The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1999, Volume 45, Number 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Junipero Serra Museum and Presidio Park

Images from this article

On July 16, 1929, seventy-eight year-old George White Marston, San Diego’s leading merchant, reformer, and philanthropist, presided over the day long dedication of his Junipero Serra Museum and Presidio Park. It was a triumphant conclusion to Marston’s twenty-two years of patient work to privately buy, develop, and preserve the land at the site of the first Spanish foothold in what would become California. The site was a genuinely important one in the history of Spain’s exploration and colonization of North America. One hundred and sixty years earlier separate Spanish forces, one from the sea and two from the land, had met near the bay of San Diego and encamped on high ground at the southwest corner of the San Diego River valley. On July 16, 1769, the Franciscan missionary Fray Junipero Serra had blessed the site as the first mission in Alta California while the soldiers established the first presidio, or fort. A subscriber the romantic myth about Spain’s colonial empire in the New World so pervasive in the early twentieth century, Marston conceived of the new park and its museum as tributes to those valiant Spaniards and the arrival of European civilization and Christianity.

The Junipero Serra Museum was the culmination for Marston of a lifetime of public benefactions that enriched San Diego’s landscape and way of life. It also represented the successful conclusion of a long period of re-casting the historical memory of San Diego from a saga of bloody conquest first, of the Indians by the Spanish and then, of the Mexicans by the Americans, to the story of a modern parade of progress from the European founders to the present group of Anglo-American town fathers and mothers. Scholars are agreed that societies reconstruct their pasts rather than faithfully recording them. According to Michael Kammen, a leading scholar on historical memory, this is done on a generational basis to satisfy the needs of contemporary culture, to usefully shape the present, and to build “an illusion of social consensus.”1 The much esteemed American historian Carl Becker also recognized this phenomenon in his classic 1932 essay, “Everyman His Own Historian.” History, Becker wrote, is “an unstable pattern of remembered things redesigned and newly colored to suit the convenience of those who make use of it.”2 Each generation draws from its own experience to give new meaning to old symbols enabling it to guide society’s direction. It is not as important to historians, then, how accurately the reconstructed memory reflects past events but rather why it was constructed as it was in that particular way and time.3

The creation of a monument to honor significant historic events and people in San Diego’s past reflected a trend in the early twentieth century that was being played out all across America. Beginning in the 1870s the ideas of collective memory and tradition became a national obsession. Industrialization and immigration were putting tremendous strains on American society, calling into question, or even ignoring, many of the traditions that defined national culture. The growing concern in this increasingly mechanized and pluralistic society was to create a useable memory of the past, with its attendant traditions, that would hold the nation together and support the powers that be. An early effort to shape the past was the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia that celebrated the first one hundred years of American nationhood using the theme “Tradition of Progress.” The fair’s ultimate goal was to create reconciliation and national harmony in the aftermath of the Civil War. The idea of “progress” dovetailed nicely with the rising industrial revolution that quantified progress in monetary and technical terms. Progress was also used as a theme of unity that could rise above sectional or ethnic divisions. Over the next four decades this idea became the centerpiece of numerous subsequent expositions on the national and local level, including the 1915 Panama California Exposition in San Diego.4 “Progress” also shaped the career of George White Marston. Although renowned as a businessman and proprietor of the much loved department store that bore his name, it was as a reformer that Marston made his most lasting imprint on San Diego. After arriving in San Diego in 1870 from Wisconsin as a twenty-year-old, the young man put nearly equal effort into succeeding as a merchant and as a public-spirited citizen. While building his dry goods business he volunteered at the Benevolent Association, led the organization of the Free Reading Room Association (the forerunner of the city library), was a member of the volunteer fire department, served as an officer in the Chamber of Commerce, and was elected to a two year term on the City Council. Near the end of the century, Marston opened a large new four-story department store with an electric elevator and one hundred employees and had secured a position in the highest ranks of the community.5

Marston’s deeply held religious beliefs were the wellspring of his secular reformist activities. Combining religion and reform was an American tradition. This is tended to render religion more liberal and reform more conservative and that was the case with Marston. His beliefs reflected the influence of the two major reforms of his life, the Social Gospel movement and the Progressive era. During Marston’s young adulthood of the 1870s and 1880s, the Social Gospel movement growing out of Protestant churches emphasized the need to improve the living conditions of the urban poor who were being assaulted by the furiously growing industrialism. The insight of the Social Gospel reformers was to connect environment and behavior. Since conditions and surroundings determined character, a proper environment was essential to the development of a moral character. The Social Gospel, however, lacked the political power to make much headway until the rise of the Progressive movement at the turn of the century supplied the requisite political muscle to enact urban reforms. Using politics and the power of the government, Progressive reformers mounted strong challenges to the status quo and secured important social legislation to soften the impact of modernity on the less powerful. This wedding of social concern and political action undergirded Marston’s manifold reform activities, prominently including historic preservation.6

Marston’s passion for preserving the past was part and parcel of a national mood. As America moved from one century to the next, the anxieties and the pronounced sense of discontinuity that often informs such transitions came into play. As the world and values of the Founding Fathers grew more distant and modern society became increasingly complex, a strong strain of nostalgia took hold, tangling history and myth even more than previous generations. In the early twentieth century historian Michael Kammen observes “History and tradition, myth and memory were becoming intertwined rather than differentiated . . . .”7

During this transitional period, sentimental publications appeared that praised old landmarks for their power to create nostalgic moods about the past and provide vivid memories. Progress was lamented for the toll it took in the disappearance of historic sites. One of the most influential of these works was Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, published in 1884. Jackson was deeply involved in fighting for Indian rights and co-authored a scathing report for the federal government in 1883 on the deplorable conditions of Southern California Native Americans. Fearful that her report would be inadequate, she set out to write Ramona as a social protest novel about the Mission Indians in San Diego County. However, sentiment overshadowed her anger and a mood of romance and nostalgia clouded her political protest. Ramona became more of a paean to Southern California’s pastoral and romantic past than a tirade about Indian injustice.

