by Robert Witty, Executive Director
Looking down on our spacious atrium in the Museum of San Diego History in Balboa Park, and descending the stairs to our archives two floors below, it is difficult to see how the much smaller Junipero Serra Museum in Presidio Park once housed all of our collections and archives. Over the last seventy years the San Diego History Center, like San Diego itself, has experienced tremendous growth. Two historic homes, the Villa Montezuma in Golden Hill and the George White and Anna Gunn Marston House at Seventh and Upas, plus the Museum of San Diego History reflect the vibrant growth and diversity of the Society and the city.
The Society’s umbilical cord connecting it to the Serra has never been cut, however. The Serra remains our birth mother, our first home, created in 1929 by the Society’s founder George W. Marston. It is one of San Diego’s most distinctive landmarks, a Spanish-Colonial gem, perched atop Presidio Hill and visible to the millions of motorists who navigate the multi-layered intersections of Interstates 5 and 8.
At first glance, many visitors mistake the Serra for California’s first mission, the ruins of which lie only a few yards away and were reburied this June after the removal of hundreds of artifacts. The site is being protected until future excavation can be properly planned. Thousands of school children come here every year to get one of their most vivid lessons in San Diego history. The beautiful rolling hills of Presidio Park form a perfect backdrop for the museum, which was designed by one of San Diego’s best known architects, William Templeton Johnson. San Diego landscaper Kate Sessions, through her friendship with Marston, also had a role in the landscaping of the park.
This special issue of the Journal of San Diego History tells the history of the museum and of Presidio Hill. The lead article focuses on the creation of the Spanish romantic myth in San Diego at the turn of the century and the influence it had on defining the character of the growing city, and how the Serra Museum is the culmination of that process. The next essay on William Templeton Johnson delineates his career and the forces and influences that led to his magnificent creation. The succeeding article gives an overview of Presidio Hill’s past, from the Native Americans to the first contact with Europeans and on to our own time. Finally, we trace the history of Spain’s decision to move north from Mexico into San Diego and Alta California and how scholars have viewed this over time.