When it comes to making the world a more peaceful place, our nation’s record of turning swords into plowshares is hardly stellar. But one bright spot is here, in Marin, where decades of work have transformed a former Air Force base into a delightful community.

Hamilton Field, an Army Air base, opened in 1934. Following World War II, it transitioned into Hamilton Air Force Base, which was closed in 1974. During those 40 years of operation, Hamilton’s runways and hangars saw (and heard!) P-40s, P-38s, and, for a short while, four-engine B-17 Flying Fortresses. Next came the C-130 cargo planes, nicknamed the “Gooney Bird,” and a few hotshot jet fighters. President Nixon arrived there in the 1970s, as did thousands of Asian refugees following the Vietnam War.

Today, more than 30 years since the last jet fighter blasted off a nearby runway, Hamilton’s hangars are sleek office buildings for such firms as Smith & Hawken, SpatiaLight Inc., the Marin Community Foundation, Oracle, De Santis Capital Management and, most recently, Birkenstock USA. As for those miles of runways, they’re soon to be flooded and turned into permanent wetlands—stopping places for squadrons of waterfowl navigating the Pacific Flyway.

Hamilton, located within the city of Novato, has been hailed as one of the finest military base conversions in the country. The 2,200 acres adjacent to the former hangars and runways were once the site of base housing, officers’ clubs, recreation halls and military administrative buildings. Now they are crossed by meandering streets lined uniformly with young-growth trees and blocks of tidy homes occupied by a mix of young and old, wealthy and working class.

“I’d say Hamilton is a very ‘public’ community,’” says Jim Leland, a Novato city councilman who’s lived there four years. “Previously, we lived in Larkspur and that was a ‘private’ community.” Leland feels Hamilton is a more open, freewheeling, even extroverted place, where residents have considerable opportunities for interaction.

Taking a visitor on a tour of Hamilton, Leland points to two moms talking while pushing baby carriages, then a pack of kids on bikes laughing as they head to Little League practice, and, finally, what appear to be a software engineer (cargo pants, sneakers, laptop case) and a businessman (suit, white shirt and tie, briefcase) walking side by side home from work. “You don’t see much of that nowadays,” Leland comments.

Thanks to a considerable investment of time and treasure by both public and private institutions, Hamilton is indeed a community of mixed interests—California ranch houses coupled with the 1930s architecture of the former military buildings; affordable-through-upper-end housing; high-density neighborhoods near wide-open fields; and places for work close by areas for play.

Remnants from Hamilton’s military past include a pool and clubhouse (to be replaced in 2008 with a new $5 million facility), an amphitheater, a gymnasium, four tennis courts and administrative buildings that now serve as a cultural arts center and home to the popular Unity in Marin church. A recent addition to this community center point is the popular Hamilton Cafe, a restaurant and wine bar serving breakfast, lunch and dinner—both indoors and out.

“The Villas at Hamilton, in handsome, two-story art deco buildings,” says agent Michael Brown, “are studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments designed and priced as affordable senior housing.” Rents, he says, range from $950 to $1,460 a month. In another part of Hamilton, Bay Vista and Meadow Park have attractive and affordable workforce housing for both rent and purchase.

Leland, a realtor with Bradley Real Estate in Novato, says newer attached townhomes in Hamilton are selling in the $600,000 to $700,000 range. Also, production-type, or tract, single-family detached homes, “built in the past three or four years, are now going from $700,000 to just over $1 million.” At the high end, Leland has a listing on a five-bedroom, five-bath, two-year-old two-story view home for $1,699,000. “Homes in that Hamilton neighborhood have sold for between $1.5 and $1.9 million,” he adds.

The community of Hamilton definitely deserves watching. Though its history dates back over 70 years, compared to most of Marin County it has newer homes and attractive employment locales that can be reached on foot, certainly by bike. Add to that a healthy mix of residents and residences, plus a palatable sense of community, and Hamilton adds up to having it all.

Image 2:  Within the community, Hamilton has considerable recreatsion – inlcuidng tennis, hiking, Little League, swimming and skateboarding.
Image 3:  A handsome art nouveau military administration building is now Hamilton's community arts center with gallery spaces, individual studios and the popular Hamilton Cafe.