The game is Trivia and the question is, What leafy Marin community was once named Magnolia Valley? The answer: Dominican.

In 1871, William T. Coleman purchased 1,100 acres in San Rafael; intending to develop it, he planted trees throughout the property. Several were magnolias—hence, Magnolia Valley.

Six years later, in 1888, Mr. Coleman sold 10 acres in Magnolia Valley to the Dominican Sisters, who wanted to build a school on the property. To help out, Mr. Coleman donated half his $20,000 selling price back to the sisters. The rest is history. In 1889, a four-story boarding school was completed. Soon, prominent families, among them the founders of the San Francisco Chronicle, were buying homesites from Coleman and sending their daughters to the nuns for primary and secondary education. In 1917, the school added a four-year institution and named it Dominican College.

Over time the name Magnolia Valley moniker faded away and “Dominican” took hold. Now, in 2007, three enticements to living in Dominican are 1) the trees Coleman planted over 130 years ago; 2) Coleman Elementary, an award-winning school named in his honor; and 3) that prestigious institution the nuns started in 1889, now called Dominican University of California.

To reach Dominican, take the main San Rafael exit off Highway 101; go four blocks to Mission Avenue; turn right and go two blocks, then left on Grand Avenue, which soon becomes the scenic heart of the community. “Dominican is truly a walking community,” says Suzie Pollak, who has lived at the corner of Grand and Watt (Robert Watt, a Gold Rush mining engineer who introduced cable cars to San Francisco, was an early resident) for 35 years. “People stroll with their dogs through the campus
both morning and evening; it’s how we meet and find out what’s going on.”

Pollak and her late husband were drawn to Dominican by the “slightly urban feel of the community, namely the college and all it had to offer. Being from the Midwest,” she adds, “we also liked the trees: cedars, oaks, sweet gums, redwoods, and magnolias.” Fellow tree fans are architect Carolyn Davis and her husband Jim, who teaches economics at Dominican; they moved to the area in 1988. “The trees are magnificent, especially in the fall when they change color,” Davis attests. “But to us, another bonus to living in Dominican are the hiking trails in Barbier Park; we’re up there with our dog almost every morning—we’re always running into neighbors.”

Institutional Dominican neighbors include Marin Ballet Center, Marin Tennis Club and the Marin Shakespeare Company, all within a block of each other on or near the university campus. The university itself, the only four-year college in Marin, now enrolls just 2,000 graduate and undergraduate students, according to its president, Dr. Joseph Fink; nearly 80 percent are on some sort of grant or scholarship. “Our most recent news is the opening this fall of a $20 million, 35,000-square-foot Science Center,” he says. There’s also the Conlan Recreation Center—an on-campus pool, gymnasium, and four tennis courts—completed in 2000 and open to all Dominican residents for a nominal yearly fee. “If there’s a prettier neighborhood than this one, I can’t imagine where it is,” he adds.

Having lived in Dominican since 1976, Lindy Emrich has a good grasp of the local housing market. “A nice three- or four-bedroom can be bought for between $1 and $2 million,” says the Pacific Union Greenbrae realtor, who has 30 years of experience. “With older homes on estate-size lots, prices zoom into the millions very fast.” A gated property on Mountain View Avenue, with an acre of level land and a Tudor-style home in need of updating, recently sold for $4.75 million, she reports, “and the [new] owners plan to put in a million or more in improvements.

“I listed a three-bedroom, two-bath Dominican home at $925,000 and felt it was well priced,” she adds. “But within a week we had nine offers and it sold for $1,054,000.”

More typical of the market, she says, is a “darling, absolutely darling” remodeled four-bedroom, three-bath on an 8,000-square-foot lot that’s listed at $1,087,000. “I can’t believe it hasn’t sold.” The married mother of three (all raised in Dominican) can’t say enough good about the community.

“Besides all the wonderful people and the university, there’s a voluntary community association that arranges social events for adults and kids and deals with neighborhood issues,” she says. “However, what I really love about Dominican is in the winter you can walk up Mountain View and, with just a short hike, see a great waterfall.”

Image 2:  Meadowlands Hall, once the summer home of the Michael de Young family and now a dormitory.