The Whites and the early years of “The Garden of Allah” – A California residence designed by architect Willis Polk
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 Exposition.
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 place.
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 wildfire.
This text is based on a history provided by descendants 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 www.millvalleyhistoricalsociety.org.