever had. It was proposed in 1909 and gained immediate acceptance because it promised substantial economic growth. Notwithstanding the rich architectural heritage that remains in the park, the exposition completely derailed the Parsons Plan of development for the park and halted the implementation of the Nolen plan for nearly two decades. When Marston returned from Europe he was dismayed by the exposition project, which had been started in his absence. In his quiet way he advised against it as risky and not in the best interest of the city. Nevertheless, he quickly saw the futility of his protests and withdrew them. In 1911, he accepted the chairmanship of the exposition’s Building and Grounds Committee to help with the project and, more importantly, to try to protect the park as much as possible. He arranged the hiring of John C. and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to design the general layout and landscaping for the fair. The Olmsteds, sons of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., believed as Parsons and Marston did that parks should be free of intrusion from man-made structures and submitted a plan of modest proportions for the park’s southwest corner. The plan was quickly scuttled for a larger one in the present central location. Marston and the Olmsteds resigned in protest over the decision. 37 After decades of defending the park and thousands of dollars and hours in trying to develop it, Marston’s visions foundered on the hard realities of economic promotion. While he was ultimately reconciled to the exposition buildings in the park for their beauty and their long-term benefits to the community, Marston never again seriously participated in Balboa Park’s affairs. He now turned his attention to the Presidio Park project, which would finally become his greatest accomplishment and most significant public benefaction.

In 1907, Marston and four other members of the Chamber of Commerce’s Streets and Boulevards Committee purchased fourteen lots for $6,000 to preserve the site of the first Spanish mission in California. The Committee’s idea was to convey the lots to the City at cost plus taxes and six percent interest for the purpose of an historic park. In 1912, following his final disappointment in Balboa Park and five years of futilely attempting to interest the City of San Diego in the Presidio Park project, Marston bought out the other committee members. He had come to understand that the only way he would realize his desire to create a park was on his own. Over the next dozen years Marston patiently acquired additonal lots until he had twenty acres, all of which were put in trust for the city. As the project matured, Marston once again engaged John Nolen, the city planner and landscape architect, to provide landscaping and planning advice, When Nolan first saw the area in 1925, he recommended a tract of forty acres as a more suitable landscape unit. Besides expansion, Nolan 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.38 The erection of a building in the midst of the park, indeed on a hill where it would dominate the entire area, was a sharp departure from the Picturesque landscape style Marston preferred and in which Nolen had been trained. By the mid-twenties attitudes about landscape architecture and the uses of public parks were changing and neither Marston nor Nolen was an intellectually static man. In addition, Presidio Park was a historic preservation project designed to save the site and its ruins from surrounding urban growth. Within that context, a monument to Spanish settlers was an appropriate element in Nolen’s design. Nevertheless, the final design for the park’s open spaces strongly reflects the influence of the Picturesque style, accentuating existing natural features while alternating groups of trees with open lawns.39

The city cooperated with the expansion plans by vacating streets and donating ten acres of adjoining property. Marston began developing the park paying for surveys, excavations, grading, roads, water systems, and planting, all according to Nolen’s plan. As work revealed more ruins of the original Presidio, a wall was built to delineate the area. In 1928 Marston organized the San Diego Historical Society to stimulate interest in local history and encourage its preservation. William Templeton Johnson, a leading local architect, was chosen to design a museum building. A traditionalist rather than an innovative designer, Johnson championed Spanish Colonial and Mission style architecture. The numerous public buildings he designed for San Diego reflect this romantic influence of Mediterranean styles. Designing the Junipero Serra Museum in close sympathy with the spirit of Mission architecture, Johnson created what has since been called one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in California.40

With the museum completed, a dedication ceremony was held on July 16, 1929, the 160th anniversary of the arrival of Fra Junipero Serra and the establishment of Spanish colonial rule in Upper ‘California. At the ceremony, Marston expressed some of the ideals he had been striving for over the years: “In building the city,” he said, “let us remember that the material things which will endure longest are those that express the spirit of man in art. In the arts of landscaping and architecture the spirit of a city can be perpetuated for ages.” A reluctant Depression-era City Council caused 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 and furnish the museum.41

Mary Marston has written that her father considered Presidio Park his largest work, outranked only by his business. Despite difficulties, disappointments, and setbacks, he enjoyed the work, and he attended to all the details of planning, construction, planting, and maintenance for twelve years. “He wanted it,” she wrote, “to be a place of refreshment for body and spirit, . . . and to be cherished as a memorial of truly great historical significance.” Marston retained such strong feelings for the park that in 1946, the last year of his life, he sent a long message to city officials reminding them of the park’s importance and character. He explained that the area was unique among local parks, “having been moulded by time and the elements into forms and contours of natural beauty.” Recalling his unhappy and frustrating experiences with Balboa Park, he continued pointedly:


