Bombers to Boomers

  • Sunset Magazine
  • October 1, 1998
  • Daniel Gregory

A new community is rising on the grounds of the old Hamilton Field in Marin County

Hamilton Field is back in commission--but this time it's housing homeowners, not fliers. The 1,500-acre air base (originally built for bomber squadrons) was deactivated in 1975. After years of complex negotiations between officials of Marin County and the city of Novato, most of it is becoming a new community (a portion is still used by the U.S. Coast Guard). Many of the original Spanish colonial revival buildings (sporting the trademark red-tile roofs and white stucco) are being restored, and new neighborhoods are under construction. It's worth a visit to see one of Marin County's architectural gems and to witness base conversion in action.

Hamilton wasn't just any base, as you see when you drive through the big white gateway. Cross an elegant, lamp-lit art deco bridge and follow the graceful curve of a palm-lined drive down to the resplendent, newly restored headquarters (now the real estate office and exhibition hall). The building could be a latter-day mission: its beautiful tile-striped arcades flank a tall, columned entrance hall. An exhibit in the gallery to the left of the entry includes a time line describing key events in the base's history. Across the street are a chapel and a soon-to-be-restored theater.

This part of the compound feels like a fabulous resort from another era. In reality the base, designed in 1932, was a state-of-the-art air defense facility; it was named for First Lieutenant Lloyd Andrews Hamilton, the first American officer to fly with England's Royal Flying Corps in World War I. Construction engineer Captain Howard B. Nurse chose the Spanish colonial revival style to acknowledge the area's Mediterranean climate and Spanish-Mexican history. For an air base, the design seems charmingly incongruous, prompting images of Father Serra buckling himself, robe and all, into the cockpit of a B-10 bomber. Despite the civilized architecture, however, it was still a rustic place: razorback hogs occasionally ate the gunnery targets, and holstein bulls had to be chased off the runway.

Homes are being built in six new neighborhoods, four of which are situated along and around Hangar Avenue. They're designed to incorporate many of the amenities of small-town living: walkable streets, front porches, and easy access to parkland (a wetlands hiking trail is under development). The first phase of construction includes 438 single-family detached houses and 112 attached houses, with architectural styles ranging from Craftsman to Spanish colonial.

Hamilton is approximately 12 miles north of San Francisco. Take the Alameda del Prado exit off U.S. 101 and continue north to Palm Dr. Ten model homes are now open: hours are 10 to 6 daily. Call (415) 382-8696 for more information.