In the same period Charles Fletcher Lummis, a Los Angeles journalist, began to write and lecture tirelessly about the Hispanic heritage of California. He launched a program to save the old Spanish missions, an embodiment of the state’s romantic past. To further the preservation efforts, Lummis created the California Landmarks Club in 1895 and George Marston was an early member. By 1900 San Diego started its own branch of the Landmarks Club and was able to match a $500 offer by Lummis to start restoration work on the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.8

It would be almost twenty years before Marston himself began serious work on Presidio Park. There was much in the intervening years, however, that would influence his thinking and the direction the work would take. Indeed, this was the period when a new set of historical myths would be created that gave San Diego its unique regional identity, which the Junipero Serra Museum would come to personify. As San Diegans looked to their past to help them prepare for the new century, they adopted the current romantic nostalgia of the Hispanic period. Missions and ranchos, whether restored or in ruins, were tangible symbols of the region’s past. They contributed to a new collective memory of the glorious European Spanish era followed by the halcyon days of the Spanish-Mexican Dons. A new identifying term, “Spanish-Californian,” came into play which allowed people of diverse race and ethnicity to claim a link with a white, European ancestry. Mexicans and Indians were marginalized or left out of the story altogether.9

These were certainly the views endorsed in local San Diego histories written during this period. The first of these histories was also the best and thereby the most influential. Written in 1907 by William E. Smythe, a nationally recognized author and promoter of western irrigation, the book offered the most detailed account of Spanish and Mexican rule and the Indian’s place in it all. While Smythe viewed in a positive light the European arrival as the beginnings of civilization and Christianity, unlike subsequent historians he laid out the harsh and self-serving regimen the priests imposed on the Indians. This approach notwithstanding, he described the Indians as “covetous, thievish, and sneaking creatures, of a brownish complexion something like the soil.” They were also cowardly. Finally, the Indians were “very poor material, and the Mission Fathers did exceedingly well in molding it into some semblance of civilization.” As for the Mexicans, Smythe painted another stereotype of a people who led a carefree existence on their grand ranchos with the enjoyment of life being the highest expression of their culture. He clearly portrayed the class boundaries that dominated Mexican San Diego, writing that, “Natives of Spain or direct descendants of such natives, constituted the upper class and prided themselves upon the purity of their blood.” In addition, they were well educated, very cultured, and leadership was theirs to assume. The lower classes were first the “Mexicans with more or less Aztec and Indian blood”; last, of course, was “the native Indian.”10

This view of the romantic and courageous Spaniards, the carefree Mexicans, and the inferior and eventually disposable Indians produced a powerful myth and dominated subsequent histories. Two books that came after Symthe closely followed his lead, albeit with extreme brevity, on San Diego’s Hispanic past. Samuel F. Black in 1913 enthusiastically embraced the romantic and sentimental approach to the Spanish and Mexican periods ushered in by Symthe. In fact, he reprinted a chapter from Symthe on “Local Historic Spanish Families.” Indians were reduced to scientific specimens near the end of the book in a reprint of a short article by the noted anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber. Nine years later, Clarence Alan McGrew copied both his predecessors.11

The Mexican period in San Diego and California was in fact a time of political chaos, local strife, hostilities with the Indians, and general economic deprivation.12 Ignoring such inconvenient details, Black and McGrew intended their volumes primarily as vehicles of civic boosterism for modern San Diego. They focused on the American period of San Diego history and the Anglo-American leaders of the town and its steady progress as measured in economic terms. Both of these histories had the standard “Biographical Section” in a separate volume in which scores of leaders and businesses paid to have their stories told. There were no profiles of Hispanic citizens or businesses in either history.

History books were not the only or even the main force developing and promoting this new historical interpretation of San Diego’s past. Public pageantry, historic preservation, and economic anxieties were major components of the powerful forces at work here. Following the great boom and bust period of the late 1880s in San Diego, the town was struggling to regain a momentum of economic growth when civic boosters discovered that 1892 would be the 350th anniversary of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s landing in San Diego Bay. In the midst of financial hard times, the city came up with $5,000 to put on an elaborate three day festival with costumed players sailing into the bay on a faithful reconstruction of the San Salvador, Cabrillo’s ship, to claim the area for Spain. Marching military bands, including one from Mexico City, led a parade and Father Antonio Ubach of the San Diego Mission brought some local Indians to perform native dances. The success of this festival, which is repeated annually to this day, produced its own myth when the lighthouse on Pt. Loma, the peninsula guarding San Diego Bay, was deemed to be an “historic” spot with an Hispanic past. In actuality, the United States government constructed the lighthouse in 1854. Nonetheless, in 1913 American and Hispanic traditions were combined when the federal government created the Cabrillo National Monument atop Pt. Loma to commemorate the region’s maritime past and, in a fashion, bestow government approval on the myth-making.13

When Smythe published his history of San Diego in 1907, he made an insightful as well as clever connection with the rest of American history. He declared that San Diego was to the west coast of America what Plymouth Rock was to the nation’s east coast, co-equals in United States history for the arrival of European civilization. He hoped his book would produce two outcomes. First, he yearned to make San Diegans appreciate their own historical importance. Second, he wished to “inspire the people of San Diego to the preservation of all the precious landmarks of the early time and the creation of enduring memorials worthy of their history.” His first three preferences were a public statue of Cabrillo, saving “The Old Presidio overlooking Old Town,” and the restoration of the mission.14

