The Marston Building
427 C Street
Architect: Reid Brothers
Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival
In a perfect world, San Diegans would be preparing for the holiday season by planning shopping trips to Nordstrom’s, Macy’s and other specialty shops at Horton Plaza. Alas, thanks to COVID and the demise of the Horton Plaza shopping center, things will be a lot different this year. Many of us yearn for the days of sophisticated and discerning shopping, and leisurely strolls through spacious aisles, admiring fine goods, clothing and housewares. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we can only close our eyes and try to recall a time when shopping did not exclusively involve Amazon, Fedex and UPS. For a look at what turn of the century elegant shopping involved, one can still enjoy a glimpse of yesteryear at the Marston Building.
This large Italian Renaissance Revival beauty, located on the southwest corner of 5th and C St., was constructed in 1896 by Stephen W. Marston for his nephew, George W. Marston. The cost for the project, designed by the Reid Brothers, was $60,000. The Reid Brothers went on to design the Hotel Del Coronado, among many other noteworthy structures. The four-story rectangular building, the second of George Marston’s four stores, was constructed of brick with a flat roof and a large glass lightwell or skylight , which lit up an open court from the roof to the ground floor. A very elaborate broad terra cotta frieze of floral designs capped the structure, while the upper two floors featured patterned brick arches above large, double hung sash style windows. Additionally, the building featured a wrought iron elevator, considered quite a novelty at the time.
The wide aisles allowed shoppers to stroll comfortably throughout the various departments which included clothing and shoes for the entire family, furs for elegant evenings out, hats and haberdashery, housewares, carpeting, wallpaper, gifts and novelties and anything else a customer might desire. Marston believed that one had to provide not only ample merchandise, but “ music and flowers, history and art, things useful and things beautiful.” The interior of the Marston structure was an oasis of artful elegance with its beautifully decorated walls and carpeting, fresh flowers, and comfortable lounges, all reflecting the Marston commitment to the ease and comfort of his clients. This included a large, well-trained and appointed staff with impeccable manners.
In 1907, Mr. Marston made $15,000 in improvements to the store, turning a third floor stockroom into additional selling space for ladies’ underwear and hosiery and dressing rooms. He added new fixtures and additional interior decorations. The store was also one of the first to have a telephone!
The local newspaper characterized Marston’s store as San Diego’s “finest department store,” and “elegant.” The Golden Era magazine carried an ad that proclaimed Marston’s as the “leading dry goods house of San Diego.”
George Marston was not only a merchant, but was also a philanthropist of the highest order. To his third floor remodel, he added a schoolroom, where boys who had to work to help their families could go to classes after their shifts. He also treated his employees to a sumptuous feast every Christmas, and paid all employees, both male and female, equal wages.
Marston’s Department Store remained at this location until 1912, when it was moved to its final location across Fifth Avenue. In 1954, Marston’s expanded into a new six-story addition, and thus occupied the entire block on the north side of C St. between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. This store was demolished in the late 1960s.
The 1896 Marston Building is now fully restored and serves as an office building, where the lobby displays archival photos of the department store, and where one can ride up to the upper floors on the wire cage elevator. It is still elegance personified.
Sandee is the historian and lead tour guide for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].