The Whites and the early years of “The Garden of Allah”
– A California residence designed by architect Willis
In 1907, as Ralston Lovell White (1877-1943) was working
as a surveyor for his father’s early Mill Valley real
estate company, he discovered a beautiful knoll on the
slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Captivated by the property’s
sweeping views of the mountain and of San Francisco
across the bay, he vowed he would one day build his home
there. Two years later, he became engaged to Ruth
Boericke (1888-1979), whom he had met at Mill Valley’s
summer dance, known as the “Blithedale Hop.” They were
married on April 6, 1910. Earlier that year, after the
sudden death of his father Lovell White, Ralston became
president of his father’s business, called the Tamalpais
Land & Water Company; this promotion enabled him to
acquire his “dream” property as a wedding present to his
wife. Ralston commissioned the noted San Francisco
architect, Willis Polk (1867-1924), to design a
sixteen-bedroom mansion on the site. Polk’s prominent
architectural firm, Polk & Co., had helped to rebuild
San Francisco following the catastrophic 1906
earthquake; in 1911, Polk was also named supervising
architect of the Panama-Pacific International
From 1911 through 1915, the house was under
construction. A sturdy steel beam structure was devised
to make the building earthquake proof. Building
materials were transported to the remote property via
the Mount Tamalpais Railway. In front of the house, the
Whites planned a heart-shaped lawn to proclaim their
love for each other.
In 1915, even though interior details were not yet
completed, the Whites entertained visitors to San
Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition at
their new home, which they called “The Garden of Allah.”
The name was inspired by the title of Ralston’s favorite
book written by Robert S. Hichens (first published in
1904). He said “when I first saw this magnificent site,
I just took a deep breath and said to myself, this is my
‘Garden of Allah.’ ”
After the house was completed by 1916-17, Ralston
devoted his time to designing the garden; his Finnish
gardener, Alfons Haapa, tended the property for
forty-five years. There was an orchard, a creek-fed
swimming pool, a tennis court, and a stable for their
horses. The Whites home soon became the holiday “resort”
for relatives, and a frequent site for various social
gatherings including baseball games, barbecues, tea
parties and society musicales. Ralston regaled his
family and guests with his generous spirit, charismatic
charm and entertaining stories.
The Whites and the “Garden of Allah” 1929-1977
In July 1929, a year of disasters, a large wildfire
burned around and in Mill Valley for three days; over
110 homes were destroyed, but the Garden of Allah was
spared. Later that year, Ralston White, like many other
Americans, lost a fortune in the great stock market
crash. Without clients who could afford to buy Tamalpais
Land & Water Company properties, and with the burden of
still having to pay taxes on the company’s holdings, the
Whites suffered financially. In 1932, in order to
augment their meager income, Ralston and Ruth rented the
Garden of Allah, fully furnished, for $250 per month.
They then went off to Europe to live more economically.
They spent most of their time in Munich, Germany and
toured Europe, where they often bicycled from place to
Just before World War II began, the Whites returned to
Mill Valley and the Garden of Allah in 1939. Ralston
resumed his real estate business and worked tirelessly
to repay all the debts incurred during the Depression,
in addition to doing the necessary upkeep with a reduced
number of staff around the Garden of Allah. During the
war, he also volunteered for the war rationing effort.
Weakened by these various activities, Ralston died
suddenly in September, 1943.
Ruth White continued to reside at the Garden of Allah
with various relatives. In 1951, she offered the Garden
of Allah in trust to the California Academy of Sciences
of San Francisco as a memorial to her husband. The
Academy maintained the trust for six years. Two years
after her 1955 marriage to Dr. Robert Bowie of Fort
Morgan, Colorado, Ruth White Bowie donated The Garden of
Allah to the Northern California Conference of
Congregational Churches, later called the United Church
of Christ, as a memorial to Ralston White. The Garden of
Allah was renamed the Ralston L. White Memorial Retreat.
As part of the agreement, Ruth retained a small
apartment as her and Dr. Bowie’s residence at the back
of the house for the duration of her lifetime. This
apartment, on the first floor of the Retreat, is today
known as the “Little Place.”
Ruth Bowie White died in 1977 at the age of 89.
Following her death and until 2005, the Ralston L. White
Memorial Retreat continued as a site for group retreats
and conferences, operated by the United Church of
Christ. In 2005, the Ralston White Retreat house and
property was transferred to the Ralston White Retreat
Foundation, which continues its use as a retreat center,
in addition to overseeing its management and restoration
as one of Marin County’s great historical houses.