Smythe’s history helped to intensify San Diegans’ interest in preserving their past. While the San Diego Mission restoration moved slowly along and the Presidio project got off to its fitful start, commerce and restoration came together down the hill from the Presidio site in Old Town. John D. Spreckels, the city’s most powerful figure and owner of most of its utilities including the transit lines, understood the value of attractions if not historical preservation. In a common practice of the day, he would lay out new transit lines that included an attraction (preferably at the end of the line) which would draw paying customers/tourists. As he extended a line to the Old Town area he purchased the crumbling remains of the Estudillo house. It was promoted as “Ramona’s Marriage Place” because Helen Hunt Jackson had been in Old Town two decades earlier doing research for her novel. Spreckels paid for an exacting restoration with deep research into building methods and materials. It was so faithful to its research that the architect Hazel Waterman, insisting on doing things the “old way,” declared that only Mexican laborers could make the adobe bricks and tiles.15

Marston began his work on the future park in 1907. Along with four other men he purchased fourteen lots above San Diego’s Old Town for $6,000 to preserve the historic site that, along with the presidio, also was the home of the first Spanish mission in California.16 After five fruitless years trying to interest the City of San Diego in preserving and developing the site, Marston bought out his partners and decided to move ahead on his own. Marston had also suffered a defeat the previous year, 1911, in the planning for the 1915 exposition that was to be held in City Park. His vision of a smaller fair on the peripheries of the park that would not intrude on the large open space at the center was defeated in favor of a grandiose plan set in the middle of the park. These setbacks seemed to have convinced Marston that the only way to achieve his vision was to act on his own.

Although Marston was the sole driving force for the Presidio project, it did not keep him from his characteristic broad business and civic engagements. The first decade of the new century was a busy one for Marston and San Diego. In addition to the preservation efforts for the mission and the Presidio, Marston was also engaged in significant business and reform activities. In 1902 he pledged $10,000 to hire Samuel Parsons, Superintendent of New York’s Central Park, to create a plan for San Diego’s City Park. As that work progressed, Marston turned his attention to city planning in 1907 and hired John Nolen of Boston to develop plans to guide the city’s growth. These two projects reflected Marston’s reform ideas about the importance of a good environment. The park project was his second effort to create a professional plan of development for the 1,400 acre reserve that was set aside by the city in 1868. Parson’s drew up a plan in the Picturesque style and the city began to develop it. The Nolen Plan of 1908 opened up a new design aesthetic for San Diego. Nolen made numerous references to Mediterranean locations in an effort to awaken San Diegans to the uniqueness of its climate in combination with the bay and town. This use of Italian and Spanish examples in his plan played right into the growing romantic myth that was gaining shape in San Diego. It did not hurt that one could point out that Junipero Serra had come to the new world from his Spanish Mediterranean home on the island of Mallorca. On the business side, Marston built his last and largest store in 1912, a five story edifice that occupied a half block in the heart of downtown. In politics, Marston was a leading Progressive reformer both in San Diego and in California. In 1913 he ran for mayor and narrowly lost, defending Nolen’s city plan against an opponent who favored increased payrolls and industry over planning and parks. He lost a second time in 1917 over nearly identical issues.17 The most significant setback for Marston came during this period and was one that would change San Diego forever and cement its romantic Hispanic image. In 1909 the city decided to hold an exposition in City Park to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and advertise the city as the first American port of call for westward bound ships. The decision effectively halted Parson’s work on the park and marginalized Nolen’s plan.

The Panama-California Exposition consumed the city’s energy and attention for seven years. One million dollars was subscribed by private donors and another one million was approved by the voters in a bond issue. In line with the rising Hispanic romanticism, City Park was renamed Balboa Park for the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. Since this was only a regional fair (San Francisco was honored with the government certified international exposition), its prospects for outside participation and exhibits were modest. Adopting the idea of “Progress,” as did all previous expos, the civic boosters of San Diego went all out to showcase San Diego and the Southwest. Progress carried a double meaning at the fair. The standard industrial and agricultural exhibits trumpeted the manifold possibilities of the region. In addition to these more conventional forms of progress, the expo also presented the idea of racial progress. Among the exhibits was an anthropological display, designed with much help from the Smithsonian Institution, that showed the evolution of the human race, especially in Latin America and the Southwest. The “Painted Desert,” a companion exhibit sponsored by the Santa Fe Rail Road, focused on Navajo and Apache Indian cultures with exacting replicas of hogans and tepees as well as the Taos Pueblo.18

What made San Diego’s fair so important and memorable was its architecture. In the early stages of planning it seemed a plain mission revival style, championed by the modernist Irving Gill, was the right expression for the city and its new fascination with its Hispanic roots. As the exposition grew during early planning phases, an offer for a much grander architecture was advanced by New York architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. A leading exponent of the High Baroque style of Spanish Colonial architecture known as Churrigueresque, he offered this small fair a much grander vision of itself that played to the Mediterranean ideal that Nolen had urged upon San Diegans in his city plan. Using his connections with architects across the country in a letter writing campaign, Goodhue usurped the chief architect position from Gill.19 Speaking of his designs, especially the permanent buildings in the quadrangle, Goodhue said he was trying to capture the region’s past and, “to obtain insofar as this is possible something of the effect of the old Spanish and Mexican days and thus to link the spirit of the old seekers of the fabled El Dorado with that of the Twentieth Century.” The buildings, he later said, “should provide . . . illusion rather than reality.” California historian Kevin Starr has interpreted Goodhue’s work as a “revisionist, anti-industrial aesthetic.” Nevertheless, Starr recognized the bond of mutual interests between the New York architect and the San Diego boosters. “Each had an ideal city secreted within themselves. Each wanted the romance of the past and the promise of modernity.”20

A second important result of the exposition was the exposure to the military that San Diego gained from it. With the fair, San Diego burst on the scene at precisely the moment United States Navy was changing its basic strategy and evolving into a two ocean fleet in response to world imperialism among the major powers. The service was looking for new port facilities on the west coast as San Diego was opening itself up to a larger world. Scores of military men and politicians came to the fair and saw the larger possibilities in the harbor. With the aid of San Diego’s Congressman William Kettner and a very eager business community, San Diego quickly became the premier military town in California. Trying to be good neighbors, the services bought into the new Hispanic style created at the fair and hired the expo’s architect Goodhue to design several installations in his Spanish colonial style. As with the Cabrillo Monument, this was another government sanction of San Diego’s new myth-making about its past.21

