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Marston House

First Year Retrospective
By Ann Jarmusch

Members and staff have done a remarkable job from July 1, 2009, the first day we got the keys, until now, as we mark our first anniversary as stewards of this beautiful and distinguished National Historic Landmark. It is a far more inviting and better cared for place than the once neglected estate. And it's a lot livelier.

The numbers speak for themselves: With nearly 7,000 visitors by late June, we've more than doubled the annual attendance of previous years' operations. SOHO attracted thousands of guests through a number of curatorial improvements, community outreach, smart marketing and special events. For our efforts, SOHO received a Preservation Advancement Award from the city of San Diego Historical Resources Board in May, National Historic Preservation Month.

With the Marston House & Gardens as its centerpiece, SOHO held its 2010 Historic Home Tour along Seventh Avenue, breaking attendance records for the annual tour. About 1,400 people visited the Marston House and five other historic homes on this fabled cul-de-sac bordering Balboa Park. Refreshments were served amid flowers in the restful formal garden - a precursor of tea service to come.

A mere five weeks later, SOHO hosted its inaugural May Day at the Marston House - San Diego's Garden Party, organized by the Marston House Museum Committee. Roughly 1,200 people of all ages attended this day-long, mostly outdoor event, which included tours of the house and gardens. The Geranium George Project introduced three new hybrids that day and sold 1,500 of the colorful geraniums.

"As guests left the May Day party, almost everyone said they can't wait for this event next year, or said they plan to invite family or friends next year," said Alana Coons, SOHO's Events & Education Director. "We're very pleased that this complex event was so well received, and that representatives of other Balboa Park museums were on hand to support this first effort."

But let's go back to the beginning of this highly successful year.

Spafford, SOHO's guest of honor at the inaugural May Day at the Marston House, was also a generous and multidimensional participant in making the event a success. The San Diego native who lives and works in a Mission Hills historic house is also a co-founder of the San Diego Watercolor Society. This work has been donated to SOHO for replication for greetings cards and other items to raise funds for the property.

In March, the Marston House was the centerpiece for the 2010 Historic Home Tour along Seventh Avenue, when a record crowd of more than 1,400 turned out to visit it and five neighboring historic homes.

San Diego Councilmember Todd Gloria presented Suzy Spafford with a proclamation during May Day at the Marston House - San Diego's Garden Party. Photos by Sandé Lollis

The George White and Anna Gunn Marston House, which is owned by the city of San Diego, went dark in February, 2009, when the San Diego Historical Society gave up its lease due to financial and other difficulties. SOHO members and supporters campaigned vigorously to take over management of the five-acre estate, citing ongoing success at the Whaley House Museum. As soon as the city named SOHO the new operator of the five-acre estate, SOHO board members, staff and volunteers swarmed over the musty and dusty three-story house day and night.

The most obvious sign of new life? Windows were open throughout the house for the first time in a long time. The house was breathing again.

For twenty-two hectic days and nights, our heroes, including experts in the Arts & Crafts field, scrubbed away grime and thick layers of dust, hand waxed the 8,500 square feet of redwood and oak paneling and floors, cleaned four score windows or more, and made repairs you'd be surprised had been left undone. The Marston House had not been properly maintained for at least a decade.

A SOHO team cleaned and dried out the wet basement, where they discovered furniture Mary Marston, the last resident, had left in the house. Soon, the chairs and tables were back in service in the carriage house, which became the Marston House Museum Shop.

The carriage house had never been open to the public before, but SOHO respected its place in history and saw its potential. Balboa Park crews, who maintain the grounds, removed lawn mowers and other equipment that had been stored for years in this charming building. SOHO was left with the dirty work. Once again, staff, board members and volunteers rolled up their sleeves to scour its concrete floor, wipe its windows, and strip paint from its rough Douglas fir walls and horse stalls.

In addition to the formidable cleaning and repair jobs, SOHO tackled some essential restoration and preservation matters. The blue dining room walls were repainted their original pale green color after an original sample was found and verified as a color Irving Gill specified.

Opening as much of the house to the public as possible was an immediate goal; the north second-floor bedroom wing had been closed for use as private offices. After old, stained commercial wall-to-wall carpet was removed, the wing's wood floors were cleaned and sealed, and came out looking as good as ever. SOHO arranged for early, original redwood furniture by architects Irving J. Gill, Frank Mead and Richard Requa to be placed on long-term loan in one of these reclaimed bedrooms and began planning exhibits for other rooms.

A SOHO crew was still working on the morning of July 23. That evening - poof! - the once again elegant house and groomed grounds were the scene of a glamorous cocktail party for SOHO members and special guests, including Marston family members. They said they were pleased to have the house open again and filled with people who care about it. As twilight fell, the mood was magical and members glowed with justifiable pride.

On May Day, the formal garden was the scene of a tea garden for refreshments, accomplished plein-air painters presented a stellar art show under the huge live oak, in keeping with Marston family tradition.

