San Diego’s Early Liberal Oligarch George Marston Celebrated

by on October 9, 2018 · 0 comments

in History, San Diego

San Diego’s best historical group, the Save Our Heritage Organization, is organizing a big shindig later this month in honor of George Marston and his family. There’s a permanent exhibit called The Marston Legacy: Progress and Preservation and SOHO is having a Preview Reception on October 25 in the 1905-built Marston House Museum in Balboa Park.

So, what’s the big deal? Why should we care about some old, dead rich dude?

Well, for one, SOHO describes Marston as “forward-thinking” who made “lasting contributions of one of the region’s leading families.” SOHO continues:

Marston’s department store founder, visionary civic leader, and philanthropist George W. Marston set a high bar for the city and his progressive family as he reached for the greater good, helping to create what are today’s favorite parks and open spaces, like Presidio Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and the San Diego YMCA, among other treasured public assets that we take for granted today. After arriving in San Diego by ship in 1870 to offer seven decades of public service, Marston advocated for growth that complemented the region’s rich natural environment.

Marston and his family were progressive – in the sense that was used one  hundred years ago. He definitely was part of the ruling elite – but he also went up against San Diego’s original robber baron, John D Spreckles.

Besides, the Marston House is a wonderland all by itself. In fact, in 2011 the OB Rag staff (Patty and myself) took a tour of the grand maison on the very edge of Balboa Park and came away enriched and inspired. It forced me to do some research on George and I ended up writing some history and a pictorial tour of the house, entitled “Marston House Gives Glimpse Into Lifestyle of San Diego’s Early Liberal Oligarch”.

And now what with the new exhibit and SOHO’s focus on Marston, we thought this would be a good time to repost some of what was written here 7 years ago.

George Marston – you should know – was one of San Diego’s “leading” businessmen in the early 1900s. His opulent downtown  department store at 5th and C streets was legendary, with its stunning display windows and fresh Julian flowers on the counters.  With the first working elevator, it ruled the world of local department stores for decades – until the malls were built, beginning in the early Sixties.  Eventually bought out by Broadway and then Macy’s, Marstons was THE place to shop – especially for the upper middle-class for over fifty years.

Ann and George Marston

George White Marston had a civic and political side to him, as well. Over a hundred years ago,  he was a leader of the “geraniums” in the war between the ruling oligarchs. On one side stood the “smokestacks” – the local powerbrokers  who wanted to bring heavy industry to San Diego and expand the city in that traditional fashion. Their opponents, the “geraniums”, wished to preserve San Diego’s pristine landscapes and imagery, and who wanted the city to have less of the messy, dirty and cantankerous sorts of industry and workers that beset other major cities around the country.

“The smokestacks want to bring in more industry, and the geranium folk resist this at all costs.  They say, ‘Let San Diego live as it always did, on tourists, on retired Navy pensionnaires, on celery, asparagus, and climate.’” (David Reid, quoting John Gunther, in Foreword to “Under the Perfect Sun“, by Mike Davis, Jim Miller, and Kelly Mayhew.)

George Marston, one of San Diego’s richest and most influential of men, had “humble” beginnings. He had arrived here from Wisconsin and was hired on as a clerk and general gofer for Alonzo Horton – the father of downtown, and one of San Diego’s first major developers.  Marston gradually became the city’s largest dry-goods merchant. He ran for mayor twice – unsuccessfully, but had a vision of a “City Beautiful” that became a blueprint for generations of San Diegans, and whose donations of land substantially created the greens that modern day residents and tourists enjoy today.  Marston was instrumental in developing Balboa Park, Presidio Park and it golf course, Torrey Pines State Park, and even the Anza-Borrego desert park. …

Despite being part of San Diego’s local ruling class, George Marston was one of the more benevolent and liberal ones.  All this was expressed as his love for gardens was part of his great scheme for the city at large. During one of the periodic recessions that gripped San Diego in the late years of the 1800’s and the early years of 1900, Marston was one of the first of the elite visionaries to realize:

San Diego had preserved the potential – which rapidly industrializing Los Angeles was squandering – to someday shape itself into a City Beautiful.  Marston, a tougher businessman than usually depicted, recognized that landscape capital was perhaps San Diego’s chief comparative advantage.  (Mike Davis, The Next Little Dollar, pg.31.)

A year after his house was built, Marston brought John Nolen, “the famed Eastern landscape architect”, out to the West Coast to draw up a green urban design for the area.  In his 1909 “city beautiful” plan, Nolen praised San Diego’s climate, scenery, and geographic position in a scheme that provided a blueprint for generations of “geraniums”.

A view of the house from the northern, garden side. The Marston House, San Diego. Photo by Patty Jones

Besides the beautification of Balboa Park, Marston would move on and hand over other properties of his – what’s now Presidio Park and the adjoining golf course. He had acquired acres of land out in the desert – he handed that over for Anza-Borrego Park. More acres handed over in what’s Torrey Pines State Park.

Marston never gave up on San Diego and held fast to his visions through the years of bust.  When the economy began improving in the early years of the 20th century, there were rumblings among the new elites against the old master John D Spreckles.

Spreckles, heir to his father’s Hawaiian sugar empire, ruled his own ledger of San Diego utilities and property holdings while he sat in San Francisco- until 1906 when he moved to our city after the earthquake.  His German father, Claus, – the “Sugar King” – had been the third richest man in California history, one “of San Francisco’s true Gilded Age robber barons.”