The success of the exposition notwithstanding, this transitional period from one century to another created a slew of anxieties. By the time of Marston’s second defeat for mayor in 1917, he had been in San Diego nearly fifty years. His losses clearly demonstrated that political power was shifting to a new group of leaders. As the town emerged from the depression of the late 1890’s, it began to grow steadily and the 1909 decision to have the fair in 1915 accelerated the growth. Between 1890 and 1900 the city had gained less than ten percent in population, only 1,541 new citizens. Ten years later the population doubled to nearly 40,000 people. By 1920 after the fair, the population surged more than fifty percent to almost 75,000. In addition to the surging population, radical political events unnerved the town. Mexico, just fifteen miles south of the city, was seized by revolution in 1911. One of the contending parties, the Magonista army, took brief control of the border town of Tijuana with the aid of over a hundred labor radicals from the International Workers of the World (IWW) union. Following this brief but bloody episode, the IWW members retreated to San Diego. Within a few months the union was involved in a protracted and violent confrontation with the city over the right of free speech on public streets. Fearful for the town’s image as it prepared for the exposition , the police cracked down hard and drove out the radicals. At the same time the police were executing a series of raids on local brothels in a vain attempt to rid the town of vice. Civic boosters also responded by creating the Order of Panama in 1913 to promote the expo and the town. Their major accomplishment was to dig up hundreds of tiles from the Presidio ruins and construct a giant cross with them and plant it in the center of the future park. An aging Charles Lummis came down to lead the dedication ceremonies. The town was becoming a city and there were those who were unsettled by the rapid changes.22

Marston, like some other older leaders and political Progressives, turned towards projects over which he had control. This involved both progressive issues such as city planning and later on state parks as well as nostalgic ones like the Presidio project and the mission restoration. One historian of the Progressive Era, Robert Crunden, labeled this duality “innovative nostalgia.” This aging generation of leaders were eager for change without rejecting the past altogether. Other historians have noted similar impulses in Progressives such as a deep concern for history and its lessons, a commitment to change while being mindful of the past, and a strong nostalgia for earlier and seemingly simpler times.23 Each of these ideas finds some resonance in San Diego Progressives, especially Marston. While he was beginning new work to create state parks in San Diego County in 1928, he was also reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of his business, a very modern department store. He spoke about “the movement towards a system of chain stores.” Within six months two large chain stores had offered to incorporate his store with theirs to which he replied: “No, we do not want to be enchained; let us just be Marston’s, not The Universal Mercantile Consolidated Aggregation. We want to jog on in the good old San Diego style for fifty more years.”24

Creating the Junipero Serra Museum and preserving Presidio Hill were solidly within an important national cultural trend revolving around history and memory. The 1920s, often seen as a period for debunking heros and traditions, was in fact the opposite. The decade saw such significant national memorials as Mt. Rushmore, Stone Mountain, and the Lincoln Memorial created in honor of presidents and warriors. Reflecting this trend, localities, especially in the West, began to “discover” their own heroes and history. Several impulses propelled this awakening. There was a strain of anti-modernism and nostalgia for a seemingly simpler past at work. Celebrations, observances, and exhibitions throughout the West opened up local and regional history, often with a new interpretation of the past. In addition to supporting the prevailing class, this new enthusiasm for history served commerce as well. Tourism and travel became national pastimes in the 1920s, and to facilitate this new economic wellspring highway building and improvements in the West flourished and the roadside historic marker was born as was the motor court.25 Marston’s two decades long effort on Presidio Hill is a nearly perfect paradigm of these historical developments.

Marston’s role in the exposition was much less than was expected of a member of the top leadership group. His initial response to the fair was to suggest that its effects would be transient and that the money would be better spent on urban development. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he lobbied early to keep the fair small and on the peripheries of the park but lost that battle as well when Goodhue offered his grand design. Marston was one of several speakers when the exposition opened and he entertained some of the dignitaries who came through town to see the fair. His major accomplishment, appropriately, was as a preservationist. In the fair’s aftermath, having come to appreciate its beneficial effect on the development of the park, he along with others helped to stave off demolition of the non-permanent buildings. Nevertheless, before the fair was over Marston had shifted his interest and efforts to his own project at Presidio Hill.26

All that had gone before from the early efforts to restore the mission through the exposition and its legacy had created a new conception of San Diego’s past. The romantic and nostalgic writings of Helen Hunt Jackson and Charles F. Lummis set the stage for a white Spanish heritage that would send Mexicans and Indians to the margins of a new regional history. As envisioned by historian William E. Smythe, the Spanish conquest was the arrival of real civilization and Christianity, in essence the beginning of history for the region. This version of the past lent legitimacy to all that the Europeans did while discounting the history of the Mexicans and Indians, and then passed on that mantle of power to the conquering Anglo Americans. The new ruling class was urged to use this history to validate and consolidate its place in San Diego and this was accomplished through pageantry, preservation, and economics. The Cabrillo festival, the restoration efforts at the mission and the Estudillo House, and the preservation of Presidio Hill all culminated in the profitable and popular 1915 Panama California Exposition that gave permanent definition to San Diego’s new persona.

