Marston House — Historic Home Open to the Public

Posted: August 11th, 2009 | Balboa Park | No Comments

Marston House — Piece of San Diego History again Open to the Public

By Ann Jarmusch

marston The geraniums are popping, rabbits are scampering and birds have a song for one and all at the historic Marston House Museum and Gardens on Seventh Avenue.

A breath of fresh air has reinvigorated this grand, city-owned home and grounds, now that Save Our Heritage Organisation is in charge. For the first time in years, coastal breezes float through recently opened upper windows and plentiful French doors. Gauzy, raw linen curtains are pushed aside. As intended when San Diego’s premier architects, Hebbard & Gill, designed this Arts and Crafts-style house in 1904, indoor and outdoor spaces once again flow together and the gardens and enormous lawn beckon from every window.

“(Irving J.) Gill advocated fusing the natural world with architecture,” said SOHO docent Eeya Martin during a recent tour.

SOHO, San Diego County’s largest historic preservation group, shares Gill’s view and holds a different philosophy about house museums than the Marston House’s former overseer, the San Diego Historical Society. The society, which kept the house’s windows sealed since it became a museum in 1987, closed its extra-wide front door to visitors and returned the keys to city officials in February, citing financial problems. (The society did the same with another house museum, the Victorian-style Villa Montezuma in Sherman Heights, and it remains shuttered for now.)

SOHO, which has increased attendance and income at the county-owned Whaley House Museum in Old Town, assumed responsibility for the 8,500-square-foot, three-story Marston House and formal gardens, and reopened them to the public July 24. They did so with the support of the nonprofit Friends of the Marston House, which is now part of SOHO.

The first change that returning visitors will notice is the charming, long-closed carriage house is back in service as a SOHO shop and the place to buy tour tickets. Two vintage tables and two club chairs that were in the house when Mary Marston, a daughter of George White and Anna Gunn Marston, the original owners, bequeathed it to the city are back in use here.

George W. Marston (1850-1946) was a department store owner, visionary civic leader, preservationist and philanthropist who helped advance San Diego from a dusty frontier town to a cultured city.

During a recent tour, SOHO’s Martin referred to early 20th-century landscape paintings and photographs to highlight some of Marston’s contributions. An avid outdoorsman, he is seen in a photograph taken at Presidio Park, which he developed for public use along with its Junipero Serra Museum.

Also a key backer of Balboa Park and the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, among other things, Marston paid for a partial restoration of the Mission de Alcala and bought and donated land to create Anza-Borrego State Park.

Accordingly, in the living room, SOHO has hung paintings depicting the mission and the Anza-Borrego desert by two leading San Diego plein air artists, Charles Fries and Arthur Mitchell, respectively, are on loan from Carmel Fine Art Gallery. (The paintings are for sale, with part of the proceeds benefitting SOHO’s Marston House Fund.) Period artwork chosen for its relevance and historic time period will rotate, so repeat visitors have something new to enjoy, said Alana Coons, SOHO’s events and education director.

Relying on a network of experts and collectors, SOHO has brought more examples of Arts and Crafts furniture, pottery and embroidered textiles into the house to supplement pieces owned by the historical society. Dave and Carol Nunley of North Park Craftsman in Hillcrest are major lenders.

Oak furniture by top makers — Gustav Stickley, L. and J.G. Stickley, Charles Limbert and others – occupy public rooms on the first floor as well as second-floor bedrooms. Marston’s store was the sole distributor of Gustav Stickley furniture in San Diego during the Arts and Crafts period and Marston commissioned a custom, quarter-sawn oak china cabinet from him, which remains in the upstairs sitting room.

A double special treat is in store upstairs. SOHO has opened a wing not seen during the historical society’s tenure. And one of its bedrooms is now full of spare, wood-and-cowhide furniture that architect Gill designed and built for another Arts and Crafts house in La Jolla. This rarely seen furniture is on temporary loan from the Wheeler Bailey family.

SOHO members have lent Native American blankets and baskets as well as paintings to the library, reflecting Marston’s interests. This warmly inviting corner room is lined with bookshelves filled with books, illuminated by exquisite Arts and Crafts lighting and equipped with a fireplace.

Across the main hall from the library is the music room, primarily Anna Marston’s domain (although her husband loved to sing). When closed, its beveled redwood pocket doors enhance the room’s acoustics.

Redwood woodwork glows throughout the house, with the exception of the dining room, which is trimmed in oak. The handsome redwood interiors are as intricately crafted as the furniture. Pointing to a redwood butterfly key that joins redwood panels in the living room wainscot, Martin said, “People have gotten down on their hands and knees with a magnifying glass to admire the craftsmanship.”

About 225 people and a couple dozen volunteer workers visited the Marston House during the first two weekends it was open under SOHO’s supervision. Before that, SOHO hosted an evening preview reception for 130 people who mingled for refreshments on the house’s broad terrace as twilight fell. Gradually, soft lights came on throughout the house, which guests were free to roam, as if they were enjoying the Marstons’ hospitality.

“The comment I heard over and over that evening,” said Coons, “was ‘This must be how the family lived.’”

SOHO is planning more evening events and other activities that will appeal to everyone from plein-air painters to birdwatchers and gardeners. The Marston House has come back to life.

Ann Jarmusch, a SOHO member, lives in South Park. She writes on art, architecture and historic preservation for local and national publications.

The Marston House and Gardens, 3525 Seventh Avenue, are open Friday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8, $5 seniors 65 and older, $4 children 6-12. Free to SOHO members. Group tours and rentals for special events may be arranged. Call (619) 297-9327 or (619) 297-7511 or visit For a history of the Marston House and family, see “The Journal of San Diego History,” Summer 1990, published by the San Diego Historical Society: https://

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