San Diego’s early history at the Serra Museum.

The Junipero Serra Museum of the San Diego History Center was built in 1928 on Presidio Hill, where European civilization was established in Alta California.
The Junipero Serra Museum of the San Diego History Center was built in 1928 on Presidio Hill, where European civilization was established in Alta California.

I recently visited one of San Diego’s most fascinating museums. The Junipero Serra Museum is located atop Presidio Hill, in a distinctive Mission Revival architectural style building overlooking San Diego Bay and the San Diego River, just east of Old Town. It stands near the site of San Diego’s historic Spanish presidio, built in 1769. The presidio was the birthplace of European civilization in Alta California.

The Serra Museum is operated by the San Diego History Center, which is headquartered today in Balboa Park. Back in 1929, when the building was dedicated, it became home of what was then called the San Diego Historical Society. The important San Diego institution was established by civic leader George W. Marston.

Can you believe it? I’ve lived in San Diego for 15 years . . . and this was the very first time I ventured into the Serra Museum. (I can thank my blog for that!)

What I discovered was an absolutely amazing place that both residents and visitors to San Diego should definitely not miss.

Here’s a sample of what you’ll see…

People arrive at the Serra Museum, where San Diego's early Spanish history comes alive.
People arrive at the Serra Museum, where San Diego’s early Spanish history comes alive.
Junipero Serra Museum dedicated July 16, 1929 to the memory of the founder of the California missions. The original Mission San Diego de Alcalá was established nearby in 1769.
Junipero Serra Museum dedicated July 16, 1929 to the memory of the founder of the California missions. The original Mission San Diego de Alcalá was established nearby in 1769.
A quick look at the rear of the museum.
A quick look at the rear of the museum.
The Serra Museum building was designed by noted architect William Templeton Johnson. It reflects Spanish Revival architecture.
The Serra Museum building was designed by noted architect William Templeton Johnson. It reflects Mission Revival style architecture.
Large wine press in front of the museum was a gift from the Spanish island of Mallorca, Father Junipero Serra's birthplace.
Large wine press in front of the museum was a gift from the Spanish island of Mallorca, Father Junipero Serra’s birthplace.
Plaque near entrance reads George White Marston 1850-1946. FRIEND OF HIS FELLOW MEN - LOVER OF ALL GROWING THINGS. Piece by piece through many years he acquired these acres...
Plaque near entrance reads George White Marston 1850-1946. FRIEND OF HIS FELLOW MEN – LOVER OF ALL GROWING THINGS. Piece by piece through many years he acquired these acres…
Elegant interior of the Serra Museum contains many exhibits pertaining to San Diego's early Spanish history.
Elegant interior of the Serra Museum contains many exhibits pertaining to San Diego’s early Spanish history.
Researchers discovered this sketch of the Royal San Diego Presidio dated 1820. It shows the layout of the old buildings which no longer exist.
Researchers discovered this sketch of the Royal San Diego Presidio dated 1820. It shows the layout of the old buildings which no longer exist.
Modern graphic illustration of the fortified presidio, which was located a short distance below the Serra Museum's front entrance.
Modern graphic illustration of the fortified presidio, which was located a short distance below the Serra Museum’s front entrance.
Old Spanish cannon named El Jupiter, cast in Manila in the 18th century. El Jupiter stood in Fort Guijarros at Ballast Point, the first defensive fortifications for San Diego Bay
Old Spanish cannon named El Jupiter, cast in Manila in the 18th century. El Jupiter stood in Fort Guijarros at Ballast Point, the first defensive fortifications for San Diego Bay.
Leather armchair made in Catalan, Spain in the 17th century. This "friar's chair" was part of the original Serra Museum's furnishings.
Leather armchair made in Catalan, Spain in the 17th century. This “friar’s chair” was part of the original Serra Museum’s furnishings.
Old violin with bow, a branding iron used by rancheros to identify cattle, and iron spurs are among the many historical objects on display.
Old violin with bow, a branding iron used by rancheros to identify cattle, and iron spurs are among the many historical objects on display.
Another look at the beautiful interior of the Serra Museum in San Diego.
Another look at the beautiful interior of the Serra Museum in San Diego.
Large wooden beams in a truly amazing ceiling.
Large wooden beams in a truly amazing ceiling.
Stairs lead up to the Serra Museum's tower. Painted on the wall is a map showing the sea journey of the Spanish Expedition which founded San Diego in 1769.