In early 1916 urban planner and landscape architect John Nolen sent Marston a sweeping planning document for Presidio Hill and Old Town. Clearly, Marston had been thinking about moving ahead with his project as the first year of the city’s exposition was unfolding. The nine page report, a “Scheme for planning, improving, developing and maintaining . . .” an expanded area including Presidio Hill and also all of Old Town below the hill, laid out an ambitious strategy to join the preservation project with a controlled residential development. Nolen recommended that Marston gain control of as wide an area as possible through purchase and restrictive easements. A plan was to be drawn up that would connect all “points of historical or romantic interests” with a modern road system that would also tie in with downtown and the waterfront. Using plans and restrictive covenants of the day, Old Town would be transformed into “a distinctive community, . . . a characteristic suburb for people of refinement and taste . . . .” Appropriate lands would be allocated for public purposes such as a park, memorials, playgrounds, and outdoor theater. For the first time in any planning document, the scheme included a museum.27

Nolen’s report also suggested the formation of “a permanent local organization or society to take charge of the property.” This would lead, of course, to the formation of the San Diego History Center in 1928. To further this idea, Nolen identified thirteen preservation organizations in America and England operating on national, regional, and local levels that could serve as models. He provided detailed examples of three of them and even suggested that such a San Diego organization might expand its operations to “other historic places in California.” Nolen was educating Marston to the possibilities in San Diego by laying out the international scope of the burgeoning preservation movement. While not of all of Nolen’s ideas would materialize in San Diego, his efforts would succeed in linking the Presidio Hill project with the national movement for historic preservation.28

When World War I enveloped America in 1917, however, San Diego suspended less urgent concerns, historic preservation included. After the conflict San Diego’s economy surged for nearly a decade, due in large part to the growing military presence, which in turn ignited phenomenal population growth. With a surging economy, Marston began buying more land on Presidio Hill and by 1925 he wrote Nolen that he owned all or part of ten square blocks. In his usual understated and playful manner he teased Nolen: “I presume you are simply going to make some broad suggestions about the treatment of this land. When you come here next I think I shall be prepared to have you begin detailed plans.”29

Neither Marston nor Nolen were Westerners. They were born and raised in the Midwest and the east where the climate was wet, not arid. The environmental values of their home regions were exemplified in a 1927 landscaping plan for Presidio Park. Nolen’s plan, along with a large sketch, called for a series of grassy expanses divided into units by a curvilinear road and path system. Extensive shrubbery and numerous groves of trees were laid out in a Picturesque style in alternating open spaces and masses of plantings. All of this was dependent on irrigation water trapped in mountain reservoirs and piped into the city. This stood in stark contrast to the natural semi-arid environment of southern California which had greeted the eighteenth century explorers that the museum and park were meant to honor.30

Marston, a gardener by deep inclination, oversaw the planting of Presidio Park on a nearly daily basis for more than ten years. At the beginning of the work in early 1928, he employed up to ten men to grade roads, remove an old concrete reservoir, contour parts of the hill, and plant by year’s end over 7,000 shrubs and trees. The plant specimens, some of them quite exotic, represented every continent in the world, creating in essence an arboretum.31 Nolen’s plan also included a never-built open air theater, where the old reservoir was being removed, with an arbor behind it. Several architectural elements needed to be designed such as gates, benches, and arbors but Nolen’s staff could not execute them because the museum, which would influence their work, had not been conceived as yet. Indeed, its plan would not be ready for another seventeen months.32

Marston choose William Templeton Johnson as the architect of the Junipero Serra Museum. Johnson was entering the most productive phase of his professional carrier in the last half of the 1920s. The thirty-five year old architect had arrived in San Diego in 1912 after several years of study in New York and Paris, with extended sojourns in Spain and Italy. The architecture of the 1915 exposition captured his imagination and reinforced his exposure to the Mediterranean styles he had seen in southern Europe. By merging those styles with the southern California environment, Johnson, according to a latter day critic, exerted “more impact on the look of San Diego than any other architect.” The mission style design with its clean and simple lines, arches, and deep set window openings that Johnson and others practiced until the late 1940s changed the look not only of San Diego but all of Southern California.33

At the time Johnson was to design the Serra Museum he was chosen in a national competion to design three buildings for the United States Government at the Iberian-American Exposition in Seville, Spain. This was an exceedingly prestigious commission and Johnson was off to Spain for an extended stay. In San Diego he also had contracts to design the San Diego Trust and Savings Building and the Samuel I. Fox Building, both downtown landmarks. No set design had been agreed upon for the Serra Museum but sometime in 1925 Hale J. Walker, Nolen’s senior associate, quickly sketched an idea for a long structure on the crest of Presidio Hill with a tower at the north end overlooking the San Diego River valley. Marston was quite taken with the concept and Johnson obliged by designing what is perhaps his greatest public building and one of the most recognizable urban landmarks in Southern California.34 Still, Johnson’s numerous commitments made it a close thing. As park planting proceeded apace, preparations were begun for the elaborate dedication day ceremonies. Johnson worked on the plans through 1927 and finally completed an acceptable set of drawings in the fall of 1928. By the time contracts were let, permits finalized, and construction begun there was less than half a year to complete the museum in time for the dedication. With Johnson acting as superintendent, the Kier Construction Company was awarded the contract. The work proceeded without any serious problems and was finished just in time for the July ceremony. The strikingly beautiful museum on its promontory is the very definition of romantic Spanish mission style architecture. Johnson described the building as similar to the California missions in its “rugged simplicity” with “thick walls and simple masses, and a sturdiness and frankness in design which gave them much charm.” While built “in close sympathy” with the original missions, he emphasized that it was a thoroughly modern building. “Except that the structure is of reinforced concrete and has modern plumbing,” he wrote, ” the same materials and the same simple design have been employed as would have been used by the Franciscans a hundred and sixty years ago.” The wood work inside the museum was “as simple as it must have been, when made by the monks with their scanty supply of tools.”35 Even Marston, for whom the park was of much greater importance than the museum, was enthusiastic over the results. “We are making splendid progress on the park and on the building,” he wrote Nolen, “and everything is coming out beautifully. The people of the city are very enthusiastic over the building. It looms up tremendously and is considered a perfect success.”36

One of Johnson’s goals was to “preserve the feeling of the missions without making the building too ecclesiastical in appearance.”37 Over the years legions of San Diego Historical Society employees and volunteers have had to correct many visitors’ mistaken impressions that on entering the museum they have reached the original California mission. 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. Outside, a long arcade, partly covered by an open arch walkway, also vividly recalls the architecture of the California missions. That the architect’s attempted balancing act has only been partly successful is testimony to the power and endurance of the Hispanic myth so completely embodied in this building.

