Visit Balboa Park and one reaction is inevitable. Whether you find the attractions entertaining or the museums interesting, it’s impossible not to be struck by the beauty of the grounds. The grandiose architecture, the winding trails, the trees and gardens—and the man you have to thank for it is “San Diego’s First Citizen” George W. Marston, a businessman and philanthropist who chaired the Buildings and Grounds Committee for the 1915 Panama–California Exposition. The controversy between him and his opponent for the 1917 mayoral election was known as “smokestacks vs. geraniums,” and Marston was firmly on the side of the geraniums. He lost, but the geraniums live on at the George W. Marston House.
While at many museums, tours are infrequent and rather unnecessary—taken only by the most touristy visitors and museum fanatics—at the Marston House there’s really no other way to do it. Here you won’t find stunning exhibits and detailed plaques, but you’ll learn more about San Diego history from a 45-minute tour than you will spending hours at many another location. Guided tours take place every half hour, leading you through the historic home as you learn about George Marston’s life and times.
The spacious redwood interior contains authentic furnishings, including furniture by the Marston House’s architect, Irving Gill. Though Gill is considered San Diego’s most prominent modernist architect, the Marston House, which he built in collaboration with fellow architect William S. Hebbard in 1904, is firmly located within the Arts & Crafts school of design. Simplicity and traditional craftsmanship are central, and buildings look almost Medieval—an anti-industrial bent that was clearly right up George Marston’s alley.
You can wander the five acres of lawns and gardens surrounding the house on your own, either post-tour or while waiting for it to begin. There are (somewhat less frequent) tours of the garden as well, but they’re well worth taking in undocented. The formal gardens with right-angled hedges and plots of flowers convey a calm sense of order, while the canyon pathways lead beneath groves of oak and eucalyptus whose shade Marston himself once loved.
The museum can be found at 3525 Seventh Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103.