When Sarnual Parsons first looked upon City Park … he exclaimed, “We must be careful not to spoil it.” In the same spirit the builders of Presidio Park have sought to preserve its inherent forms and to enhance this physical character with deeper meaning and significance …42

Presidio Park was the culmination of the thought and labor of a lifetime. This was more than just his major public project. It is a legacy that represents nearly all of Marston’s values in life: beauty, love of nature, planning, parks, culture, historic preservation, philanthropy, and, in this particular case, Christian faith.

George Marston was involved in an enormous number of other activities. Significant among them are his sixty year role in the founding, nurturing, and building of Pomona College; his lifelong church activities; his varied cultural interests; and his widespread charitable works. This essay has examined Marston’s background for clues to the forces and ideas that shaped his world view and that might help to explain his role in San Diego history. There are, of course, many more facets to him than could be investigated here. Yet, the major point of his life — reform — has been made clear. A complex reformist, Marston provides us with an excellent opportunity to scrutinize the importance of national movements and ideas in San Diego.



1. Mary Gilman Marston, comp., George White Marston: A Family Chronicle, 2 vols. (Los Angeles, 1956), 1:66-67.

2. Ibid., 1:67

3. Ibid., 1:92.

4. Ibid., 1:88-92, 94, 110.

5. Ibid., 1:92.

6. Ibid., 1:129-49.

7. Ibid., 1:138-51,

8. Mid., 1:155-60.

9. Ibid., 1:161-70.

10. Ibid., 1:171-75.

11. Ibid., 1:171-75, 242-45.

12. This leadership profile is based on a survey of biographical sketches found in several local histories. See: Samuel F. Black, San Diego County California: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress, and Achievement, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1913), 2:passim; Clarence Alan McGrew, City of San Diego and San Diego County; the Birthplace of California, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1922), 2:passim; Carl F. Heilbron, ed., History of San Diego County (San Diego, 1936), passim, Individuals included in these biographical sections usually paid for the “privilege” and the sketches are unfailingly flattering. In addition, the majority of people profiled were not community leaders but rather were professionals and entrepreneurs seeking, in part, to advertise themselves. Nevertheless, a well defined group of leaders appears in these volumes and the factual information about their background, politics, religion, and business is available and reliable. Regarding the cautions and uses of local histories see, Don Harrison Doyle, The Social Order of a Frontier Community: Jacksonville, Illinois, 1825-70 (Urbana, 1978), pp. 255-59; Robert R. Dykstra, The Cattle Towns (New York, 1970), pp. 366-67; Blaine, A. Brownell, The Urban Ethos in the South, 1920-1930 (Baton Rouge, 1975), pp. 191-216.

13. Marston, Marston, 1:237-49.

14. For the early development of City Park (now Balboa Park) and the environmental debate it engendered see the excellent series of articles by Gregory E. Montes: “San Diego’s City Park, 1868-1902: An Early Debate on Environment and Profit,” Journal of San Diego History, XXIII (Spring 1977), 40-50; “San Diego’s City Park 1902-1910: From Parsons to Balboa,” Ibid., XXV (Winter 1979), 1-25; “Balboa Park, 1909-1911, The Rise and Fall of the Olmsted Plan,” Ibid., XXVIII (Winter 1982), 46-67. Evidence of the continuing prominence of the environmental debate in San Diego politics can be found in, Anthony W. Corso, “San Diego: The Anti-City,” in Sunbelt Cities: Politics and Growth Since World War II, eds. Richard M. Bernard and Bradley R. Rice (Austin, 1983), pp. 328-44.

15. Marston, Marston, 1:295-96.

16. Samuel P. Hayes, The Response to Industrialism: 1885-1914 (Chicago, 1957), p. 77; Russel Blaine Nye, Society and Culture in America, 1830-1860 (New York, 1974), pp. 301-02; Howard P. Chudacoff, The Evolution of American Urban Society (Englewood Cliffs, 1975), pp. 160-61.

17. Loren Baritz, ed., Sources of the American Mind: A Collection of Documents and Texts in American Intellectual History, 2 vols. (New York, 1966), 2:47-48; Alden Whitman, ed., American Reformers: An H. W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary (New York, 1984), pp. 679-81. For reform efforts in general during this period see, Geoffrey Blodgett. “Reform Thought and the Genteel Tradition,” in The Gilded Age, ed., H. Wayne Morgan (Syracuse, 1963; revised ed., 1970), pp. 55-76.