To further the links with Junipero Serra’s Spain and, possibly, to emphasize that the building was a museum and not a church, Marston sent his department store’s interior decorator, Ross H. Thiele, to Spain to collect antique furniture for a period room display. Museums, across the country assumed a new role of education and preservation under the watchword of authenticity. Period rooms became the new vogue in museums and they were meant to reaffirm traditions as seen in elite artifacts rather than everyday items.38 Thiele was aided in Spain by Arthur Byne, an authority on Spanish furniture and arts and a buyer for millionaire collector William Randolph Hearst. Thiele’s idea was to purchase pieces from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries that would invoke the world of the Spanish explorers and conquerors of the New World. Traveling from Andalusia to Catalonia he obtained a ten foot long walnut table, a large chest with Arabic geometric designs, a large armario with intricate lattice work doors, and a chest with simply carved oak paneled sides and a great iron lock and escutcheon on the front. The most valuable of the items was a vergueno, a decorative cabinet and writing desk with trestle support that came from Byne’s own collection. Various candelabra, smaller tables, church benches, chairs, wall hangings, and an old brazier completed the rare collection. Perhaps it hardly mattered that the collection reflected the ruling class of Spain rather than the humble origins that Father Serra knew. In writing about the acquisitions, Thiele evoked the similar landscapes and environments of Spain and California, especially the bay of Palma near Serra’s birthplace, comparing it with San Diego Bay in an effort to portray the Spanish conquest as not just inevitable but proper. Of the furniture he rhapsodized that, “To look upon it, considering its origins, brings to mind countless stories of romance and history.39

As a final summation to the building of the monument and the reconstruction of history and memory the day long dedication on July 16, 1929, the 160th anniversary of the establishment of Spanish colonial rule, unfolded in many parts. The celebration evoked God, history, and progress and involved a king, a president, and civic boosters. The day was unusually hot, yet 2,000 people were on hand by 9 a. m. for a solemn high mass led by the head of Father Serra’s own Franciscan order. A long dedicatory sermon sought “to perpetuate the precious memories of the past,” and praise the heroic Spanish conquerors as “men of cultured minds, practical sense, [and] religious faith.” They came to California “to win over the [Indians] for civilization and Christianity.”40 Following the long mass, military bands from the local marine and navy bases played for two hours as growing crowds wandered through the museum and park.

By 2:30 P. M. when the dedicatory events resumed, there were an estimated 12,000 people in the park. The most curious feature of the day was the “Historical Prelude.” “A sincere attempt to depict with simple realism the scenes which took place on the hill 160 years ago,” as the program announced, it was composed of five vignettes. The director of the prelude, Havrah Hubbard, went to great lengths to assure San Diegans that deep research had been done into the pre-contact culture of the Kumeyaay Indians. “Each scene is the picture of an actual occurrence, and the sequence of these scenes has with a single exception, been retained just as given in history.” Accordingly, the scenes began with an earnest recreation of Indian village life at the moment before European contact. Then followed portrayals the first tentative contact between Spaniards and Indians, the coming of Junipero Serra and the military governor Gaspar de Portola, and Portola’s departure for Monterey. The famous final scene depicted the raising of the cross, the consecration of the land by Serra, and the soldiers taking possession of the land for King Carlos of Spain. Hubbard declared, somewhat disingenuously, that the pageant was without allegory or symbolism but went on to insist that it contents were “fully as important and as far reaching as was the landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock.”41 With the conclusion of the drama, about half of the people left the park as the temperatures had moved into the high eighties.

Religious singing and invocations preceded the secular speeches. C. C. Young, the governor of California, gave the opening address. He praised Marston and San Diegans for preserving the important historic site and he linked the state’s progress and greatness to the arrival of the Spanish. Next came the mayor of San Diego, Harry C. Clark, adding the prestige of the President of the United States to the proceedings by reading a congratulatory telegram from Herbert Hoover.

When George W. Marston rose to speak, he was greeted by a prolonged, standing ovation. A decorous man, though not shy, Marston was flummoxed by the public display that seemed to be headed towards adulation. Standing ramrod straight, as always, in a dark suit with stiff white collared shirt, he gestured nervously for the audience to stop. When they did not, he reached for the large watch in his vest pocket and commenced to wind it. Once calm was restored, Marston’s remarks were brief and polite, and, characteristically, about more work needing to be done. He thanked one and all for their generous expressions. Then he looked to the future, succinctly laying out several historic sites in the region that needed preservation and urging that “we develop all such parks commemorating history into a harmonious whole.” “In building the city,” he continued in his most pointed and deeply felt passage, “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 landscape and architecture the spirit of a city can be preserved for ages.” Marston closed by entrusting his creations to the citizens of San Diego “for safeguarding as a perpetual memorial to the Spanish people who brought civilization and the gospel to this Pacific shore.”42

His Excellency Senor Don Alejandro Padilla y Bell, the Spanish ambassador to the United States, delivered a message from His Majesty King Alfonso to the convocation. He thanked all of the dignitaries on hand for “seeing that [Spanish] traditions are respected, recognized and remembered. . .” He reiterated Spain’s historical concern for Indians, linking the work of Bartolome de las Casas with that of Junipero Serra. He furthered attempted to link the Franciscan mission system with the infamous American reservation system that followed it as proof of the former’s benevolence and success.43

