Many locals, if asked to name the center of Petaluma, might answer Walnut Park. “It’s the gateway to the city,” said Petaluma Rotary Club’s Rick Gorman.

To that end, Rotary and six other local service clubs are working to make the park, now almost a century and a half old, a safer, better-looking spot.

The clubs, known jointly as the Petaluma Service Alliance, include the three local Rotary chapters, Rotary, Petaluma Valley Rotary and Petaluma Sunrise Rotary; Petaluma Host Lions and 7-11 Lions; Kiwanis and the Elks Lodge. They’ve been working together on local projects for the past five years.

“Walnut Park is a major community gathering spot,” said Maureen Frances, chair of the Walnut Park Legacy Project. “Everyone I talk to has a great feeling about it.”

The one-block square park at the corner of Fourth and D streets has been a gathering spot almost from the city’s earliest days when it was a central spot in the then much smaller city. Originally known as the Lower Plaza or the D Street Plaza, the park was created in 1879, Frances said.

Not only is Walnut Park a shady place to meet, rest, play and picnic, it’s the summer and fall home of the Saturday Farmers’ Market. It’s the park portion of the Petaluma Arts Association’s Art in the Park. It plays host to the late September Petaluma Progressive Festival. And it’s the stepping-off spot for Petaluma parades.

Landscaping has already been replaced with red, white and blue flowers and benches repainted by Dustin O’Brien. What the Petaluma Service Alliance now has planned is replacing the rutted asphalt paths with concrete sidewalks. Gorman said the need became imperative last year “when the new Vietnam memorial plaque was dedicated and a number of veterans had a hard time getting to the site because of the condition of the paths.”

Another group, he said, will be in charge of replacing the wall around the children’s playground.

Because the park is well-used during summer and early fall, Gorman said the work won’t be started until after the Veterans Day Parade.

Commemorative bricks in three sizes are being sold and will circle the gazebo. Priced from $100 to $250, the money will help fund the park upgrades and give all members of the community a chance to contribute. Also available for sponsorship are benches and plaques.

Other beautifications and upgrades include possible rehabilitation of the metal archway created for the park’s centennial, Frances said. “We’d like to enhance the children’s playground, to tie it in historically” with the Brainerd Jones-designed building on the south side.

Petalumans have long been dedicated to maintaining this park. According to plazasparksandplaygrounds.com, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union donated parts for a fountain in Walnut Park, “in keeping with their desire to give people something other than liquor to drink …

“The need for water required a well, and a tank house and windmill were authorized by the city trustees in 1899. It was expected that excess water could be sold, recouping the cost of construction …

“Volunteers again stepped up in 1927 when the Lions Club installed the gazebo that is located in the center of the park. … The gazebo was a huge success, with weekly concerts drawing crowds of people. It was the custom for music lovers who owned cars to gather at the perimeter of the park and sit in their cars to enjoy the music, honking their horns at the end of each selection. Two years later the Petaluma Lions’ club installed several large benches around the gazebo to assure seating ‘for those who do not have cars in which to sit and hear the music.’”

Walnut Park, Frances said, is held in trust for future residents. The park’s been a major part of the city and “we’re the generation that needs to carry it on,” to pass it on for the enjoyment of the next generations of Petaluma citizens.

To find out more about sponsoring a brick, plaque or bench, call Maureen Frances at 769-0145.