From the Depot building and the Mill Valley Library to City Hall and the Outdoor Garden, to name just a few, Mill Valley has a splendor of historic, architectural jewels.
But one of those jewels rarely gets the attention it merits, largely because it is so tucked away in the dense wilderness at the end of El Capitan Avenue.
Christy Schneider, the nonprofit Ralston White Retreat’s reservation manager, says she absolutely loves those opportunities to showcase the expansive 16-room mansion set on 43 lush acres, whose namesake died in 1943 after building his dream home, a wedding gift to his new wife, Ruth.
“I can’t tell you how many interactions we’ve had, especially with longtime Mill Valley residents, in which they say, ‘I’ve lived in Mill Valley 50 years, 20 years and we had no idea this place was even here,’” Schneider says. “If I had a quarter for every time someone said that to me, we’d have had this property fully restored to the treasure it was a long time ago.”
Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Willis Polk on a knoll on Mount Tamalpais and featuring a creek-fed pool and heart-shaped front lawn, White called his beloved estate “Garden of Allah” after a favorite novel. The property has a variety of uses, but its most regular events are weddings and as a retreat center.
Schneider continues to work hard to raise that name and place recognition, particularly after 16 months of business that has been horribly impacted by the pandemic. In the years leading up to that fateful shelter-in-place order that was issued in March 2020, the Ralston White Retreat Foundation’s Board invested in some major improvements, including a costly connection to Marin Municipal Water District’s service and the construction of a much-needed ADA ramp. They’ve also worked closely with the Southern Marin Fire District to have them create fire breaks throughout the property, as well as having brush cleared to maintain fire safety.
They did so knowing that the facility was booked solid through 2023, with weekends spoken for and weekdays booked more than six months out, Schneider says.
“When the pandemic hit, all events were postponed, and then postponed again and again,” she says. “Couples that were supposed to be married in 2020 are just starting to have their events now. Many have gotten legally married and have come back for vowel renewals. We just told them, ‘use this space for whatever you want whenever you want to use it.”
Schneider began booking in May 2021 and has hosted a handful of successful events. “We are so fortunate to still be here and still be operating as an event center and a retreat center,” she says. “Times have been very tough for us financially, but between the PPP and other loans, we’re hanging in there.”
The Ralston White Retreat Foundation’s vision is to restore the mansion and the grounds to past glory, as well as to support music, art, literary education and family events. “This is a historic treasure and we’d be honored to have members of our community become founding members and restore this landmark,” Schneider says.