Old Saint Hilary's Preserve

From charitable donation, to the rise of Marin's grass roots conservation movement.


For thousands of years, Miwok tribes thrived on the natural richness of the Marin's lands and waters.


Irishman John Reed arrived in California decades before the gold rush. The governor of Alta California granted Reed the Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio in 1834–over 7,000 acres including much of present day central Tiburon, Corte Madera, and Strawberry. In 1836, John Reed married Hilaria Sánchez (1817–1872), daughter of the commandant of the Presidio.


Reed's daughter, Hilarita, inherited 1,020 acres across Tiburon, Strawberry, and Belvedere. In 1872 she married a Canadian doctor who managed dairies on her land. In 1888, the family deeded one quarter acre to the Archdiocese of San Francisco, to build a church for railroad workers and local farmers. After 66 years, services moved to a larger parish facility and the original church was deconsecrated in 1954. 


Seeing the Carpenter Gothic structure fall into ruin, local residents formed the Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society. They raised the money needed to buy the church, and later saved surrounding property slated for development–five acres total. Grounds near the church became the John Thomas Howell Botanical Garden, after the author of Marin Flora and a charter member of the Landmarks Society. He was among the first to catalog the stunning variety of flowers and ferns that thrive here–some exceptionally rare. Dedicated as a historic monument in 1960, the church has become a treasured venue for weddings and other life ceremonies. 


The grasslands above Old Saint Hilary's–the 101-acre Harroman property and 15.8 acre Jay property–had become some of the most desirable parcels in the country for residential development. Their eventual acquisition as public land took a circuitous route, involving litigation, foreclosures, IRS disputes and the impact of current events like the national savings and loan collapse and overthrow of the Philippine government, where Harroman interests held investments. To save the open space, citizens of Tiburon and Belvedere overwhelmingly passed two bond measures–one in 1993 and another in 1997–to acquire the property. The Last Chance Committee, a group of local residents, some of them members of the Landmarks Society, were influential in galvanizing their communities. With additional funds from Tiburon, Marin Community Foundation, and Marin County, the lands were secured for $7.9 million, at that time the most expensive Marin County Open Space purchase.