Stairs lead up to the Serra Museum’s tower. Painted on the wall is a map showing the sea journey of the Spanish expedition which founded San Diego in 1769.
March 9-20, 1769. Desperate to replace drinking water which leaked from the ship's casks, Captain Vicente Vila commands the Spanish galleon San Carlos near Isla de Cedros.
March 9-20, 1769. Desperate to replace drinking water which leaked from the ship’s casks, Captain Vicente Vila commands the tacking Spanish galleon San Carlos near Isla de Cedros.
A room halfway up the tower. Numerous displays recall San Diego's history, most notably at the time when the Serra Museum was dedicated in 1929.
A room halfway up the tower. Numerous displays recall San Diego’s history, most notably around the time when the Serra Museum was dedicated in 1929.
Old photo of the crowd attending the Serra Museum's dedication ceremony on July 16, 1929.
Old photo of the crowd attending the Serra Museum’s dedication ceremony on July 16, 1929.
A fascinating look at Presidio Hill almost a century ago.
A fascinating look at Presidio Hill almost a century ago.
A lovely watercolor sketch of the Junipero Serra Museum atop Presidio Hill.
A lovely watercolor sketch of the Junipero Serra Museum atop Presidio Hill.
On the wall are many historical photos and artifacts, including an image from around 1930 of a cigar factory on 4th Street in San Diego.
On the wall are many historical photos and artifacts, including an image from around 1930 of a cigar factory on 4th Street in San Diego.
A reproduction of the west elevation drawing of the Serra Museum by architect William Templeton Johnson.
A reproduction of the west elevation drawing of the Serra Museum by architect William Templeton Johnson.
Now we're heading up to the very top of the tower.
Now we’re heading up to the very top of the tower.
Looking west from the Serra Museum tower along Interstate 8. Point Loma is on the left and Mission Bay is to the right.
Looking west from the Serra Museum tower along Interstate 8. Point Loma is on the left and Mission Bay is to the right.
Looking east into Mission Valley.
Looking east into Mission Valley.
Visitors at the Serra Museum head back down from the tower, after looking at old photos which show a less-developed surrounding landscape.
Visitors at the Serra Museum head back down from the tower, after looking at old photos which show a much less-developed surrounding landscape.
A small theater in the Serra Museum contains additional exhibits about life in and around the old Presidio.
A small theater in the Serra Museum contains additional exhibits about life in and around the old Presidio.
Examples of what life was like for the Native American Kumeyaay, who occupied this region long before it was discovered by the Spanish.
Examples of what life was like for the Native American Kumeyaay, who occupied this region long before it was discovered by the Spanish.
Stories of two people who lived on a local Rancho. Click the image to enlarge, if you'd like to read it.
Stories of two people who lived on a local Rancho. Click the image to enlarge, if you’d like to read it.
Map of the old Presidio's archaeological site. You can see where the fort was located in relation to the Serra Museum.
Map of the old Presidio’s archaeological site. You can see where the fort was located in relation to the Serra Museum.
Explanation of the excavation process utilized by researchers. Some artifacts that were unearthed are on display in the museum.
Explanation of the excavation process utilized by researchers. Some artifacts that were unearthed are on display in the museum.
Artistic rendition of a Mexican presidio soldier circa 1830, and a horse's bit.
Artistic rendition of a Mexican presidio soldier circa 1830, and a horse bit.
An olive press, granite mill stones, and an ox yoke.
An olive press, granite mill stones, and an ox yoke.
Small artifacts include this carved polychrome wood San Diego de Alcala Santo from 18th century Spain.
Small artifacts include this carved polychrome wood San Diego de Alcala Santo from 18th century Spain.
Sign describes the life of Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra, and his work to establish the California Missions under the flag of Spain. He was recently made a Catholic Saint.
Sign describes the life of Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra, and his work to establish the California Missions under the flag of Spain. He was recently made a Catholic Saint.
Painting. Oil on canvas. San Diego del Alcala de Henares. Mid 18th century, Spanish or Mexican.
Painting. Oil on canvas. San Diego del Alcala de Henares. Mid 18th century, Spanish or Mexican.
Olla and bowl. Kumeyaay or neighboring culture.
Olla and bowl. Kumeyaay or neighboring culture.
The Serra Museum in San Diego provides a fascinating look at our uniquely diverse city's very early history.
The Junipero Serra Museum in San Diego provides a fascinating look at our culturally diverse city’s very early history.

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Images of Saint Junipero Serra in San Diego.

