The John Marsh and Thomas Boyd Connection

Senior Architect David Tritt uncovers the connection between John Marsh and Thomas Boyd.

I was not aware of the restoration of a large 1855 “ranch house” in the East Bay, west of San Francisco, until I discovered a rendering of a courthouse scheme (unbuilt, more on what was built later) from the town I grew up in, Cambridge, Ohio. The rendering was done by an architect named Thomas Boyd (below).

Rendingfrom the St. Croix Architecture website

After researching Thomas Boyd I see that he practiced architecture as a young man in San Francisco around the time of the gold rush in the early 1850’s. There is a mention of how eastern young men came to San Francisco during the gold rush seeking opportunity to practice their craft in the fresh booming economy. Boyd’s name is mentioned in this context in an article from the July 1906 edition of Architectural Record magazine (below).

Later in the 19th Century, Boyd evidently retreated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to continue practicing, hence the connection to the Guresney County courthouse rendering, as well as the completed designs for the Scott County Courthouse in Kentucky and the Tuscarawas County Courthouse in Ohio, seen below in Archiform.

Interestingly John Marsh House #2 is listed as being in Los Angeles when in fact it is near Brentwood in Northern California, not the neighborhood in Los Angeles.  

I wish I could find more information on Thomas Boyd. There are a couple of structures in San Francisco credited to him but have been demolished. One of which was the International Hotel on Kearny at Columbus in San Francisco (below).

The hotel was demolished in 1977 in a controversial move by the city and developer which involved the dislocation of many senior residents of the building. International Hotel was a mainstay of Manilatown at that time.

The more interesting story is the history of “John Marsh House #2” referenced in the Boyd credits above. This historical structure is located on Marsh Creek Road directly west and adjacent to Brentwood, California. There is a current work in progress effort in Contra Costa County to restore this home back to its original 1855 condition, shown in this 19th Century photograph.

Self-importance was John Marsh’s strong suit. He was referred to more than once as a grifter. Keep this in mind as he grifted his way west after graduating first from the Phillips Academy in 1819 and then Harvard in 1823, where he studied medicine. While not a well-liked man, he managed to talk his way into various professions on the way west: first in the upper Midwest representing Native Americans as an agent of the Federal Government and then as a practicing physician (though he was not) in Los Angeles, which at that time in the 1830’s was a part of Mexico. He managed to convince the authorities in Los Angeles that he was a genuine doctor by producing his Harvard diploma in Latin, for which he proclaimed it said he was a doctor. After some time, he had collected enough in fees to purchase 17,000 acres of land (the Rancho Los Meganos) in what is now Contra Costa County in northern California. In order to become a landowner, he had to both become a Mexican citizen and convert to Catholicism, becoming a bona fide Christian Catholic rancher in 1837. By 1841 the ranch was the final resting spot for pioneer wagon trains on the California trail, first established by the Bartelson-Bidwell Party in that year.  Later he purchased even more land, up to 55,000 acres, all the way north and east to what is now Discovery Bay.

Over time Marsh became even more wealthy with thousands of heads of cattle, a reputation as a doctor (he treated some of the Donner Party), and was simultaneously hated for his low wages, as well as his general malicious demeanor so much so that some ruffians murdered him near Martinez California.  

His new house was completed in 1855. Marsh’s wife Abby selected the site of the house next to Marsh Creek with a view of Mt. Diablo. She and John both worked with the architect Thomas Boyd to create an elaborate marble encrusted interior. Unfortunately, Abby died from disease a year or so before construction was complete, and Boyd was murdered just a few weeks after he moved in. Ownership of the property was then transferred to Marsh’s two children and was handed down through generations. The earthquakes of 1868 and 1906 did quite a bit of damage to the house and by themid-20th Century it had fallen into arrested decay and was transferred to the State of California.  

The area around the house is now currently the Marsh Creek State Historical Park and is slowly being encroached upon by suburban development.

The below images showcase the recent restoration efforts thanks to the John Marsh Historic Trust.

John Marsh House #2 in its current condition (photo from California State Parks)

Epilogue: Once his adventure to northern California ended after the gold rush, Thomas Boyd apparently returned to Pittsburgh to open another practice. The Guernsey County Courthouse, the one that he provided a rendering of and was shown earlier, was never built to Boyd’s design. The version that was built was designed by the Columbus architect Joseph W. Yost, done in the “Second Empire” tradition. On a personal note, my mother told me about my great grandfather sitting on these benches on Saturdays after coming to town from the farm to pass the time and socialize with other locals once a week. I have his pocket watch at home with which he set the time by the courthouse clock.

The two courthouses that Thomas Boyd did design from his practice in Pittsburgh and were built in the 1880’s.

   Scott County Courthouse  
  Tuscarawas County Courthouse

Thomas Boyd was the architect for both the Scott County, Kentucky, and the Tuscarawas County, Ohio, courthouses.

Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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