EARLY MILL VALLEY RESIDENTS
Ralston’s Parents – Lovell and Laura Lyon White
Lovell (1827-1910) and Laura Lyon White (1839-1916)
married in Des Moines, Iowa in 1859. A year later, they
voyaged to the Sierra foothills of California, where
they established a store in a hydraulic mining camp. In
1864, after experiencing the tragic loss of two young
children, the Whites moved to San Francisco where Lovell
pursued a banking career with William C. Ralston,
founder of the Bank of California who was known as the
“Silver King” from his early mining success in Virginia
City. After the birth of a son in 1877, the Whites named
him “Ralston” for their friend and business mentor.
In 1889, Lovell White, with Joseph Eastland as
president, established the Tamalpais Land & Water
Company to develop Mill Valley by subdividing lots of
the former 13,000 acre ranch of Samuel Throckmorton. Two
years later, the Whites, who resided in San Francisco,
completed their Mill Valley “country house,” called “The
Arches” at 95 Magee Avenue [which survives today as a
private residence of another family], thereby enabling
Ralston to enjoy various outdoor activities in the
scenic valley and mountain setting.
In 1895, when Lovell became the president of the
Tamalpais Land & Water Company, the Whites became more
involved in the Mill Valley community. In 1902, Mrs.
White founded the Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club (still
located at the intersection of Blithedale and
Throckmorton Avenues), dedicated to preserving natural
scenery and beautifying the public spaces of Mill
Valley; Laura White’s portrait is displayed inside. Mrs.
White, who later supported women’s suffrage, was also an
early environmentalist who campaigned to persuade
Washington, D.C. legislators to save the Calaveras Big
Trees, a redwoods state park near Yosemite National
Park. The names of several Mill Valley streets preserve
the White family legacy: Lovell Avenue; Lyon Place; and
Ralston Avenue, in addition to the Ralston L. White
Memorial Grove, a cluster of redwood trees enhancing
Mill Valley’s town center (at the intersection of Miller
and Sunnyside Avenues).
Ruth’s Parents – Dr. William and Kate Boericke
Ruth’s father was Dr. William Boericke (1849-1929), an
Austrian who emigrated to the United States. In the
1860s, he established the homoeopathic pharmacy,
Boericke & Tafel in Philadelphia. In 1870, he moved to
San Francisco to open a Boericke & Tafel branch, and
later co-founded Hahnemann College (later incorporated
into the University of California medical school). Dr.
Boericke would later publish Homoepathic Materia Medica
(1901), a standard text in the field.
In 1883 Dr. Boericke married Kate W. Fay (ca. 1862-ca.
1932), the daughter of California Forty-Niner, Caleb T.
Fay, a merchant who was active in state politics. Five
years later, Ruth Eleanor Boericke and her twin sister
Dorothy May were born in San Francisco, where they and
five brothers were raised. In 1905, the Boericke family
established a summer country home on Tamalpais Avenue in
Mill Valley. When the major 1906 San Francisco
earthquake occurred, Ruth was traveling in Europe with
her father and sister, while her mother and brothers
remained in San Francisco. Fortunately, the entire
family survived the earthquake, but to escape the
devastation, the Boerickes lived for an extended time in
their Mill Valley home. In 1929, however, that home was
among the many destroyed by the great Mill Valley
This text is based on a history provided by descendents of Mr. and Mrs. Ralston White derived from family-owned documents and other resources at the Mill Valley Historical Society, including the Spring 1995 issue of its journal, The Mill Valley Historical Review. For further information about Mr. and Mrs. Ralston White, the “Garden of Allah” (now the Ralston White Retreat) and their roles in Mill Valley’s early history, please consult the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley History Room, located at the Mill Valley Public Library
Ralston Lovell White, c. 1910
Portrait of Mr. White before he built his glorious mansion and wilderness garden, today known as the Ralston White Retreat.
Ruth Boericke White on horseback, c. 1915
Poised on a ridge, Mrs. White enjoys the splendid view
of her recently completed home and Mt. Tamalpais.
Ruth White at piano c. 1917
Mrs. White seated at her new Steinway parlor grand
The house under construction, c. 1911-1912
This photograph shows the then-innovative sturdy steel
beam construction, which made the building earthquake
proof. The lumber in the foreground is the initial
support layer for the roof.
The house after completion, c. 1914-1915
The ivy covered facade, c. 1925-1930
Mrs. White is shown on the second story balcony.
The living room, c. 1917
The sunny sitting room, c. 1917
The creek-fed swimming pool in its woodland setting, c.
Mrs. White (the white haired woman, second from right)
and friends swimming in the creek-fed pool, c. 1930
The large pool held 350,000 gallons of creek water,
which was rarely warmer than a bracing 60 degrees, was
refreshing on hot summer days.
Unauthorized use and reproduction of any of these
historical photographs of Mr. and Mrs. White and their
home are strictly prohibited. For permission to
reproduce these images for educational, not-for-profit
use, please apply to the family descendents of Mrs.
Ralston White c/o the Ralston White Retreat Foundation.