Molded plaster figure of newly canonized Saint Junipero Serra at top of the California Building’s facade in Balboa Park.
Molded plaster figure of Saint Junipero Serra at top of the California Building’s facade in Balboa Park.  The Museum of Man occupies this landmark building.  The ornate facade contains many sculpted historical figures and busts created by the Piccirilli brothers, famous marble carvers who immigrated from Italy in 1888.

Today, during Pope Francis’ historic first visit to the United States, Junipero Serra was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Father Serra was declared a saint by the Holy See at a ceremony conducted by Pope Francis at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Saint Junipero Serra played a large role in San Diego’s early history. The Franciscan friar established the first nine of 21 Roman Catholic Spanish missions in what today is California.  The very first of those nine, founded on July 16, 1769, was located in San Diego. The primary purpose of the missions was to convert the native peoples to Christianity; another purpose was to solidify a claim over this valuable corner of the New World for Spain.

The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá is located in Mission Valley and remains to this day an active church. It’s popularity as a destination for tourists and the faithful will likely increase with the canonization of Serra.

Because of Saint Junipero Serra’s historical importance in San Diego, many images of him are found throughout our city. Some of the most prominent and well known representations can be seen in Balboa Park. The park’s Spanish Colonial Revival Style buildings created for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition include lavish ornamentation, with many illustrations of people and scenes important to San Diego history.

The following notable bits of art in Balboa Park depict Saint Junipero Serra during his time in San Diego.

Ornamental art on Balboa Park's Casa del Prado depicts Saint Junipero Serra holding a cross among Spanish soldiers and native peoples in what today is California.
Ornamental art on Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado shows Saint Junipero Serra holding a cross among Spanish soldiers and native peoples in what today is California.  In 1769, San Diego was part of Alta California in the Province of Las Californias in New Spain.
More artwork seen from Balboa Park's historic El Prado shows Franciscan friar on a horse near the Roman Catholic Mission San Diego de Alcalá, which was founded in 1769.
More artwork seen on Balboa Park’s historic El Prado shows Franciscan friar on a horse near the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, which was built near the San Diego River, several miles inland from San Diego Bay.
Junipero Serra Memorial, created 1914. Staff plaster original ornamentation from the Food Products Building, of the Panama-California Exposition. Now located in the Sculpture Court.
Junipero Serra Memorial, created in 1914. Staff plaster original ornamentation from the Food Products Building, of the Panama-California Exposition. This elegant work of art was preserved and is now located in the Casa del Prado’s Sculpture Court.

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California’s first Spanish mission, in San Diego.

Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot.
Facade of old Mission San Diego seen from parking lot below.

A month or so ago I finally visited the famous Mission San Diego de Alcala. I’ve lived in San Diego for many years, and have driven past this important historical landmark many times, but I’d never stepped inside. Writing this blog compels me to check out new sights!

Built in 1774 by the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, Mission San Diego de Alcala was first of 21 Spanish missions in California. It was constructed several miles inland of the Pacific Ocean near the San Diego River. (The very first mission was actually built in 1769 at the old Presidio, but later relocated to this more fertile location, where presidio soldiers were less likely to come. The soldiers often abused the native people who lived near the presidio.)

In 1775, just one year after it was built, the mission was burned to the ground by the native Kumeyaay people. Father Junipero Serra returned the next year to rebuild the church and mission buildings.

Over the years the San Diego Mission became very prosperous, with vineyards, orchards and thousands of cattle in its possession. Hundreds of baptized Native American Kumeyaay, whom the friars named Dieguenos, performed almost all of the labor.

History is rich here. The mission was claimed by Mexico in 1821, then used by the United States Cavalry after the US-Mexican War. As the original mission buildings have aged and decayed, they have been rebuilt and restored. Today the unique facade is one of the most iconic sights in San Diego. Unfortunately, the mission is located in a slightly out-of-the-way place that relatively few tourists visit.

In case you can’t stop by, I took a few photos!

El Camino Real bell near California's first mission.
El Camino Real bell just outside California’s first mission.

These bells on posts mark the primitive road, the King’s Highway, that connected the Spanish missions in California.

La Playa Trail ran along San Diego River from the bay.
La Playa Trail ran along parts of San Diego Bay and the San Diego River.

Without realizing it, you might have read about the La Playa Trail in Two Years Before the Mast. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. would ride horseback down the trail to Old Town. With his friend, he also rode farther east to the old mission to enjoy a meal. The west end, La Playa, located just inside San Diego Bay, is the place where Dana worked for several months in 1835 drying cattle hides.

Sculpture of friar with cross in front of mission bells.
Sculpture of Padre Serra with cross in front of the campanario, containing the mission bells.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds Catholic Mass.
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala holds regular Catholic Mass.

