Around the Bloch
Behind Mill Valley's City Hall, where native coast redwoods guard the line of demarcation between concrete and nature, where the unimposing creek with the long name, Arroyo Corte Madera del Presidio, gently passes by on its journey to Richardson Bay, is Mill Valley's smallest park.
The idea of a soccer game in this park is laughable, a morning jog here out of the question, and a game of frisbee with your dog impossible unless your idea of a game is to drop the frisbee vertically to the ground and watch an inquisitive head-tilt as your canine's response. Opening the gate to more people than are found at a small dinner party would make this park as crowded as a New York subway car during rush hour, for the park is a 22-foot by 10-foot rectangle.
The park's small size does not detract from its charm; in fact, it adds to it, as do its amenities, both human- and nature-made.
Surrounded by a rustic wooden fence, the park contains an inviting bench, landscaping on one side and a plaque that sums up the park's raison d'etre. Look left while seated on the bench and you'll see the premier icon representing the long term settlement of a town - City Hall. Turn your head 180 degrees and you'll find nature has added its indubitable beauty and serenity to the spot. Overhead, a towering broadleafed maple provides shade or stippled sunlight
If you don't work or live near the site, chances are you've never seen or possibly even heard of the Ernest Bloch Memorial Park. It was built in the late 1980's to recognize Bloch, the composer who wrote his epic symphonic rhapsody America in 1926 while residing part-time in Mill Valley.
Born in Geneva in 1880, Ernest Bloch studied music throughout western Europe during his younger years, and after visiting the United States in 1916 as a conductor for a dance troupe, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the country and stayed here most of his remaining life, living at times in Ohio, Oregon, San Francisco and, on weekends during the late 1920's, in Mill Valley, while he was Director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He died in 1959.
Mill Valleyite Abby Wasserman was a member of the Mill Valley Art Commission from 1986 to 1990, ending with a one-year stint as its Chairperson. "I've always loved his music, and grew up with his grandchildren," Wasserman said. "His daughter Lucienne and son-in-law Stephen Dimitroff had a framing business in town, Dimitroff's, which at the time was housed in the building next to the Bank of America branch on Throckmorton and Corte Madera." The store later moved up Throckmorton to its present location a few doors from Sweetwater Saloon, and is no longer owned by the family.
While living in San Francisco from 1926 to 1930, Bloch made use of in a small one-room cabin in Mill Valley, what its owner Lillian Hodghead called her "little shack," and stayed there almost every weekend. The cabin's most important piece of furniture to Bloch was an upright piano, on which he composed America. Bloch enjoyed the outdoors and when he wasn't composing, he loved to hike on Mt Tamalpais. Bloch completed his rhapsody in the cabin in 1926, and signed it in French, "29 Aôut, Mill Valley."
Former Mill Valley resident Louisa Cagwin, who died in July 2003, loved music, and shared this love with others in various ways, including serving on the Board of, and writing the program notes for, the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society. One of her favorite recordings was the performance of Bloch's America conducted by Leopold Stokowski. In the mid-1980's, Cagwin felt that, in light of the fact that Bloch composed the piece in Mill Valley, something should be done in town to commemorate his contribution to the arts and to reciprocate his admiration for Mill Valley. She had two ideas, and spearheaded the efforts to bring them to fruition.
Ironically, though Bloch composed America in Mill Valley, the piece had never been performed in the city of its origin, or even in Marin County, in the sixty years of its existence up to that point. Cagwin's first idea was to remedy this with a performance in Mill Valley. Her second idea was to hang a commemorative plaque somewhere in town honoring Bloch.
About the drive to hold a performance, Wasserman remembered, "The Ernest Bloch Tribute Committee was founded to pursue the idea of a performance of Bloch's work after Louisa sold the idea to the Mill Valley Art Commission, the Emeritus Symphony Orchestra, the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society and the Outdoor Art Club, all of which became sponsors of the Committee and important advocates of the project."
On the day after Independence Day in 1987, sixty-one years after Bloch composed America, the Emeritus Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Robert Kissel, performed his work at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Mill Valley. Over 600 people attended the free concert, including many Bloch family members.
With the performance now a memorable piece of Mill Valley history, but no home yet found for a plaque, the Art Commission, then including Wasserman, Chairperson Sara Barnes, Henri Boussy, Suzanne Grossman, Zoie Kaye, Barbara Levinson, Trubee Schock, Ann Segal and Carol Selig, turned to other pursuits. One day in 1988, though, like a deus ex machina in a well-planned movie script, Ed Marshall, Director at the time of the Mill Valley Department of Public Works, approached the Art Commission. Wasserman, who was a significant force in promoting and working for both the performance and plaque, remembered that fateful day. "Ed told me about a space behind City Hall by the creek he thought would be ideal for a 'pocket park,' and asked if the Art Commission might be interested." It was.
The Art Commission discussed Marshall's offer and decided that a park in the location he specified, which coincidentally was just a few hundred feet from the venue of the premiere performance of America in Mill Valley, would be an ideal spot for the plaque honoring Bloch.
With funding from the City of Mill Valley, Mill Valleyite Steve Fowler created the landscape design for the park, the Department of Public Works built it, Assistant City Manager Don Hunter worked with members of the Mill Valley Parks and Recreation Department to arrange the planting and put the bench in place, and the Art Commission, consulting with Cagwin, picked out a stone to hold the plaque, created the text and had the plaque cast in bronze. A formal opening ceremony unveiled the park to the public on Sunday, May 28, 1989. Wasserman noted, "Ed Marshall's and Don Hunter's support, the enthusiasm of the Art Commission and the backing of the City were all essential ingredients" in creating the Ernest Bloch Memorial Park.
This well-hidden sitting area behind three metered parking spaces in the City Hall parking lot on the eastern border of Mill Valley's town center provides a charming remembrance of an adoptive Mill Valley resident, and is a peaceful respite from the bustle of downtown if you know where to look. Now, you do.
Click here to link to Ernest Bloch's Wikipedia Page.
Dedicated to Louisa Cagwin, July 2003
Written by Alan Nayer. Text and Photos (except where noted) are © Alan Nayer.