Petaluma’s Walnut Park a landmark of history, community effort
As Maureen Frances arrives at the gazebo in Walnut Park on a recent Friday morning, her arms are filled with folders and photographs, blueprints, letters and packets of correspondence, all chronicling the 134 year history and evolution of the charming 1.3-acre Petaluma landmark, designated a “historic American landscape” by the US Library of Congress in 2000.
“I have stuff here going back to the beginning of the park,” Frances says, hefting the papers from one arm to another, glancing across the grassy, tree-dotted expanse to where her vehicle is parked across the street. “I have another full box in the car,” she says. “There’s a lot of history in this place, though most people aren’t really that aware of a lot of it.”
Frances admits to feeling a strong connection to Walnut Park, and not just because she’s had a hand in making sure it stays a beautiful landmark in downtown Petaluma.
“I love coming here,” she says. “I feel the power of community whenever I visit.”
Frances, whose family has lived in Petaluma for generations, was a key organizer of the Petaluma Service Alliance, a local “community outreach committee” made up of several groups working together to identify and address various needs throughout the city of Petaluma. The alliance includes the Petaluma Elks Lodge, Rotary Club of Petaluma, Petaluma Kiwanis, Rotary Club of Petaluma Valley, Rotary Club of Petaluma Sunshine and Petaluma 7-11 Lions. According to Frances, the group has taken on 10 or 11 community projects, one of the latest being the refurbishment and renovation of Walnut Park, which was completed in 2015, with Frances as the Project Chair.
The effort was called The Walnut Park Legacy Project.
“We consider this park our signature piece,” she says, gesturing across the park’s numerous features, beginning with the gazebo, which was fully refurbished, including fresh new walkways and landscaping. Other projects-within-the project include redone pathways throughout the park, the multi-language Peace Pole (installed near the gazebo), and a ring of commemorative bricks surrounding the gazebo, bearing the names and messages of project sponsors. Of the gazebo, Frances says, “We totally repainted it. The railings were a mess, the steps had fallen apart. The finial on top of the gazebo was taken down and restored. We did a lot. We basically redid the whole place,” she adds, of the years-long effort.
Frances makes her way to a stone edifice at the Southwest corner of the park, where a large plaque honors all of the community members who supported the Walnut Park renovation with donations, supplies, volunteerism or other contributions. Frances, a trained sculptor, designed the monument.
“The community stepped up bigtime,” she acknowledges. “Parts of the park had really fallen apart. It really was a mess. But now, it’s beautiful. It’s what it should be, a nice place where people can come to make memories of their own. That’s what a park is, to me – a place for families and friends, a place to make memories.”
In addition to a seasonal Farmer’s Market in Walnut Park, a number of other annual events take place there, from the annual Veterans’ Day celebration to the yearly Art in the Park show, and many other activities. On any given day, the park is used by hundreds of people, from families with children to those taking a casual stroll to group picnics and parties.
Located at the corner of D Street and Petaluma Boulevard (called Main Street when the place was established), Walnut Park was officially set aside as a park in 1873. At the time, it was only Petaluma’s second public plaza. The first park in town, then called Hill Plaza (at the corner of Main Street and Mary Street), was eventually renamed Penry Park. Walnut Park, originally known as D Street Plaza, is now best known for that iconic gazebo at the center of the plot, where Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson once made a speech in 1952. That gazebo has appeared in a number of movies and commercials over the years, including George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and also Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” campaign ad.
Though long gone now, there was once a tank house and garden shed in the form of a lanky, multi-sided, red-roofed, three-story tower. In addition, some still remember the ornate edifice and drinking fountain atop which stood the partially nude statue of the goddess Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera, believed by the ancient Greeks to be the Goddess of Youth.
“There are all kinds of stories of kids trying to climb that statue,” Frances says. “There was another statue of Hebe downtown, or maybe it was the same one that was here and was moved. There’s been some debate about that, but I have the photos showing Hebe here with the tower in the background, so she was definitely in Walnut Park at one point.”