So You Want to Live in ... Larkspur, California

Once advertised as "The Gem of California", this San Francisco bedroom community sparkles, its appraisal always high.
By Paige Porter

At the Larkspur Library on Magnolia Avenue, delicate rose petals blanket the top of the mahogany card catalog. "We have patrons who bring fresh flowers every time they check out or return a book," says director Frances Gordon. She points to vases scattered about the library, where stained-glass windows cast a silvery glow. "Larkspur has retained its neighborhood feel in the midst of 21st-century development," she says, adding a proud note: "We've stayed on the destination map without becoming overly touristy."

Having built its reputation as a mecca for peaceful escape, Larkspur once enjoyed the nickname "The Great Sanatorium." Today, the town lures for other reasons. For one, foodies journey here for Bradley Ogden's sensational cuisine (Lark Creek Inn and Yankee Pier). And Larkspur serves as a primary residence for many who prefer its quiet charm over nearby San Francisco's urbanism.

"Larkspur is a bedroom community," says Diane Greer, a former Larkspur real estate agent who still sells many homes here. "And it's one affordable to those who have 'made it,' economically speaking."

Still, Larkspur resists homogenization, and its eclectic houses demonstrate diversity. Magnolia Avenue cuts through the heart of downtown and cuddles the area's most prized historic houses. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, downtown Larkspur hasn't changed much in the past century.

Sandwiched between Corte Madera and Mill Valley to the south and Greenbrae and San Rafael to the north, Larkspur enjoys a compact spot in these north-of-Golden-Gate-Bridge communities. At Larkspur Landing, city-hungry residents and commuters catch the ferry for 30- to 50-minute crossings via San Francisco Bay to The City.

"We do have easy access to San Francisco. But to be honest, if I'm given the choice, I usually stay here," says Catlyn Fendler. A San Rafael resident, Catlyn once lived near the Larkspur Library, in a historic cottage owned by her husband's family, and she now owns property here. "My Texas brother came out to visit us once, and he walked around town, looked at the neighborhoods, and said, 'This is Mayberry.'"

Larkspur's bulletin boards read much like Mayberry's might: adult softball and cricket leagues; picnics at Piper Park; outdoor movies.

"I used to come to Larkspur with my father," says orchestra leader Earl Heckscher. His father, bandleader Ernie Heckscher, played for Larkspur's Rosebowl dances in the 1940s. "That was the Big Band era, and the small-town coziness that existed then is still alive and well," Earl says. Now living in next-door Kentfield, he hangs out in Larkspur. "It speaks of a way of life one has to search far and wide to find," he says.

Flowers spread this feeling not only at the library. In a coffee shop just off Magnolia Street, a basket full of blossoms welcomes patrons. "Free Roses," reads the sign. "Have one, and have a nice day."

For a wide range of information about Larkspur, visit ci.larkspur.ca.us.