The fate of the Marsh Building—the Moorish and Asian influenced structure that sits at the corner of Fremont Street and Camino El Estero at the gateway to downtown Monterey—is in God’s hands.
The 77-year-old building, designed in the style of Northern Chinese architecture, will soon be back on the market, according to a spokesperson from the Diocese of Monterey.
The diocese bought the building in 1999. Church leaders have decided “to entertain purchase offers on the Marsh Building and spend our resources on the [Mission San Carlos] cathedral,” says spokesperson Kevin Drabinski.
Built in 1928 by the George Turner Marsh family, the building is a unique reproduction of a northern Chinese merchant compound, and housed Marsh’s Art and Antiques for more than seven decades.
The diocese purchased the structure “for the land value,” Drabinski says, and when the antique store closed three years later, it discussed plans to demolish the structure in order to “expand the campus” of the nearby Royal Presidio Chapel.
“The property was bought with the preservation and conservation of this 235-year-old cathedral in mind,” he explains. “Our motivations, in terms of securing the land, were solely in preserving the character of the Royal Presidio Chapel.”
Late last year, church officials met with Monterey city officials and gave the city a comprehensive report on the building’s condition.
The report concluded that it would cost the diocese more than $4 million to bring the structure into compliance with existing building codes.
“Because it’s our priority to preserve and conserve the chapel,” Drabinksi says, “we don’t believe it to be cost effective or in our best interests to put $4 million into a building that was purchased primarily for the land value.”
However, according to Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, the Marsh Building is eligible for the state historic register, a designation that allows a far more lenient building code—and would cost the church a lot less money to rehab.
Art historian Kent Seavy agrees that the building belongs on the historic record. He says it may be one of the only of its kind in the world.
“There simply isn’t anything like this anywhere,” Seavy says.
George Turner Marsh, a successful 19th Century importer of Chinese and Japanese art, commissioned the building late in his career. As a young man from Richmond, Australia, Marsh spent six years in Japan on his way to America. In 1876, he opened a Japanese art gallery in the Palace Hotel on San Francisco’s Market Street and went on to commission the famed Hagiwara Japanese Tea Garden in the city’s Golden Gate Park.
When the Palace Hotel was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, Marsh responded by opening five other antique stores along the West Coast, one as far south as Ensenada, Mexico. This burst of expansion culminated with the Monterey store, a project that was overseen by his daughter Lucy Wyckoff Marsh.
“It was probably designed by an architect by the name of Orrin Jenkins of Mill Valley,” Seavy says. “And based on a series of illustrations based on a book on the history of Chinese architecture written by a German architecture professor.”
Although the original plans for the building are missing, Seavy says the building’s design was based on a specific type of merchant’s compound found in the outlying area of Shanghai—a type of compound that has all but disappeared in the wake of urban renewal and development in modern China.
Seavy says the cost of restoration is worth every dollar.
As an example, he points to the Peabody Essex Museum. As part of their expansion efforts, the museum moved the Yin Yu Tang house, a 19th century Chinese home, piece by piece from China to Massachusetts.
“They spent $2 or 3 million to do it,” Seavy says. “And we’ve got kind of the real thing already here.”
In addition, Seavy points out that the Marsh Building is one of the few landmarks that acknowledges the Chinese presence and influence on Monterey’s development over the last century and a half.
“Other than Quoc Mai’s house on Cannery Row, where are these people recognized?” Seavy asks. “They aren’t. This is the one point of physical reference that you get any sense of an earlier Asian presence.”
Seavy says he’s thrilled that the diocese is considering selling the property.
“From my perspective, the Catholic Church has been an absentee owner, letting it fall into decay,” Seavy says, adding that he knows about two parties interested in buying the building.
He won’t name the would-be buyers.
“There’s going to be a considerable amount of money involved,” he says. “That building has been the front door to Monterey since 1928.”