The day’s final address came from James A. Blaisdell, the president of Pomona College, where Marston was a trustee for over fifty years and president of the board for twenty-six years. Praising the conviction which brought the park and museum into existence, Blaisdell employed his scholarly rhetorical skills to divine the deeper meaning of the day’s events. Recognizing the historical interpretation that Marston’s project exemplified, the academician told the gathering that there were certain places in human history whose events called for dedication and it was important “to set these places apart into public possession and to devote them to the permanent offices of memory and inspiration.” Such places, he continued, should be dedicated with “high ceremony to public protection and respect in order that these memories of the past may be continued as the perpetual challenge of the future.” He joined the new historical memory of Presidio Hill with the concepts of race and progress as found in “the grace and chivalry of two branches of our common Aryan family, [and] in this fortunate region is the unique promise of our future.” The Latins found and conquered while the Saxons inherited and developed. Reflecting the imperialism of his day, Blaisdell predicted that on such consecrated ground the two races faced “boldly out into the Pacific world which we are together to construct.” Raising a clarion call to take up the challenge, Blaisdell assured Marston that the “happiness and prosperity” which would result was to be “your abundant reward.”44 Blaisdell’s message echoed in the final act of the day, the singing of Edward Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory.”

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. Before the July 29 ceremony, he and his wife had given title of the park and museum to a grateful city council. It had been his intention all along that this project would belong to the citizens of San Diego. Within three months of the dedication celebration, however, the Great Depression had begun. Subsequently, a new city council, elected in 1932, reneged on the agreement to take ownership and responsibility for the park. They used a technicality that the transfer was done by resolution rather than by ordinance. For nearly a decade, Marston continued to pay for the maintenance and improvement of his beloved site. With his own dwindling funds, later supplemented with monies from federal and state relief programs, he kept a small crew of men working to prevent the plants and trees from dying (the city generously supplied free water) and made improvements when possible. Four years later, “a kind of political revolution in 1936” as Marston described it, brought in another new council “with an attitude of friendliness to the Presidio enterprise.” When the city finally accepted ownership and responsibility for the gift in 1937, Marston’s records showed he had spent nearly $300,000 to acquire the land, plant and maintain the park, and about $100,000 to build the Serra museum. In addition, the Spanish furniture purchased for the museum cost over $100,000.45

Marston persisted in tending and helping to guide the development of Presidio Park and the Serra Museum. During the last years of his life he wrote two “statements” about the park and the museum. Shortly before his death in 1946, frail and bed-ridden, Marston pondered “The Character of Presidio Park.” He reiterated the ideas that had informed the new historical memory and the creation of the Spanish romantic myth of the 1920s. In building Presidio Park, he had “sought to preserve its inherent forms and to enhance this physical character with deeper meaning and significance.” The Presidio was a symbol of Spanish exploration and the coming of Christianity and civilization to the Pacific Coast of the United States. It was in essence “the beginning of a new era.”46

Earlier, in 1942, he had produced a more detailed history of his efforts, which he characterized as “the largest work of my life” other than his mercantile business. Marston was mostly interested here in facts and chronologies. He wrote of land purchases, Nolen’s extensive planning, Johnson’s “commanding landmark [on] Presidio Hill,” “years . . . devoted to mostly planning and surveying,” that were followed by “the heavy planting years,” succeeded in their turn by a decade “given largely to [m]aintenance.” The men who built and planted the park were fondly recalled, especially Percy M. Carter, a former gardener at Marston’s home and the first foreman on the project. He died suddenly in 1928 while working and Marston “felt his loss very deeply.” In the 1930’s Percy C. Broell was appointed superintendent of the park and worked under Marston’s direction to maintain and improve the park.47

At the same time, Marston confessed, his relations with the city council, “were not always as pleasant as they were with the workmen.” With uncharacteristic candor, Marston disclosed his frustrations. The council elected in 1932 was “composed of men who ‘knew not Joseph’ and saw no use in having any more park land in San Diego.” They had rejected the earlier council’s acceptance of the park on a technicality. Controlling the water and a third of the park’s land, they had compelled Marston to carry on, at his own expense, and be grateful in the bargain for not being charged for the water. “I had to submit and humbly . . . ,” he wrote. Four years later the new council of 1936 reversed the antagonism of its predecessor and reaccepted Marston’s gift.48 In an elegant and telling manner the benefactor of Presidio Park and Serra Museum, a life-long Sunday school teacher, called upon his formative Social Gospel upbringing, folded into his mature Christian humanism, to settle vexing issues ten years later. Perhaps feeling the Great Depression was a metaphor for the Biblical famine in ancient Egypt, Marston evoked the story of Joseph and his brothers. After rejecting and banishing Joseph, his brothers are forced to seek help from him during the great famine. Not recognizing the powerful man to whom they turned for help, the brothers did not appreciate the quality and importance of the gift that was offered to them. Marston’s sly use of this biblical metaphor was an elegant admonishment to the council’s short-sightedness. It was also an act of absolution meant to bring them back into the fold, for the story of Joseph and his brothers is a story not of vengeance but forgiveness.49





