The Marin Art and Garden Center

On 10 acres of some of the world’s priciest real estate, a 100-year-old barn today hosts a community theater company; an even older eight-sided onetime water tower holds an esoteric library; and a 60-year-old structure houses a gallery that rents out fine art. But this prime piece of land has also had other lives. For 25 years the Marin County Fair was held on the grounds. And before that, for 82 years the property was a private estate named Sunnyside.

Nowadays, of course, it’s the Marin Art & Garden Center—studded with California oaks and redwoods, mottled with worldly shrubs and plants, and bisected by a slow-moving creek, all located along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in the sylvan town of Ross. Here’s a look at how that came to be.

In 1865, when the Civil War was ending, the parcel’s owners placed the name Sunnyside on land where the Art and Garden Center now stands. It was 21 acres then, not the present-day 10, and had recently been purchased by Annie and George Worn.

Annie was the oldest daughter of James Ross, an enterprising Scot who’d come to California in 1849 seeking gold, but instead struck it rich in 1857 when (for $50,000 in gold coin) he bought 8,877 acres of central Marin stretching from Point San Quentin to the oak-covered hilltops of Fairfax. George Worn was Ross’s business partner. In 1862, the 50-year-old James Ross, for whom the town is named, suffered a heart attack and died. One year later, in 1863, the Worns bought the 21-acre parcel and began building a large and handsome home.

As often happens nowadays, while building their dream home George and Annie Worn lived on site—in an eight-sided cottage they built over a well with a water tower perched precariously above. Today that charming cottage/water tower is the Octagon House, where a trove of noncirculating history, art and botany books is housed under the auspices of the Moya Library–Ross Historical Society (named after one of the Art and Garden Center’s founders, Jose Moya).

After moving in at Sunnyside the Worns had four children. In 1870, the family traveled to Europe for a two-year vacation. That’s when they acquired many of the shrubs dotting the Marin property today. Unfortunately, on returning home they discovered they’d suffered a severe financial setback. They scraped by, taking in boarders for a while, but in 1882 the Worns sold Sunnyside to the Jonathan Kittle family for $12,000.

As also happens with homeowners nowadays, the Kittles did considerable remodeling—possibly erecting the barn now housing the Ross Valley Players—and members of the Kittle family lived at Sunnyside for the next 50 years. But in the early 1930s, tragedy again struck: Sunnyside was engulfed in flames. No one was hurt, but the property then lay idle until after World War II.

With the war ended, the G.I. Bill boosting veterans’ economic prospects, and the Golden Gate Bridge drawing commuters to Marin, real estate developers were understandably attracted to the site. “At the time, well-located lots were selling for as much as $5,000,” facetiously points out Ross historian Gary Scales. By then the fire-gutted mansion at Sunnyside had been demolished, sell-offs had reduced the property to 10 acres, and attempts to build an improved Ross School on the site had been voted down by local voters. Turning it into a public park was also given the thumbs-down by the Ross Town Council. The year was 1945—and, to put it mildly, realtors and builders were now salivating over Sunnyside.

Enter Caroline Livermore. The indomitable Marin activist—long credited with founding the Marin Conservation League, inspiring the county’s first general plan, and ensuring preservation of thousands of acres in Marin’s numerous state parks—teamed with Ross’s Gladys Smith to rally Marin individuals and charitable organizations to acquire Sunnyside’s highly valued 10 acres. The intent was to create a colony of artists and craftspeople who made and sold their wares on the premises, an idea modeled after the Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park. Livermore’s and Smith’s campaign got off to a roaring start when a Ross neighbor told them, “I like this idea so much I’ll contribute $10,000 to get things started.” Word of the campaign, its purpose and its anonymous benefactor spread like wildfire—so much so that the $10,000 offer was soon rescinded. “This idea sounds too successful,” the mysterious donor said. “I’m afraid it will bring too much traffic to the area.” Still, Livermore and Smith persevered. “If this group is earnest,” Livermore reportedly told a gathering of supporters in late 1945, “I’ll put up a $5,000 deposit and sign a $20,000 five-year mortgage on my house to clinch the sale.” The deal was done. The Marin Art & Garden Center was born.

For a while, with the County of Marin paying as much as $17,000 annually to use the center as its fairgrounds site, all was basically smooth sailing. But in 1970 the county terminated its lease and various groups using the Art and Garden Center became solely responsible for its finances and upkeep.

Currently these groups include the Ross Valley Players; the Moya Library–Ross Historical Society; Marin Society of Artists; Garden Club of Marin; Garden Society of Marin; the Decorations Guild; Marin Rose Society; Marin Bonsai Club; Pixie Park; the Northgate Group; and Garden Education. Other revenue comes from meetings, special events and weddings that occur on the land once called Sunnyside.


 

Ross As It Was

Carefully constructed volume documents the town’s history

The year 2008 marks 100 years that the tony town of Ross (pop. 2,400) has been incorporated. As one way of celebrating, six residents have written a history book. However, instead of describing how the town has developed since incorporation, these historians spent four years researching what the town was like before being incorporated. The title of their tome is Ross, California: The People, The Places, The History.

“We didn’t want a formulaic, ‘fill in the blanks’ community history book,” says Suzanne Nielsen, a 15-year Ross resident who marshaled the book through the publishing process. “Too often, formula history books are big on pictures and small on factual content.”

Yet this one will have its share of vintage photos as well as historical text. The 220-page hardcover, to be released May 2 in a first run of 1,500 copies, includes more than 100 images and will be priced at $40. Community fundraising brought in $30,000 to get the project under way.

Among the 32 chapters are “The First Settlers in Marin,” ‘The James Ross Family,” “Bridges of Ross” and “The Kentfield Connection.” Nielsen wrote nine chapters, including “Ross Valley Homes, 1850–1900,” which describes, among other things, what local 19th-century residential utilities were like: “Although the first telephone in Marin was installed in 1877, home phones were rare until after 1900,” it recounts. “All messages had to be delivered personally or by a servant. No phone-in orders were possible for groceries or supplies, and doctors had to be summoned in person, sometimes from great distances.”

Other contributors to the book include Richard Torney, Gary Scales, Edward Wynne, Bob Battersby and Preston Maginis. Among the many publications they studied were The Californian newspaper of March 15, 1848, the Great Register of Marin County, 1894, and oral histories from Ross residents taken at the turn of the 19th century. Authors conducted their four years of research primarily in the Anne T. Kent California Room of the San Rafael Public Library, archives of the California Historical Society, public records of Marin County, and the Moya Library–Ross Historical Society at the Marin Art & Garden Center.

Copies of Ross, California will be available through the Ross Historical Society website at moya-rhs.org.