The historic church has remained active for many centuries.

Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.
Corridor in front of mission has plaques and statues of saints.

Small statues of saints in the small nooks along the wall represent the nine missions that Father Junipero Serra founded.

Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Petra de Mallorca, Spain linked to Father Junipero Serra.
Padres' living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.
Padres’ living quarters with adobe walls and wooden beams.

Now we’re inside one of the various mission buildings. The self-guided tour proceeds clockwise around the central square.

Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.
Beautiful radiant altar inside the quiet church sanctuary.

The church inside is beautiful and invites reflection.

Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Garden courtyard by sanctuary contains sunlit statues.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.
Flowers and peaceful walkways lead to holy figures.

Many birds were about and almost no weekend visitors.

Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower.
Rear view of the Mission San Diego bell tower, or campanario.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Small tile-roofed shine with Christ on the cross.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.
Modern abstract mural lines wall above wood bench.

This and the following photo were taken in a space between the garden and a small one-room museum.

Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Sculpted Pieta with Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Inside the small mission chapel.
Inside the small mission chapel.

This small chapel can be found at one corner of the central square.

Fountain at center of San Diego mission's central square.
Fountain at center of San Diego mission’s central square.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Moving sculpture of Christ after the crucifixion.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.
Native American Kumeyaay hut built of willow branches.

The local Kumeyaay provided the labor that enriched the mission. This hut near an excavation site is an example of where they lived while the friars enjoyed greater comforts.

Mission's old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
Mission’s old foundation investigated by archaeologists.
The distinctive facade of California's first Spanish mission.
The distinctive facade of California’s first Spanish mission.

In San Diego, those who hunger for colorful sights and local history should remember to swing by California’s very first Spanish mission in–you guessed it–Mission Valley!

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Rescued art in Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado.

Original staff plaster memorial to Fray Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in Alta California.  Was part of the 1915 Exposition's Food Products Building.
Original staff plaster memorial to Fray Junipero Serra, founder of the Franciscan missions in Alta California. Was part of the 1915 Exposition’s Food Products Building.

In the outdoor Panama-California Sculpture Court at Balboa Park’s Casa del Prado you’ll discover a small collection of rescued art. Most of these sculptures and decorative motifs are made of staff, which is gypsum plaster mixed with hide glue, reinforced with fibers. They were found in 1975 dumped in an unused corner of the nearby Casa de Balboa.  Many are remnants of the old Food and Beverage Building from Balboa Park’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition and were designed by architect Carleton Monroe Winslow. Visitors today can admire these beautiful historical pieces up close.

Castle, on left side of the base of Serra Memorial, depicts the heraldic emblem of the former Spanish Kingdom of Castile.
Castle, which was located on the left side of the Serra Memorial, depicts the heraldic emblem of the former Spanish Kingdom of Castile.
One of four identical heads created in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. It was located on the Varied Industries Building facade.
One of four identical heads created in 1914 for the Panama-California Exposition. It was located on the Varied Industries Building facade.
Plaster models of famous 17th century Spanish painters Velazquez, Murillo and Zurbaran.  Used to cast sculptures above what is now the San Diego Museum of Art.
Plaster models designed in 1924 of famous 17th century Spanish painters Velazquez, Murillo and Zurbaran. Used to cast sculptures above what is now the San Diego Museum of Art.
This round staff plaster Spanish Conquistador vignette, dated 1914, formed a pendant beneath sculptural groups on the Varied Industries Building.
This round staff plaster Spanish Conquistador vignette, dated 1914, formed a pendant beneath sculptural groups on the Varied Industries Building.
Freestanding figure of a woman in flowing robes titled Religion.  It stood atop the 1914 retablo of the Varied Industries Building.
Freestanding figure of a woman in flowing robes titled Religion. It stood atop the 1914 retablo of the Varied Industries Building.
Unused cast concrete replica of an original 1914 angel head finial.  Cast for the 1971 reconstruction of the Casa del Prado.
Unused cast concrete replica of an original 1914 angel head finial. Created for the 1971 reconstruction of the Casa del Prado.
Beautiful works of art in Panama-California Sculpture Court at the Casa del Prado.
Beautiful works of art in Panama-California Sculpture Court at the Casa del Prado.
Plaster column seen through arch of Casa del Prado.
Angelic column seen through arch of Casa del Prado.

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Walk from Old Town to the San Diego Presidio.

Old Presidio Historic Trail leads up hill from Old Town.
The Old Presidio Trail leads up a steep hill from San Diego’s historic Old Town.

