December 9, 2022

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masterpiece of human

Marin Art & Garden Center earns historic designation

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The Marin Art & Garden Center in Ross has been granted national historic status in recognition of its social, cultural and architectural significance.

The 11-acre property at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd. is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the California Register of Historical Resources. The designation was made last month following years of research into the 77-year-old center.

“We all really cherish the center and want to take of it for the future,” said Antonia Adezio, executive director of the center. “This reinforces that it’s a really special place.”

Adezio said the designation will help preserve the look of the site so that in the event of any renovations, the buildings and grounds do not lose their historical integrity.

An added bonus, she said, is the extra public recognition for the center.

“Hopefully, it will encourage people to come and enjoy this amazing place, driving some cultural tourism to the site,” she said.

The property was originally part of the Rancho Punta de Quentin Mexican land grant. Marin pioneer settlers George and Annie Worn purchased the estate in 1864. Annie Worn was the daughter of James Ross, the namesake of the town.

The rich history of the center began in 1945. It was founded near the end of World War II by a group of women led by Caroline Livermore, a conservation activist. The women worked to keep the property from developers so it could be preserved as a place to foster community through the arts and social gatherings.

The same women were instrumental in preserving Marin open spaces such as Samuel B. Taylor State Park, Angel Island State Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

“The establishment of the Marin Art & Garden Center was a demonstration of the power of civic-minded women of that time to do public good,” said Tom Perry, president of the organization’s board.

Perry, a descendent of the Worn family, said his first job as a youth was setting up chairs and tables for women’s group meetings at the center on Wednesdays. His grandfather’s 80th birthday was celebrated there, as well as his daughter’s wedding and many other milestones.

“I’ve always felt very personally connected to the center in a number of ways,” Perry said. “We’re very gratified to get the recognition. Although we’re located in Ross, we are very much the Marin County art and garden center, and we want to share our story.”

Gabriella Calicchio, the county’s director of cultural services and producer of the Marin County Fair, said she is thrilled about the recognition. From 1947 to 1970, the Ross center hosted the fair before its popularity outgrew the venue.

“Their history is indeed our history,” Calicchio said. “It’s also a great testament to Marin’s long tradition and support of the arts. The arts organizations in Marin help shape and define our creative culture, which is so important to the well-being of our community.”

The site features 10 historic buildings that have been recognized as examples of the “second bay tradition” of 20th century architecture in the region. The center is also home to a rose garden with more than 150 varieties, a basketry garden with 70-plus species of plants and nearly 50 varieties of birds.

The property has three species of redwood, including the unique dawn redwood, which was once thought to have been extinct.

Pixie Park, a 7,000-square playground founded by environmental educator Elizabeth Terwilliger, is tucked into the northeastern corner of the property.

Julianne Polanco, the state historic preservation officer who notified the center of the recognition, is a Mill Valley resident. She said she didn’t understand the complexity of the property until the state received the nomination over a year ago.

“What’s so unique about this site is the combination of social history, specifically women’s history, at a very early period,” Polanco said. “Then there is the landscaping and architecture, and all these pieces come together to form this very modest but very beautiful site.”

Carol Roland Nawi, a historian, was hired in 2017 to gather materials for the nomination, Adezio said. Preservation architect Valerie Nagel shepherded the nomination through review and approval, she said.

Fran Cappelletti, librarian for the Moya Library/Ross Historical Society, helped transcribe minutes from the center’s board meetings starting in 1945. Those documents contributed to the nomination papers.

“People drive past without knowing anything about what’s going on there,” Cappelletti said. “But when they do come, they often enjoy what they discover.”

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spoiled plans for a big 75th anniversary celebration. Weddings, memorials and most events were canceled, resulting in a loss of revenues.

Adezio said activity has returned mostly back to normal, including exhibits and the summer music series on Thursday nights.

The Garden School, a preschool operated by the center, is back in session, and the Ross Valley Players theater company’s Barn Theater, which showcases several productions each year, is up and running. The center also reopened its gift shop.

“We took a big hit, like everyone,” Adezio said. “The good news is we’ve come back really strong. We ready for the next 75, 100 years.”

The center is planning an event to celebrate the national listing to coincide with its 77th anniversary on Aug. 3.

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