18. For an excellent recent summary of Progressive historiography see, Daniel T. Rogers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History, 10 (December 1982), 113-32. A good overview of the period is in, Mary Beth Norton et al., A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 2 vols. (Boston, 1982), 2:575-603.

19. Ann Marilyn Wigdahl, “A Proposed Model to Define the Influence of Personal Leadership Style on the Development of Organizational Strategy and Structure” (Master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1978), pp. 93-99.

20. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, “San Diego’s Chinese Mission,” Journal of San Diego History, XXIII (Spring 1977), 8-22; Uldis Allen Ports, “George White Marston and the San Diego Progressives, 1913-1917” (Master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1976), pp. 21-22. On the Japanese exclusionary movement see, Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion(Gloucester, 1966).

21. Marston, Marston, 1:326-30, quoting, p. 327.

22. Ibid., p. 331.

23. On Marston’s mayoral campaigns see, Ports, “Marston and San Diego Progressives” passim and Marston, Marston, 2:57-67. For an overview of the period see, Grace Louise Miller, “The San Diego Progressive Movement, 1900-1920” (Master’s thesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1976).

24. Marston, Marston, 2:63, 107.

25. Gregg Robert Hennessey, “City Planning, Progressivism, and the Development of San Diego, 1908-1926” (Master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1977), pp. 30-33 and Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego, vol. 5: Gold in the Sun (San Diego, 1965), p. 264.

26. Geoffrey Blodgett, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Landscape Architecture as Conservative Reform,” Journal of American History, LXII (March 1976), 869-89, see especially pages 877-78 for the conservative urban park rationale.

27. Mel Scott, American City Planning Since 1890 (Berkeley, 1969) provides an extensive overview.

28. Blaine A. Brownell, “The Commercial-Civic Elite and City Planning in Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans in the 1920s,” Journal of Southern History, XLI (August 1975), 339-68; Mansel G. Blackford, “The Lost Dream: Businessmen and City Planning in Portland, Oregon, 1903-1914,”Western Historical Quarterly, XV (January 1984), 39-56.

29. Montes, “City Park, 1868-1902,” pp. 44-45, 47, 51, 53-54.

30. Montes, “City Park 1902-1910,” pp. 1-2, 7; Marston, Marston, 2:11.

31. Marston, Marston, 2:11-16; Montes, “City Park 1902-1910,” pp. 9-10, 12-13, 15-16.

32. Quoted in, Donald A. Krueckeberg, ed., Introduction to Planning History in the United States (Rutgers, 1983), p. 1.

33. Jon A. Peterson, “The City Beautiful Movement: Forgotten Origins and Lost Meanings,” Journal of Urban History, 2 (August 1976), 416-30; Hennessey, “City Planning and San Diego,” p. 15.

34. Hennessey, “City Planning and San Diego,” pp. 35-36, 37; Montes, “City Park 1902-1910,” pp. 3-4, 20,

35. John Loretz Hancock, “John Nolen and the American City Planning Movement: A History of Culture, Change, and Community Response, 1900-1940,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1964), pp. 1-52; Hennessey, “City Planning and San Diego,” pp, 37-40.

36. Hennessey, “City Planning and San Diego,” pp, 49-51.

37. Montes, “Balboa Park, 1909-1911,” passim.

38. Marston, Marston, 2:140, 142; Gregg R. Hennessey, “Junipero Serra Museum: Architectural Cultural, and Urban Landmark,” Journal of SanDiego History, XXV (Summer 1979), 221-23.

39. Hancock, “John Nolen,” p. 40; Jon A. Peterson, “The Evolution of Public Open Space in American Cities,” Journal of Urban History, 12 (November 1985), 77-81, 84-85.

40. Marston, Marston, 2:143, 147-48; Hennessey, “Junipero Serra Museum,” pp. 84-85, 231. 41. Marston, Marston, 2:151; Hennessey, “Junipero Serra Museum,” pp. 239.

42. Marston, Marston, 2:157-58.

THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.



Gregg R. Hennessey is editor of the Journal of San Diego History and former Administrator of the Society’s Research Archives. He received an M.A. degree in U.S. History from San Diego State University and a Master’s in Library and Information Studies from the University of California. He has written extensively about George W. Marston and is currently working on Marston’s extensive philanthropic activities.