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When Harmon Heald laid out the map for Healdsburg more than 150 years ago, he never could have known that one day the plaza he created would be designated one of the country's best.

In yet another accolade bestowed on Healdsburg by a magazine and website, Travel and Leisure last week named the town's plaza as one of "America's Most Beautiful Town Squares."

The list of 13 squares around the country singles out the Healdsburg Plaza for its trees, fountains and copper-roofed gazebo, which "add to the stately charm."

The publication said the picturesque squares they identified occupy a special place in the hearts of their communities and often have surrounding colorful shops and cafes.

Unlike some cities, Healdsburg doesn't have a landmark courthouse or city hall in its plaza, but it is considered about as perfect as they come in the eyes of urban designers.

It isn't sliced in half by a busy street, like Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square.

Even the historic 8-acre Sonoma Plaza, a throwback to the Mexican era and an even older Spanish-style layout, is considered to be much larger than the ideal size of the 1-acre Healdsburg square.

"Healdsburg is a little more intimate," said Lois Fisher, an urban designer and Windsor planning commission chairwoman, who added "It is very poetically sized."

Fisher, who specializes in creating walkable communities, said the nearby buildings with varying heights of one to three stories provide a sort of encircling wall, "a sense of outdoor room" that lends a feeling of safety and protection to people who congregate there.

The sidewalks are wide, and the shops and restaurants that ring the square have enticing doors every 30 feet or so.

Wine-tasting rooms, bookstores, art galleries, boutiques, hotels, eateries and retail shops abound.

"You want people to feel there is something interesting to pull them along -- to keep going. They can't wait to see, 'What's up here next?' " Fisher said.

Paul Weber, who picnicked in the square on the grass Tuesday afternoon with his wife, Glenys, echoed the observation.

"The shops look real interesting," said Weber, a high school principal from Chico. "You want to go in."

In contrast, he said the plaza in Chico is overgrown with trees, so the building facades are obscured.

"It is gorgeous," he said of the Healdsburg Plaza. His only complaint was that there was no public restroom, although a nearby sign with a map detailed several located within a half-block or so.

Susan Hadley and Jackie Lolich, both from the Ukiah area, drove to Healdsburg for lunch and to hang out afterward. They were sitting and chatting on one of the more than two dozen benches in the Plaza.

"It has that small-town vibe that's very pleasant," Hadley said of the ambience.

"It is very welcoming," agreed Mayor Susan Jones, who said part of the Plaza's success is its location at the center of town and the ability to accommodate large numbers of people without feeling crowded.

She said the public takes care not to litter, and city crews fastidiously maintain it, including re-seeding the grass every year because of the wear and tear that crowds inflict during summer concerts.

Beside its inviting diagonal walkways, the Plaza has shade-producing trees that range from Canary Island date palms installed in 1897, to redwoods planted to commemorate the 1924 opening of the Redwood Highway, which ran from the Golden Gate to Oregon, via downtowns that included Healdsburg.

There are other interesting pieces of history in the Plaza, including pioneer settler Cyrus Alexander's grist mill stone and a small monument honoring long ago star athletes and world champions from Healdsburg.

But it all began with failed gold seeker Heald's decision to build a cabin in 1851 just 150 feet west of the present-day Plaza. He followed with a general store and post office 100 feet to the north, built along a well traveled path between San Francisco and the northern mines, according to the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. That path became Healdsburg Avenue.

In 1857, Heald hired a surveyor to lay out a central plaza with streets and 85 lots, and the town sprung up.

Historians say he deserves credit for the Plaza.

"Even in the very first map it was identified as a plaza, with the idea of being a community gathering place, which I think is such a generous gesture," said Holly Hoods, curator for the museum and historical society.

"It was his land and his idea to found a town," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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