Please join me as I walk from San Diego’s Old Town up a short but very steep trail to Presidio Park. We’ll see all sorts of interesting monuments, views, and of course, the location of the old Spanish presidio, whose ruins are no longer visible. The top of Presidio Hill is now home to the Junipero Serra Museum. Follow me!

We begin near the trailhead, beside the small Presidio Hills Golf Course, on the east edge of historic Old Town.

One of several signs along the Old Presidio Historic Trail. This one explains that soldiers and families used to walk down from the Spanish presidio to tend gardens and livestock near the Casa de Carrillo, around the location of the present-day Presidio Hills Golf Course.
One of several signs along the Old Presidio Historic Trail. This one explains that soldiers and families used to walk down from the Spanish presidio to tend gardens and livestock near the Casa de Carrillo, which is now the pro shop at Presidio Hills Golf Course.
The Indian sculpture by Arthur Putnam in Presidio Park.
The Indian sculpture by Arthur Putnam in Presidio Park.

The first interesting thing we see is this sculpture, titled The Indian.  It was created by famous American artist Arthur Putnam in 1905 and placed at the site of an ancient Indian village.  The small village was discovered and named San Miguel by the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.

Cross marks where Junipero Serra established California's first mission.
The Padre Cross was erected near the spot where Junipero Serra established California’s first mission.

Up the hill from The Indian stands the Padre Cross. It was raised in 1913 by the Order of Panama and is made up of tiles from the Presidio ruins.  The cross marks the strategic location overlooking San Diego Bay where Franciscan friar Junipero Serra chose to establish a Spanish Catholic mission in 1769. (The mission was moved several miles up the San Diego River 5 years later.)

Bronze statue titled The Padre by Arthur Putnam.
Bronze statue titled The Padre by Arthur Putnam.

Nearby among some trees we find a memorial to the mission’s friars. It’s a bronze statue titled The Padre, completed in 1908 by renowned sculptor Arthur Putnam.

The old presidio rises beyond billowing Spanish flag.
The Serra Museum rises beyond billowing Spanish flag.

Our legs are starting to feel the climb as we reach three flagpoles overlooking Mission Valley.

Looking down at a red trolley in Mission Valley.
Looking down at a red trolley in Mission Valley.

Turning north for a moment, we see the trolley!

View of the old Spanish presidio in San Diego.
View of the Serra Museum on Presidio Hill in San Diego.

Now we’re getting close to the Serra Museum, which was built in 1928 on this historically very important hill. The museum was built, and the land containing Presidio Park was purchased and preserved for posterity, by philanthropist George Marston.

San Diego was born in 1769 at the old Presidio, a Spanish fort in a desert-like wilderness very far from European civilization.  It was located just below the Serra Museum.

Serra Museum employee watches as I approach old presidio.
Serra Museum employee looks down the grassy hill.

Not many people are about at the moment.  Most tourists never venture up this way.

The Serra Museum is packed with numerous historical exhibits.  You can climb the tower for views of San Diego Bay, the San Diego River and Mission Valley.

Row of Spanish Colonial style arches.
Row of Mission Revival style arches.
Large wine press outside the old San Diego presidio.
Large wine press outside San Diego’s fascinating Junipero Serra Museum.
Looking downhill from atop grassy Presidio Park.
Looking downhill from atop grassy Presidio Park.

Now we’ll wander along the hilltop to nearby Fort Stockton, the short-lived camp of the famous Mormon Battalion.

Where a cannon once overlooked Old Town at Fort Stockton.
Where a cannon once overlooked Old Town at Fort Stockton.

Decades ago, when I was a young man, I remember seeing a cannon set in this concrete overlooking Old Town.  I believe that same cannon is now on display in the nearby Serra Museum. Given the name El Jupiter, it was one of ten cannons that originally protected the old Spanish Fort Guijarros on San Diego Bay at Ballast Point.

(A second surviving cannon from the fort is named El Capitan. Today it can be found near the center of Old Town San Diego’s Plaza de las Armas.)

Mural at Fort Stockton of the Mormon Battalion.
Mural at Fort Stockton of the Mormon Battalion.

In 1846, President James K. Polk asked Brigham Young of the Mormons to send a few hundred men to San Diego to help in the Mexican-American war effort.  On January 29, 1847 five hundred men and about eighty women and children arrived at Fort Stockton after a very difficult 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Mormon Battalion Monument by Edward J. Fraughton.
Mormon Battalion Monument by Edward J. Fraughton.

I hope you enjoyed our walk!