SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From 1918 to the occupation in 1972
By Maria Garcia
The Marston family history is synonymous with the history of San Diego. Volumes have been written about their philanthropy and their contributions to the history of San Diego. For those of us that grew up in San Diego, we remember the Marston Department Store. My biggest memory of the department store is of the escalator and the smell of perfume.
I am sure we never bought one thing there. Despite her fear of escalators, my mother would take us there for the express purpose of riding the escalator. It was our simple version of the “E” ride at Disneyland. We would walk around the store, go up to the second floor and ride the escalator down with that beautiful smell greeting us at about the halfway point. In my mind the “Marston” name and “rich” are one and the same.
George Marston came to San Diego in 1870. Within a few years he was in the mercantile business, working as a clerk. When he opened the Marston Company, it became the only major department store in San Diego. Over the course of his life he changed his political affiliation from Republican to New Deal Democrat. His wife Ann Marston came from a more progressive background. Her mother was a Quaker and her father had been an anti-slavery activist in Philadelphia. George and Ann Marston had an influence on the political views of their daughters, Mary and Helen.
Both Mary and Helen attended Wellesley College, which was a very progressive school, especially for that time period. Social work had become an academically recognized profession. There was an expectation that women who attended college would participate in charity work upon graduation.
In the early 1900’s the Settlement House movement had just come into being. It was natural that after Helen Marston’s volunteer work in both Chicago and New York settlement houses she would want to develop a settlement house in San Diego. Neighborhood House was the outcome. Both sisters served on the Neighborhood House board of directors, with Mary serving as Chairman of the Board at various times.
Kyle E Ciani’s extensive research on Helen Marston Beardsley notes that the Helen and Mary, the reformers, were ultimately transformed by their actual interaction with the families they encountered in their settlement work. Mary and Helen Marston were raised in a privileged environment that was a veritable Who’s Who in San Diego society. Dinner guests included former President Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. That same privilege limited their exposure to Mexican people and culture, leaving them with many preconceived notions.
The stereotypes of Mexican people were that they were lazy, not motivated, etc. When Helen and Mary started their volunteer work at Neighborhood House they saw men who maintained two jobs in order to support their family. They saw women who not only maintained their own home, but did laundry or ironed for others in order to add to the household income. When the cannery opened, women worked there and continued to raise a family. Within a short period of time the reality of what they saw daily made many of the stereotypes visible for what they were.
On the other hand, a great deal of the newspaper stories about Neighborhood House focused on character flaws or traits that were considered un-American. Newspaper bylines would scream out with such things as “Mexican kids learn to drink milk.” The Americanization of the Mexican is a theme seen over and over again. These “ideas” had to come from someone and it stands to reason that Mary or Helen Marston contributed to some of these topics, when being interviewed by the press. It is also possible that these stories were put forth to solicit sympathy for these “poor little Mexican kids,” knowing it would result in more donations for Neighborhood House.
Fund raising for Neighborhood House was ongoing and essential. Much of the fundraising was done at an annual Marston House garden party. They took place year after year. Activities were planned to show the work that was being done at Neighborhood House. Musicians, some of whom had learned to play musical instruments at Neighborhood House, performed in the beautiful garden.
In the days before Hwy 163 existed music would flow across the canyon to the area where the Girl Scouts camp is now located. The dancers from Neighborhood House performed traditional Mexican dances and the “singing mothers” came and sang a few songs. Remember that many of the Marston’s guest were progressive and I am sure felt they were contributing, more than financial support to Neighborhood House. In future articles I will discuss the views of some of the performers.
Something I often think about is the influence that the Marston family was able to use to solicit financial support for Neighborhood House. We cannot question that the name Marston brought other names such as Scripps to support the activities and the many causes or programs found at Neighborhood House. When the second floor was added to the 1809 National Ave building, it was paid for by Mary Marston. When the “escuelita” was added it was paid for by Ellen Scripps.
This tells me that there was considerable influence used to support Neighborhood House. Books were donated to the library, children’s toys were donated to be used as Christmas gifts, thus there was a constant flow of money or in-kind contribution based on friendship or business contacts.
In the 1930’s Helen became an active member of the Socialist Party and at one time was the secretary of the local Socialist Party. She was once a member of a delegation of ACLU that requested an injunction to allow farm workers to peacefully assemble. Over the years she would return to the Imperial Valley in support of farm workers. In 1936 she married and moved to Los Angeles.
In 1933 Helen Marston founded the San Diego and Imperial County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She served as plaintiff in a 1935 ACLU loyalty oath case to force the San Diego School Board to allow members of the public to hold meetings in the Lincoln School auditorium without swearing a loyalty oath. Fighting Red Scare and McCarthy loyalty oaths became a decades long struggle that included defending folk singer Pete Seeger, who was told he would have to sign a loyalty oath before he could play in a rented San Diego auditorium (1960).
Helen’s husband died in 1961 and she moved to a small cottage in La Jolla. She worked along with her friend Florence Stevens in a variety of peace activities. Along with the Quakers, both Florence and Helen protested the Viet Nam war. She spent her final years in the Marston House, which she shared with her two sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Upon her death, a Quaker religious service was held.
Mary Marston, the oldest of the Marston children and was born in 1879. She was her father’s “consentida” (favorite). At one point Mary had a young man she was interested in marrying, but he was considered by George Marston as not being “good enough” to be a son-in-law. Mary was devastated and swore that if she could not marry the man of her choice she would not marry at all.
Newspaper articles indicate that Mary became more involved and her presence at Neighborhood House became very obvious after Helen moved to Los Angeles. When shown a picture of Mary Marston, several of those interviewed would comment about how nice she was or that she was there a lot.
It was Mary Marston, during the 1920’s, who promised Laura Rodriguez’ father, Mr. Gallo, that his young daughters could come and live with the Marston family upon his death, which they did. Miss Mary died in July of 1987 a few weeks short of her 108 birthday. When I called Laura Rodriguez to express my condolences — knowing that Miss Mary was the closest thing to a mother Laura had ever known — Laura was very sad, and later wrote me a note saying “I’m going to the [Marston] House for the last time as soon as I feel I can make it without drowning in tears.”
Miss Mary, the last living child of George and Ann Marston, gave the Marston home to the City of San Diego in 1987. It is now a museum at the northwest corner of Balboa Park and has been operated by SOHO since 2009.
More information can be obtained about the Marston family by searching historical documents, however for the purpose of this series, only information that helps to understand their involvement in Neighborhood House is being included.
What cannot be denied about the Marston family and specifically about Helen and Mary Marston is that their work and dedication is the reason there was a Neighborhood House at 1809 National Ave. The community of Logan Heights and the Marston family would forever be tied through history as well as personal relationships.
Previous articles in the History of Neighborhood House series here.