CornerStone sold

When you buy CornerStone, the unique nine-acre art-garden property south of Sonoma on Highway 121, you’re buying the beautiful buildings, the metal sculptures and the rows of olive trees.

You’re buying the open spaces, the ponds, the outdoor event venue and the Big Blue Chairs.

But the question then becomes: What do you do with it?

Walter Thompson, president of Canadian firm GenerX Real Estate Services, LLC – which is currently in escrow to buy CornerStone for an undisclosed amount – told the Index-Tribune on Monday that he looks forward to answering that question soon.

“For now though, until escrow has closed and we’ve had a chance to discuss things with more of CornerStone’s stakeholders, discussion of future plans would be premature,” he said.

GenerX is described as “a commercial real estate development firm specializing in complex, high value-add development and redevelopment opportunities in the Northern California and Southern Ontario markets.” The company has offices in Toronto and in San Rafael.

A few days ago, Thompson did allude to the idea of bringing in more food artisans and growers with an eye to turning CornerStone into a high-end food court – perhaps something resembling San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza.

But no specifics have been confirmed at this point. In a press release, Thompson stated, “We are all excited to see CornerStone achieve a broader appeal through an energized focus on offering guests a uniquely Sonoma experience of local culture, cuisine, wine, and independent retailers, while building upon the tradition of the gardens.”

CornerStone was founded 10 years ago by Chris Houghie and Teresa Raffo, with the idea of creating a “cultural and creative haven,” as Houghie put it, that is centered around the gardens. Inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France, it currently features more than 20 outdoor installations by skilled landscape artists. The exhibits, which change over time, have attracted the attention of garden aficionados (including Sunset magazine) and more casual garden and art lovers.

The place is open year-round and free to the public – meaning the 100,000 people who reportedly visited last year didn’t have to pay a dime to see the attractions.

But CornerStone also has shops – such as Potter Green, a garden shop featuring the largest wind chime on Earth, and the well-loved Artefact Design & Salvage, which displays a staggering variety of found objects from around the globe. It also has wine tasting rooms, art galleries, a tourist center and a restaurant, Park 121.

Bruce Riezenman, owner of Park 121, was among the first to know about the pending sale, as he was tapped early on to run CornerStone’s events department.

“I’m very thrilled about it,” he said of the changes afoot. As for Thompson, he said, “I like what I hear.”

Riezenman also praised Houghie and Raffo, giving them credit for creating one of the most delightful destinations in Sonoma Valley.

“Chris and Terry did a really great job of building something unique,” he said. But he also hoped Thompson can bring on “the next stage of project,” which could involve more public outreach.

CornerStone, he said wryly, needs to grow “from the best-kept secret to maybe the second- or third-best-kept secret” in Sonoma Valley.

“I’m very positive about it,” he added.

As for the outdoor spaces, Riezenman recommended that visitors simply take some time to mill about.

“The gardens are this wonderful exploration that you can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

Even on a recent rainy Friday afternoon, with few people around, the place was alive with movement, color and sound – from the giant bed of blue-and-green pinwheels to the installation of faux grapevines made of wire whose metal leaves clink in the wind.

Keep walking, and the scope of the place becomes clear. CornerStone is a crazy quilt of garden plots designed by some of the world’s best-known landscape artists, such as Mario Schjetnam. These artists have built concept spaces, constructed mostly out natural materials that are woven, stacked, grown or placed by a careful hand. It is a showcase for garden artists, at the gateway to Wine Country.

Events at this unique setting – such as making it a charging station for the “first-ever Electric Vehicle Rally through Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties” – already are in the works for this spring.