The Geranium George Project introduced three colorful geranium hybrids: Duckport, Cornelia O'Plume and Margot Mouse. Duckport is where the two celebrity creatures live among many others created by Suzy Spafford for her imaginary world called Suzy's Zoo. Photos by Sandé Lollis

Not since the Marstons lived in the house has it been so alive day and night. A cocktail party for SOHO members and guests gave admirers their first look at the cleaned, refurnished house as the kick off to the first open weekend. Photo by Dan Soderberg

Throughout the house, visitors encountered the SOHO Effect: museum-quality furnishings placed as they would have been during the Arts & Crafts era. On loan were paintings, furniture, art pottery, Native American baskets and rugs from private collectors who are SOHO members to supplement what was left on loan from SDHS. SOHO members were also able to provide their expertise and extensive training of docents, along with a wealth of knowledge on leading craftsmen and artists of the Arts & Crafts movement, Hebbard & Gill architecture, and George Marston's role as a civic leader, merchant and benefactor.

SOHO also launched its exhibitions program with a collection of plein-air paintings by prominent San Diego artists that the Marstons supported. These paintings by Maurice Braun, Charles Fries and Arthur Mitchell depict the San Diego Mission, Anza Borrego Desert and other subjects that contribute to visitors' understanding of George Marston's extensive civic and parks projects. The art is for sale, to benefit the Marston House Museum and one of Mitchell's lovely landscapes sold during the cocktail party.

The next day, the revitalized, sparkling clean Marston House reopened to the public Friday through Sunday. Just one week later, the large door of the Marston House Museum Shop swung open, revealing books on art, architecture and San Diego history, art pottery and tiles, and lots of other attractive merchandise for home and garden. All of it was chosen to complement the Arts & Crafts Marston House and gardens and to underscore SOHO's preservation message.

With staff's eye for décor and merchandising and Mary Marston's comfortable chairs, the former carriage house became so cozy that SOHO members immediately began hanging out here. They nicknamed the shop the Arts & Crafts Club.

We were honored and grateful that members of the Marston family joined us that magical evening, when the entire house was aglow. They are (left to right) Annalee Hargreaves-Tanzi, Connie & George Beardsley, Peg Marston and Anne Marston.

The Marston House Museum Shop, which opened just one week after, proved an instant hit with visitors and members alike. After a thorough cleaning of the former carriage house by a SOHO crew, books, pottery, tiles, gardening tools and other merchandise that appeals to Arts & Crafts lovers and gardeners filled the space.

The Marston House dining room, with its Gustav Stickley sideboard and vintage paintings, made guests feel at home during the SOHO cocktail party. Just days before, members had found an authentic color sample and repainted the room's formerly blue walls with the original pale green that Irving J. Gill favored. Photos by Sandé Lollis

Whaley House

Architect William Templeton Johnson designed this sensual eucalyptus motif for use in the Marston House garden buildings and wood benches when the area was redesigned in 1928. One bench remains and is on display inside the house. This is the motif being used as the logo for the shop and can be found on cards, tile magnets, pottery and more as product is developed, the benches themselves will be available for purchase by custom order. Photo Sandé Lollis

From the outset, SOHO staff made important discoveries. A tall, wrought-iron, electric torchiere, one of a pair Mary Marston brought from Spain in 1927 for the formal garden, turned up in the carriage house. SOHO will replicate it and other garden furniture, such as wooden benches William Templeton Johnson designed with a custom, carved eucalyptus motif, for use in the garden. The originals will remain on display in the house.

Even more exciting, SOHO uncovered the remnants of a steep, winding Arts & Crafts garden with stone stairs, benches and a bridge in Cabrillo Canyon. Once funds are available for restoration, this could well be one of the finest examples of an Arts & Crafts garden in Southern California.

Already, a SOHO team of volunteers led by a master gardener and a landscape architect is surveying the entire property to document existing plants and plan the restorations of the formal and canyon gardens. An important reference for them: Nursery ledgers from the early 20th century listing the first plants and trees Marston bought for landscaping.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown, who is running for Governor, recognized the value of our heritage when he chose the Marston House for a press conference. The roomy third floor, which is not open to the public, now serves as the SOHO board room and houses two small staff offices and SOHO's archives.

In June, the museum and museum shop hours were expanded to Thursday through Monday for the summer, perhaps longer. The goal is to have them open six or seven days a week.

"Thanks to the creative vision, hard work and generosity of many SOHO volunteers and staff, and the 7th Avenue residents, the Marston House & Gardens are again appreciated and admired by tourists and residents alike," Executive Director Bruce Coons said. "Welcome back, San Diego."

About the Author Ann Jarmusch, the former architecture critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, writes about historic preservation, art and design from a Craftsman cottage in South Park.

Volume 41 - 2010


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From the Editor

The Cosmopolitan Hotel: A Resurrection of the Past

Most Endangered List of Historic Resources

Lead Paint: What's at Stake?

The California Theatre Under Siege

10-Year Anniversary at the Whaley House

Marston House - First Year Retrospective

People In Preservation Winners

An Evening Well Spent at PIP

Preservation Community


Book Review

Strength in Numbers

Donations 2010

Lost San Diego


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