This garden center in Marin County just made the list of America’s “Historical Places”.

Between attending weddings and walking her dog, event planner Catherine Kuene visits the Marin Art and Garden Center three or four times a week. She assumed she knew almost everything about the 11-acre toll-free park. What she didn’t know was that it is now the first site in the city of Ross to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“If it stays that way, all the better because it would be a shame if it went away,” Kugne said during her Sunday morning ritual with her shaggy dog, Bailey. “You should have a plaque.”

Next is a brass engraving to be affixed to the curved brick wall opposite Benny Bufano’s bear sculpture on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. The appointment by the Home Office came in June, and the official celebration is set for August 3, the 77th anniversary of the lush hilltop center.

The non-profit organization that operates the garden center – both as a quiet place of contemplation and as an art gallery and theater – is responsible for both ordering and paying for the plaque. But it’s a small expense compared to the six years and $100,000 that went into all the research and documentation to apply for prestigious inclusion in the National Register.

“People walk by it every day and walk dogs here, but they don’t realize that it’s historically important,” said Executive Director Antonia Adezio. “They don’t know how the center was founded and they don’t know why.”

Fairfax’s Pattie Breitman and Stan Rosenfeld enjoy the rose garden at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross, which has been newly added to the National Register of Historic Places. The rose garden is home to more than 150 varieties of roses.

Brontë Wittpenn/The Chronicle

The answer to both questions was the same in 1945 as it is today – to protect the hillside from residential development. A 19th century former estate that has been subdivided into up to 15 lots and offered for sale. Three of the lots had already been sold when members of the Marin Garden Club, led by conservationist Caroline Livermore, raised funds to purchase the remaining lots and repurchase two of the lots sold.

Thomas Church’s landscape design incorporated trees of the property, including a massive magnolia encircled by its descendants at the entrance, with a paved path through the garden areas. It opened to the public in 1945 and until 1970 was the site of the Marin Art and Garden Fair, the precursor to the Marin County Fair now held at the Civic Center in San Rafael.

The ticket office for the fair is still in the garden, as is a two-story octagonal house and barn that has been converted into a 100-seat theater, home to the Ross Valley Players. These buildings date from the 1860s and provide an architectural contrast to seven buildings constructed by the non-profit organization in the 1950s and ’60s and designed by modernists Gardner Dailey and Russell Emmons, a colleague of William Wurster.

“This style came out of frugality at the end of World War II,” Adezio said. “We are rich in buildings, all of which require maintenance.”

There are examples of modernist architecture from the mid-19th and 20th centuries, but only the 20th-century structures are included in the application.

Adezio began pushing for historic registration shortly after she was hired in 2015. The project might never have started if a leather-bound volume that looks like an old phone book hadn’t been reclaimed from a dumpster waiting to be hauled away. It turned out that this book contained the minutes of all meetings of the Arts and Garden Center from 1945 to 1962, when the site and its buildings were constructed.

Adezio used the document to compile the application, assisted by a landscape architect, a historian and a conservationist. Their six years of work culminated in more work managed by the California Office of Historic Preservation in Sacramento, which controlled the application for National Register recognition. The California agency’s top official, Julianne Polanco, lives in Mill Valley.

Shown in the 1950s, the Marin Art and Garden Center is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Shown in the 1950s, the Marin Art and Garden Center is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marin Art and Garden Center

According to a report by the State Office for the Protection of Monuments, the center is remarkable “for its connection with the conservation heritage of the Frauengarten Association movement”. The state agency called the property “an excellent example of the Bay Region Modern-Second Bay tradition,” noting, “The buildings retain the original modern lines, exposed structure, glass walls, and wood paneling characteristic of the period.”

The listing on the National Register of Historic Places “provides guidelines and guardrails for the care of the site,” Adezio said.

The guidelines are intended to “save this garden space from any future development,” said Ellin Pardom, who works as a volunteer at the garden shop and went through Sunday with her son Ted, who was visiting from his home in Spain. In 1992, when he was two, he left his handprint in the wet concrete at Pixie Park, the children’s playground. He wanted to make sure it was still there 30 years later. It is.

“This place is an absolute gem,” said his mother.

On Sunday morning, Ricardo Aguillon, his wife Noemi and their adult daughter Valeria were visiting from San Francisco.

“It’s very peaceful and quiet,” Valeria said. “The only thing like that in town is Golden Gate Park, but it’s usually packed with tourists, especially on a Sunday.”

The gardens are open daily from morning to evening and 100,000 people annually visit the gallery, the theatre, the Thursday summer evening concerts and the weddings which are booked every Saturday afternoon. Weddings and events pay about a third of the $1.5 million operating budget, with the remainder being funded by philanthropy and programs. Visitors are cordially invited to contribute.

“We would like to win more people,” said Adezio. “We are working hard to make the place beautiful and welcoming and we want to share it with a wider community outside of Ross Valley.”

Sam Whiting (she/she) is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: swhiting@sfchronicle.com

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