By Susan Wachowiak
Balboa Park is once again in the news. Lavished with politicians, money, and still more dreams for a great makeover.
But, what about the “Other Park”— the one with even more historical significance and awesome views than Balboa Park?
The park that thousands drive by every day and sometimes wonder, “What is that white building on the hill?”
And why is it the neglected crown jewel of San Diego?
As you are driving east on Highway 8, just as you are leaving Old Town, have you ever looked to your right and noticed a white building with a red tile roof on a hill?
Many people have and wondered, “Is that the mission or a church? Maybe it’s a private residence or a meeting hall?”
What most people do not realize is that they have just driven past the Junípero Serra Museum in Presidio Park. The museum was built on the hill in Presidio Park in 1929 by George Marston to commemorate the founding of the first permanent European settlement in California in 1769.
Yes, Presidio Park is our “Plymouth Rock” of the West Coast.
At this site, on July 16, 1769, the Spanish Gaspar Portola-Junípero Serra land and sea expeditions joined together and established the Presidio Reál de San Diego on a bluff overlooking the Kumeyaay village of Kosa’ii (Cosoy) with access to the San Diego River and with a view of two ocean bays.
A chapel was built on the site but was relocated in 1774 about eight miles east, past present day Qualcomm Stadium. The Mission San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the twenty-one California missions remains there to this day.
The Presidio served as a base for exploring expeditions into the interior and as a military headquarters for southern California. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark on Oct. 9, 1960, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. It was named California State Historic Landmark No. 59 and the City of San Diego’s Historical Site No. 4.
Rather impressive I would say. Recognized locally, statewide and nationally as an important historical site.
So why don’t we hear more about this historical gem? If you went back to Plymouth County in Massachusetts would you make a trip to Plymouth Rock? Why? Because it was the place where the first European colony was founded on the East Coast?
However, if you live in San Diego, you probably wouldn’t even know that the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast was right up the road.
I have visited the Plymouth Colony and it is very interesting. I have visited historic sites worldwide that are elaborately developed into amazing educational areas where the stories of the land and the people are displayed and where learning is encouraged. Huge areas are sometimes covered with plexiglass where visitors can see unearthed buildings and imagine the way people lived long ago.
Unfortunately, this has not happened in San Diego and it puzzles me that this very important piece of history is unknown to many.
Yes, the way it is now, there really isn’t much to see on the hill. If people are not versed in the history of California they probably have no idea of the importance of Presidio Park. And it seems that the powers that be are also oblivious to a jewel even more historic than Balboa Park—a gem just waiting for a knowing glance and its own “face lift.”
But in the meantime, if you are of a curious sort, drive up to Presidio Park or ride bus #14 to this location. Enjoy George Marston’s gift to the city.
Stand on the land that was the beginning of modern day California, look down on the San Diego River, look west at the Pacific Ocean and imagine what it was like to have been part of this historical adventure.
And dream of what it once was and can be again. A priceless and rare find worth preserving.
Let’s return Presidio Park to its rightful place in American history.
Susan Wachowiak is a retired San Diego Unified School District administrator and Co-Chair of the San Diego Presidio Park Council.
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