  1. Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), p.3-5, quoting, p. 4-5.
  2. Carl Becker, “Everyman His own Historian,” American Historical Review, 37 (Jan. 1932), as quoted in, David Paul Nord, “The Uses of Memory: An Introduction,” Journal of American History, 85 (Sept. 1998), p.409.
  3. David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History, 75 (March 1989): 1125-26. See also, Sunil Khilnani “When Memory Comes: The Creation of Identity and the Invention of Tradition,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, 31 January 1999, p.3.
  4. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, pp. 132-39.
  5. Gregg R. Hennessey, “George White Marston and Conservative Reform in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, 32 (Fall 1986), 230-53.
  6. Ibid., pp. 237-39.
  7. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, pp. 254-55, quote, p. 258.
  8. Ibid., pp. 262-63; Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (Santa Barbara, Peregrine Smith, 1981), pp. 396-401; Alexander D. Bevil, The Sacred and the Profane: The Restoration of Mission San Diego de Alcalá, 1866-1931, Journal of San Diego History, 32 (Summer 1992), 139-43; Mary G. Marston, Comp., George White Marston: A Family Chronicle, 2 vols. (Los Angeles, Ward Ritchie Press, 1956), 2:70-71.
  9. Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), pp. 91, 129.
  10. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907 (San Diego, The History Company, 1907), pp. 21-22, 71-75, 142.
  11. Samuel F. Black, San Diego County California: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, 2 vols. (Chicago, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913), I: pp.59, 401-14, 430-14; Clarence Alan McGrew, City of San Diego and San Diego County, The Birthplace of California, 2 vols. (Chicago, The American Historical Society, 1922), I: 39.
  12. Raymond G. Starr, San Diego: A Pictorial History, (Norfolk, The Donning Company/Publishers, 1986), p. 16.
  13. Iris H. W. Engstrand, San Diego: California’s Cornerstone (Tulsa. Continental Heritage Press, 1980), pp., 68, 70.
  14. Smythe, History of San Diego, pp. 21-23.
  15. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and of its Founder Alonzo E. Horton (San Diego, The San Diego History Center, 2nd ed. rev., 1979), p. 120; Engstrand, California’s Cornerstone, pp. 54-55; Starr, Pictorial History, p. 93.
  16. The other purchasers were Charles Kelly, E. W. Scripps, A. G. Spalding, and John D. Spreckels. These lots were in the center of what is now Presidio Park.
  17. Gregg R. Hennessey, “City Planning, Progressivism, and the Development of San Diego, 1908-1926,” Master’s Thesis, San Diego State University, 1977. passim; Starr, Americans and the California Dream, pp. 401,02.
  18. 18. Raymond Starr, “San Diego 1915-1916: The Panama California Exposition,” in, John E. Fiddling, ed., Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988 (New York, Greenwood Press, 1989), pp. 227-29; Starr, Pictorial History, p. 129.
  19. Starr, “Panama California Exposition,” pp. 227-29; Richard F. Pouarde, The History of San Diego, vol. 5, Gold in the Sun (San Diego, The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, 1965), quoting, pp. 186-98.
  20. Starr, Americans and the California Dream, pp. 403-04.
  21. Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 23-36.
  22. Richard Griswold del Castillo, “The Discredited Revolution: The Magonista Capture of Tijuana in 1911,” Journal of San Diego History 26 (Fall 1980), 256-67; Rosalie Shanks, “The I. W. W. Free Speech Movement: San Diego 1912,” Journal of San Diego History 19 (Winter 1973), 25-33; Clare V. McKanna, “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900-1930,” Journal of San Diego History 35 (Winter 1989), 44-65; Carl H. Heilbron, “Origin of the Serra Cross,” San Diego Magazine (July 1929), p. 17.
  23. Robert M. Crunden, Ministers of Reform: The Progressives Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920 (New York, 1982), as quoted in Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 271; Kammen, Ibid., pp.269-70.
  24. Marston, Family Chronicle, I:279.
  25. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, pp. 322-403.
  26. Florence Christman, The Romance of Balboa Park (San Diego, San Diego Historical Society, 4th ed., rev., 1985), pp. 41, 53, 71.
  27. John Nolen, “Old Town, San Diego, California,” 12 January 1916, John Nolen Collection, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University, pp. 1-3, hereafter, Nolen Coll.
  28. Ibid., pp. 3-4, I-iv; Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, pp. 259-61.
  29. George W. Marston to John Nolen, 20 May 1925, George White Marston Collection, San Diego History Center Research Archives, hereafter, Marston Coll.
  30. Nolen to Marston, 13 June 1927, Nolen Coll.
  31. Marston to Nolen, 4 February, 22, September, and 28 November 1928, and Nolen to Marston, 23 May 1928, Marston Coll. For an extensive and authoritative listing of the park’s plants see, Chauncey I. Jerabak, “A Plant Tour of Presidio Park,” Journal of San Diego History, 15 (Summer 1969), pp. 13-24.
  32. Nolen to Marston, 13 June 1927, Nolen Coll.
  33. Dirk Sutro, Los Angeles Times, 6 November 1988. See also, Martin E. Petersen, “William Templeton Johnson, “San Diego Architect, 1877-1957,” Journal of San Diego History, 17 (October 1971), pp., 20-30.
  34. Petersen, “William Templeton Johnson,” p.26; Marston, Family Chronicle, 2:142; Marston to Nolen, 20 May 1925, Marston Coll.
  35. [William] Templeton Johnson, “The Architecture of the Serra Museum,” San Diego Magazine (July 1929), p. 5.
  36. Marston to Nolen, 8 May 1929, Marston Coll.
  37. Johnson, “Serra Museum,” p. 5.
  38. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, pp. 322-403.
  39. Ross H. Thiele, “Furnishing Junipero Serra Museum,” San Diego Magazine (July 1929), pp. 6, 24; Ross Thiele, Interview, San Diego Historical Society, San Diego, CA, 2 August 1980.
  40. San Diego Union, 17 July 1929, p. 9.
  41. Ibid., p. 8; Havrah Hubbard, “The Historical Prelude,” San Diego Magazine (July 1929), pp. 8, 20-21.
  42. San Diego Union, 17 July 1929, p. 8; Marston, Family Chronicle, 2:150-51.
  43. San Diego Union, p. 8.
  44. Ibid., p. 9.
  45. Gregg R. Hennessey, “Junipero Serra Museum: Architectural, Cultural, and Urban Landmark,” Journal of San Diego History, 25 (Summer 1979), 239.
  46. Marston, “The Character of Presidio Park,” (1946), Marston Coll.
  47. Marston, “Presidio Park: Statement of George W. Marston, 1942,” Marston Coll., pp. 1-4.
  48. Ibid., p. 4
  49. My thanks to the Rev. Margaret England and James England for explicating the story of Joseph in this context.

Images from this article


Gregg R. Hennessey is editor of the Journal of San Diego History. 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. The first serious historical research he did was more than twenty-five years ago in the San Diego History Center’s research library then located in the Junipero Serra Museum. He has been under the building’s spell ever since.