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Honoring a local legend

Posted: September 8th, 2017 | Columns, PastMatters, Top Story | 2 Comments

By Katherine Hon | Past Matters

George White Marston founded a store, and so much more

Longtime San Diego residents may remember shopping or working in the grand Marston Department Store along the north side of C Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues.

The five-story building constructed in 1912 has been gone since the late 1960s, when the store founded by George Marston became the Broadway after nearly 90 years in business.

The last Marston Store on the north side of C Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues was demolished in the late 1960s but is fondly remembered by many who worked and shopped there. (Courtesy of SOHO)

Marston started his merchandising career at age 20 in early San Diego, first serving as an assistant bookkeeper in Aaron Pauly’s store/wharf office from 1870 to 1872. He then clerked one year for Joseph Nash, who advertised his establishment as “The Cheapest Store in the City.”

In 1873, Marston and his best friend and fellow clerk, Charles Hamilton, bought Nash’s business for $10,000. In a brief memoir titled “My Personal Business History,” Marston noted that “customers always asked me for chicken feed, coal oil, molasses and cod fish which were in the cellar, because my desk was at the head of the stairs.”

Imagine George Marston “sweating over the matching of carpet patterns” after hours in the narrow building in the middle on Fifth Avenue between G and H streets. This was the Marston Store location from 1878 to 1882. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

The partners separated amicably in 1878, when Marston opened a dry goods store he called “a little wooden shop of the wild west style,” and Hamilton launched a grocery store. Both men grew their respective businesses to great success.

During the first year on his own, Marston took over a dry goods and notions store on Fifth Avenue between G and H streets and expanded his offerings to include carpeting and drapery. In 1882 he moved into an Italianate-Victorian style building at the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street, where he expanded to the point of paying rent to four different landlords.

During the 14 years from 1882 to 1896, Marston expanded his store from an original salesroom measuring 25 by 70 feet to four rooms in this building at Fifth Avenue and F Street. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

In 1896, he relocated to a new store built for him by his uncle, Stephen W. Marston, at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and C Street. This four-story building featured wide aisles, an open court from the ground floor to the roof, and a novelty — an elevator. Marston made one last move across the street to his largest location in 1912.

At the grand 50th anniversary celebration of his business in 1928, Marston told the crowd that the store was “the product of the community … You want ‘goods,’ a word that means all the best things in the world. So we have for you not only merchandise, but music and flowers, history and art, things useful and things beautiful.”

You know your mink is the finest quality if it has The Marston Company label. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

But Marston did far more for San Diego than found one of its finest retail establishments. The list of his accomplishments and gifts to the region may surprise you:

  • He created Presidio Park and the Serra Museum in Old Town, which he gave to the city in 1930.
  • He donated hundreds of acres of desert land to the people of California, initiating the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
  • In 1902, he donated $10,000 to hire Samuel Parsons Jr. of New York, the nation’s best known landscape architect, to survey Balboa Park and begin its beautification in advance of the 1915 Exposition.
  • In 1906, he helped fund John Nolen to develop the first comprehensive city plan.
  • He founded the San Diego Historical Society (now San Diego History Center) in 1928 and served as its first president.
  • Another ongoing gift to San Diego is the Marston family home at 3525 Seventh St., which was built in 1905 and is one of the few large residences designed by William Hebbard and Irving Gill that is still standing in near-original condition.

These dapper young gentlemen served customers seeking Ivy League-style men’s clothing in the department store’s University Shop. The mid-1960 photograph is an early color Polaroid. (Courtesy of Randy Sappenfield)

The Marston House is managed as a museum by the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), and is open for tours year-round Friday through Monday.

SOHO is creating a permanent exhibition on the second floor of the Marston House to honor the family and celebrate the department store. They want to feature memories, anecdotes, and Marston Store items from the community. Do you own or know someone who owns memorabilia, ephemera or correspondence about the Marston family?

The four-story, 8,500-square-foot Marston House was built in 1905 in a “modernized” English Cottage style. (Photo by Sandé Lollis)

SOHO would welcome your donations of Marston Store clothing, goods, memorabilia, menus, bills of sale and other items with a Marston label such as hat boxes, shopping bags, and dress boxes. The donated items can be dropped off at the SOHO office in Old Town at 2476 San Diego Ave.

They also want to preserve your memories of shopping, lunching, or working at Marston’s. Your memories and anecdotes can be mailed to SOHO at 2476 San Diego Ave. in the 92110 ZIP code or emailed to sohosandiego@aol.com with “Marston Collection” in the subject line.

The Marston Store location from 1896 to 1912 is still standing at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and C Street. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

If you would prefer to speak with someone about your memories or possible donations, call 619-297-9327 and a member of the curatorial team will get back with you.

Visit the SOHO website at sohosandiego.org for more information about the Marston House and this worthy project to honor a San Diego pioneer and philanthropist who was rightly known as “the best man we ever had.”

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory.org or 619-294-8990.

2 Comments

  1. Vonn Marie May says:

    Excellent article Katherine!

  2. Laura Pettit says:

    Thank you for honoring my Great-great Grandfather!

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