In time, John D. went on to become  San Diego’s own top robber baron, and had “conquered San Diego like a Prussian general”.  He came to own the coal wharf, a bank, many prime properties including the entire south side of Broadway from Sixth to the waterfront, both the Union and the Tribune, a water company, the electric trolley that came to criss-cross much of the the grand mesa northeast of downtown, and was able to control and direct the economic growth of the city. By 1900, Spreckles paid fully 10% of the entire county’s property tax assessment. (Davis, pgs. 28-31.)

It was Spreckles who sparked the free speech fight in 1912, because he was the one who convinced the city fathers to ban public speaking throughout most of downtown. Spreckles sponsored an unofficial reign of terror against those union activists and IWW members who dared to oppose the ban. Marston did come out against this vicious clamp down led by Spreckles, and he took this stand among the group of Progressives – led by other more business leaders.

So, a faction of the ruling elites began to rebel against the Spreckles’ corruption and dominance.  Ed Fletcher, the region’s largest citrus packer, and E.W. Scripps, the publisher of the San Diego Sun newspaper,  came together under the Progressive banner. Scripps championed the cause of labor through his  Sun, and supported the free speech fighters, who were attacked by Spreckles’ twin papers. Fletcher, Scripps (a robber baron in his own right) and Edgar Luce joined up with Marston in forming this challenge to the old rule, and  Fletcher, Marston, and Luce were the main delegates in 1907 representing the San Diego Progressives in a state-wide league. Their goal: to resist the old McKinley-aligned Republican Party and Spreckles’ empire in San Diego.

The first time Marston ran for mayor was in 1913, and he had the support of the Progressives and some of the Socialists. He lost then, and he lost again four years later, but the more positive aspects of his “vision of developing landscape capital” and of encouraging light, non-polluting industries were kept alive.

One problem that George Marston had politically was with the San Diego labor community. Although often Marston spoke approvingly of labor and he had a decent record of being employer, he had used non-union workers to cut costs on the construction of his new department store which opened in 1911.  Union leaders also worried what exactly was the role of labor in Marston’s “city beautiful”.

So in 1913, even though Marston had the support of the new elites, Fletcher, Luce, Scripps, and some of the Socialists, the working class split its vote. And a local capitalist who promised growth and jobs won by a small margin. When he ran again in 1917, Marston had the support of both Spreckles’ Union and Scripps’ Sun.  But he was cast as the leader of the geraniums who didn’t want jobs, and went down to defeat. (Davis, pgs. 42-43.)

Yet with time this revolt of the younger, newer urban business elite had only minor success. And Spreckles managed to hold on to his power, and continued to reign over the city until he died in 1926.

It was one faction fighting another, the elites squabbling over which faction within the class that governed would predominate.  Fletcher became the County’s first mega-developer, as he knew where the train tracks would be laid. He bought up the key watershed area of north county and cashed in big time.  Scripps went on to develop his extensive landholdings as well in the Torrey Pines-Miramar area.  …

After his electoral defeats prior to World War One, [Marston] “remained San Diego’s geranium emeritus”, and continued to be “a fount of civic wisdom and humane values for nearly two more decades,” surviving the corrupting roaring twenties.  He supported his daughter who was a founding member of the Women’s International Strike for Peace, and he was one of the only millionaires who supported the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president in 1932. (Davis, pgs. 49-50.)

George Marston’s legacy did live on. Mayor Bacon, an ally of Marston’s, in 1921 invited John Nolen – the east coast landscaper – back to town in order to update his plan. Nolen then urged the preservation of Old Town, the development of a city center and airport along the harbor, and a scenic parkway through the cow farms of Mission Valley. San Diego officially adopted this new Nolen Plan in 1926.  The rest is history, as they say.

Okay, back to the present. Here’s SOHO on the new exhibit:

The new exhibit, which unfolds against the furnished, domestic backdrop of one of California’s finest examples of Arts and Crafts architecture, also highlights the significant and not as well-known accomplishments of his family, wife, Anna Gunn Marston, their children, and grandchildren. The impact of this socially and politically engaged family resonates to this day with fellow citizens concerned about the future of historic Balboa Park and other significant public landmarks, schools and universities, social and economic opportunities, immigration, and preserving what’s historically authentic about San Diego.

More on the reception:

The public is invited to the opening reception on October 25 from 4 to 6pm. Guests will enjoy elegant hors d’oeuvres and a champagne bar topped off with the Marston’s store Tea Room’s signature coconut cream pie. Tickets are $40 for SOHO members, $50 for non-members, and must be purchased in advance (ticketing info HERE).

Opening Reception
Thursday, October 25 ·  4-6pm
Hors d’oeuvres and champagne bar
Marston House Museum & Gardens
3525 Seventh Avenue, San Diego 92103

The Marston Legacy: Progress & Preservation, the exhibition
Friday, October 26 ·  10am-5pm
Marston House Museum & Gardens
3525 Seventh Avenue, San Diego 92103

Terrace Talks for Progress & Preservation
Saturday, October 27 ·  11am-12:30 pm
A conversation with San Diego journalists Roger Showley and Welton Jones at the Marston House.

Two seasoned, long-time observers of San Diego’s growth and evolution will discuss the still relevant impact of George and Anna Marston, their children, and grandson Hamilton Marston, on regional life and character. Their active volunteerism and philanthropy advanced the family’s progressive vision for a San Diego with ample parks and open space, equal opportunities for education and employment, preservation of historic landmarks, and cultural enrichment for all.

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