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Petaluma’s Walnut Park a landmark of history, community effort

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is part 3 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at every single park and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma, from its 46 Parks & Recreation-maintained public parks and seven recreation facilities, to its 10 distinct, County-maintained open space areas. Are you part of a community group that cares for, supports or looks after a particular park within city limits? Willing to give us a little tour and tell us what makes that particular slice-of-Petaluma-Heaven special? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton and let us know. You can reach him at

david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

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.”

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is part 3 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at every single park and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma, from its 46 Parks & Recreation-maintained public parks and seven recreation facilities, to its 10 distinct, County-maintained open space areas. Are you part of a community group that cares for, supports or looks after a particular park within city limits? Willing to give us a little tour and tell us what makes that particular slice-of-Petaluma-Heaven special? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton and let us know. You can reach him at

david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

The statue eventually vanished, she states, with nothing but rumors left as to who took her or where she might be today.

Where the tank house/tower once stood, a rectangular building now resides, with public restrooms on one side and two windowed rooms facing the playground area. Designed by famed architect Brainerd Jones, the building at the Southern edge of Walnut Park was another of the many elements the Service Committee tackled.

The friendly bas-relief squirrel on the outside of the building was always part of the exterior, says Frances, going on to describe the original intention of the building - a place for kids.

“Addie Atwater, who formed the Women’s Improvement Club in the 1870s, marched down to City Hall time and time again to get them to approve making good on discussions of putting in a park here,” says Frances, pointing across the street. “Over there is where Addie Atwater lived. Livestock was being shipped down the streets of Petaluma from one end to another, and kids who played in the streets were at risk. So she wanted a place her for the children of Petaluma to play and be safe. This building was originally designated as a children’s playroom - I have the original blueprints from Brainerd Jones here somewhere – and that’s what it was for a while, a children’s playroom.”

The building is now used for city maintenance and storage, though according to Frances, when the Petaluma Service Alliance refurbished the building - cleaning it out, repainting exterior and interior, installing new tiles inside and new counters facing the windows - their stated hope at the time was that the building would become a Police Department Substation. To support that plan, the Service Alliance even purchased a surveillance camera that was installed in 2014. To Frances’ disappointment, however, she’s still waiting for the proposed police substation to become a reality.

“It could happen eventually,” she says. “I hope so.”

Moving on across the park, she stops at the aforementioned Peace Pole, pointing out the interpretive display that accompanies the attractive sculpture inscribed with the word “peace” in numerous languages.

“Each language represents three or four different countries where the language is spoken,” she says. “I’ve seen school buses pull up on field trips to see the pole. It’s a teaching tool. And then of course, there’s the nice, colorful playground, something that’s becoming more and more of a rarity in many parks.”

The playground, though not especially huge, is still one of the largest in Petaluma. Petaluma Rotary Club donated and installed it, as a sign indicates at one end of the playground.

“There was a time, before the renovation, when the asphalt pathways were crumbling, wheelchairs and baby carriages weren’t able to traverse the park,” Frances notes, pointing proudly to the smooth pathways that are still in decent shape five years after completion of the Legacy Project.

Standing still, her arms still full of the history of Walnut Park, Frances nods, satisfied with what she and her alliance, and the people of Petaluma, have accomplished.

“A lot of work has gone into this little park,” she says. “A lot of work, a lot of love, a lot of dreams and a lot of hope. Parks aren’t just public places. Parks are personal. I think that’s why they’re so special.”

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