What do a man named Hugo, a plaster dragon and the Panama Hotel have in common? Here’s a clue: they’re in the middle of Marin’s most populated area. Give up? Hugo, the dragon and the hotel are all core components of the San Rafael community known as Gerstle Park.
“I don’t want to see Gerstle Park lose its character, its charm,” says Hugo Landecker, who for the past 35 years has labored tirelessly to make sure that does not happen. “I’ve worked with San Rafael’s mayor, city council and whomever else it takes to see that mansions and dense zoning don’t come to Gerstle Park.” Hugo and his wife, Cynthia, are also the community’s self-appointed historians. “The Gerstle family were wealthy fur trappers and traders who lived in San Francisco,” says Hugo, “but in the late 1800s and early 1900s they had a Victorian summer home here,” where popular Gerstle Park now sits.
And snarling inside that park’s sandbox is a 12-foot-long plaster dragon. “Our dragon is a community icon,” declares Gerstle Park Neighborhood Association president Muriel Ballard. So much so that the GPNA recently sponsored a contest for area kids to come up with a new color scheme for the rather pallid creature. “One entry gave the dragon a green body with bright red words on the beast’s back stating ‘No More War,’” Ballard says. The winner, however, was Carrie Souza, whose yellow-and-brown motif will soon be professionally applied.
That winning entry was announced at the Panama Hotel—a colorful, cozy inn and restaurant that serves as community gathering place. “You could say we’re the ‘heart’ of Gerstle Park,” says owner Dan Miller, who’s also on the GPNA’s board of directors. “Lots of association meetings are held here, including social mixers that bring together members of the neighborhood in a relaxed atmosphere. And we have live jazz dinner shows on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for anyone and everyone in Marin County. We serve lunch on weekdays, dinners Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on Sundays.” The place is also a bona fide inn, with “14 rooms, no two of which are alike,” adds the affable bachelor, who’s lived in Gerstle Park 45 years and owned “the Panama” since 1982.
So there you have it, a neighborhood in a nutshell—but not quite. “Oh, there’s more to Gerstle Park than that,” insists GPNA President Ballard with a smile. For starters, there are the spectacular tree-lined streets, the friendly neighbors, the classic pre–World War II homes, the strong sense of place. There’s the proximity to downtown San Rafael—the shops, cafes and theaters of bustling Fourth Street are just a short walk away. Every spring a communal garage sale is held; fall brings a well-attended annual picnic in the park and a Make a Difference Cleanup Day; there are Halloween and Christmas decorating contests. And over half the community’s 800 households have voluntarily joined the GPNA, Ballard points out. “Neighbors share a passion about preserving the community’s integrity, whether through strict code enforcement or just plain old neighbor-to-neighbor peer pressure. Gerstle Park is a really great place to live.”
As for what it costs to live there, the prices “just might surprise you with their reasonableness,” adds Ballard, whose day job is that of a realtor with Frank Howard Allen’s Greenbrae office. The highest price a Gerstle Park single-family home ever sold for is $2,150,000, she says; “that was for a five-bedroom, five-bath estate on two acres.” A current $1,449,000 listing, her own, includes a two-story, three bedroom, three-bath home with a backyard and grotto-style pool, along with a three-bedroom, one-bath 1889 “cottage” on the property and a three-car garage. The lowest-priced property she’s seen is a three-bedroom, one-bath “fixer” with 1,200 square feet that sold a year ago for $460,000. An average price for Gerstle Park, “if there is such a thing,” says Ballard, “is just slightly under $1 million.”
For those who aren’t house-hunting but would still like to sample the neighborhood’s charms, there’s the enchanting Gerstle Park Inn on Grove Street. “The inn carries an air of sophistication wonderfully complemented by a homey and welcoming ambience,” wrote Karen Brown in her famous bed-and-breakfast guidebook published by Random House. And it’s true: originally an 1895 mansion owned by the Voss family (neighbors to the Gerstles), the 12-room inn, restored by Jim and Judy Dowling in the early 1990s, is now considered one of Northern California’s nicest.
To reach Gerstle Park, take Wolf Grade north off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Kentfield, or go south on D Street from Fourth Street in San Rafael. If you do you go, say hello to Hugo Landecker, check out the plaster dragon in the park (on San Rafael Avenue) and have lunch or dinner at the Panama (on Bayview Street). You’ll be glad you did.