Article co-authored with John Sheehy
In 1927, Golden Gate Park’s famed superintendent, John McLaren, was invited to Petaluma to help beautify an undeveloped six-acre lot that would become McNear Park, donated to the city by grain merchant George P. McNear. [i] It wasn’t the first time that a McLaren had been called in for parks consultation—thirteen years prior, McLaren’s son Donald, a San Francisco landscape architect, had performed his own evaluation. His findings were succinctly expressed in a Petaluma Argus headline that proclaimed “Petaluma Parks Can Be Made To Make City World Famous.”[ii]
The younger McLaren spent a day being led about Petaluma by long time friend, pioneer nurseryman and city park commissioner George Syme, along with three other park commissioners, Charles Egan, Ed Hedges, and Eldridge Dykes.
The Petaluma Parks Commission was fairly new, having been established in 1911,[iii] a year after Donald McLaren became a partner in the nursery and landscape engineering firm of MacRorie & McLaren in San Francisco.[iv] Prior to that, Petaluma’s parks had been beautified and managed since 1896 by members of the Ladies Improvement Club, who took matters into their own hands after the city refused to devote taxpayer dollars to maintaining public parks.
After touring Oak Hill Park, Walnut Park, Hill Plaza (today’s Penry Park), and Petaluma’s two gores—small, triangular pocket parks at Liberty Street and Stanley Street, McLaren expressed his amazement that while most cities were striving to secure a square or park, Petaluma already had many, and they all were well laid out and stylishly improved.
McLaren was especially impressed with the “beautiful specimens” of oak trees he found at Oak Hill Park, a park created from the city’s first cemetery in 1908 by the women of the Oak Hill Park Club.[v]
But it was Kenilworth Park that surprised him the most. Originally established along Payran Street as a fairground in 1882 by the Sonoma and Marin Agricultural Society, the 65-acre tract was turned into a racetrack and horse breeding ranch in 1902, named for the champion race horse Kenilworth. It was purchased by the city in 1911, and transformed into a municipal park for baseball games, horse racing, rodeos, and a public campground (the Sonoma-Marin District Fair returned to staging annual fairs at Kenilworth Park in 1936, converting the horse-race track to auto racing).[vi]
“The trees are all grown, the roads and avenues laid out, and the foundation has been prepared,” McLaren pointed out after touring Kenilworth, “so that at a small expense it can be beautified and made a modern pleasure ground which will cost but little to maintain and will be the pride of the people.”
McLaren promised the park commissioners that he would send a sketch of a plan for making Kenilworth one of the prettiest parks in the whole state. “Good parks induce people to settle in a city,” he said, making them “a great asset of a modern and well-kept city.”
In addition to the parks, McLaren also visited the famous nursery of William A.T. Stratton, known as California’s “Gum Wizard” for his cultivation of eucalyptus trees. McLaren expressed his surprise at the beauty and size of Stratton’s nursery, located on the west side of Upham Street where Tunzi Parkway is today.[vii]
He also stopped by the home of Dr. John A. McNear, owner of the Mystic Theater and the older brother of George P. McNear, at 216 Liberty Street, where McLaren was delighted by McNear’s famous Japanese plum tree, which he declared to be the finest he had ever seen in the country.
Although he was only in town for the one day, McLaren promised to visit Petaluma again. It was a promise that he most likely kept. In 1916, his firm, MacRorie & McLaren, was engaged by George P. McNear and his wife Ida Belle to assist with a complete renovation of the extensive grounds of their Belleview estate, located at the south end of town across from the current day bowling alley.[viii] In 1922, MacRorie & McLaren returned to Petaluma to provide landscape plans for the newly constructed Christian Science Church at the corner of the B and Sixth Streets.[ix]
Based on MacRorie & McLaren’s familiarity with Petaluma, it seemed natural that when Donald’s father John McLaren was invited to Petaluma in 1927 to consult on the development of McNear Park, he would bring Donald along with him. Sadly, Donald McLaren had died two years earlier in 1925, the victim of an apparent suicide. That left his father John to provide his own consultation as to what should be done to assure that McNear Park was developed in such a way as to meet the needs of “a modern and well-kept city.”
Today the modern and well-kept city of Petaluma is home to 46 public parks and 10 distinct, County-maintained open space areas — an impressive increase from the six parks that existed during Donald McLaren’s visit to Petaluma over 100 years ago.
[i] Oakland Tribune: “McLaren to Advise Petaluma on Park”, October 17, 1927
[ii] Petaluma Argus: “Petaluma Parks Can Be Made to Make City World Famous”, February 14, 1914, page 4
[iii] Petaluma Daily Courier: “Ladies Release Charge of City Parks”, May 3, 1911, page 1
[iv] American Florist, October 22, 1910 Vol. 22, page 620
[v] Petaluma Daily Courier: “Organized a Club”, March 24, 1908, page 1
[vi]Scott Hess and John Sheehy, On a River Winding Homes: Stories and Visions of the Petaluma Rivershed, (Penngrove, CA: Ensatina Press, 2008)
[vii] Petaluma Argus: “Tunzi Parkway, Petaluma’s Newest Residence Court; Completed Today”, December 16, 1927, page 4
[viii] Petaluma Argus: “Beautifying the M’Near Grounds”, March 17, 1916, page 5
[ix] Petaluma Daily Courier: “Landscape Gardners Let Contract to Beautify Grounds”, November 10, 1922, page 1