Marston Hills: A tale of aristocracy in San DiegoReal Estate Thursday, January 7th, 2016
San Diego is a city of neighborhoods, and neighborhoods within neighborhoods, and many of them have tales to tell. We peer today into such a community, Marston Hills, an area within Hillcrest bounded by Sixth Avenue to the west, Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, and Park Boulevard to the east. The area is named after entrepreneur and philanthropist George Marston, whose over one-hundred-year-old mansion is a landmark and current tourist destination.
George Marston was a prominent businessman of the time, the early 1900s, whose opulent department store, later purchased by Macy’s, was the place to shop for over 50 years. The story of the wealthy Marstons and their department store reminded me of the two beloved series featured on PBS: The Paradise, an evocation of an early department store and its champions, and Downton Abbey, a tale of British aristocracy and their servants.
We don’t think of America in these contexts, but George Marston was a baron in his own right, though born of humble beginnings. He was a self-made man who rose to become a benevolent oligarch, instrumental in developing the great parks of San Diego, including Balboa, Presidio and Torrey Pines State Parks. He was known as a leader of the “geraniums,” a group dedicated to preserving San Diego’s natural beauty, and opposed to the “smokestacks” who lobbied for industrial development.
Marston had a vision of the “City Beautiful” and recognized that maintaining its landscape would ultimately create a tourist destination that would bring untold dollars into the city’s economy. To further his concept, Marston engaged the landscape architect John Nolen, to beautify his land holdings, which eventually became part of the public fabric of San Diego.
Part of this land became what is now known as Marston Hills Canyon, a part of Balboa Park offering a trail through a plethora of eucalyptus, olive and pepper trees. This section is now called Trail No. 5, connecting the Upas Street Bridge over Highway 163 to trails Nos. 3 and 4. Modern-day “geraniums” have taken up Marston’s cause to make the park trails more accessible and to color code and mark these walkways, showing their distance and degree of difficulty (No. 5 is marked most difficult).
Visitors to the area may want to take a pit stop at the Marston mansion, where tours are provided Friday through Sunday at $8. Have a gander at the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the Marstons, who built the mansion in 1905. Unbelievably, though approx. 8,500 square feet, and 16-19 rooms, the Marston’s investment was a mere $20,000. It has many modern features including hot and cold running water, electrical generator, gravity heating system, and even a solar panel on the roof.
Downton Abbey style, a complement of servants lived in the house; only their rooms were on the uppermost floor, not downstairs. They were so wealthy, it is told, that they could afford a seamstress to visit weekly and mend all the Marston fine linens and garb.
The home was last occupied by Marston daughter Mary, who lived there until she passed at the age of 108, upon which the mansion became the property of the City.
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