December 13, 2008

Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin Civic Center

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

click photo for full-size image
photo by Donald Kinney

On Thursday I had nothing better to do, so I stopped by our Marin Civic Center to snap a few photos.   On display is a great collection of photos and newspaper clippings taken during the various phases of construction, including plans for a fabulous conference center that never got built.   As you might know, the Marin Civic Center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The selection of Frank Lloyd Wright
In spite of the plethora of issues before the Marin County Board of Supervisors in the mid '50's, the biggest issue of all during Vera Schultz's second term was the long-dealyed development of the Scettrini property.   A Civic Center Committee made up of employees of the county was established by the Board in 1956.   Mary Summers, head of the planning commission; Leon de Lisle, County Auditor; Donald Jensen, County Administrator; and Leland Jordan, County Counsel, made up the membership.   The CCC was empowered to select an architect...

Twenty six different architects were screened and sent on to the Board of Supervisors for their consideration.   Bill Fusselman insisted the architect be a home-grown product, even some new hotshot architect residing in the county would do...   George Jones wanted someone who would design a no-nonsense, no-frills, low cost square building...   Vera Schultz was inspired to contact Frank Lloyd Wright after reading a feature about his work in House Beautiful.

House Beautiful carried an article about some of Frank Lloyd Wright's newest designs and the impact they were having on other architects.   The article dealt with his ideas about organic architecture and it's relationship relationship to the physical environment.   Vera's imagination was ignited.   Why not bring in America's foremost architect to Marin to create something uniquely "organic" on the Screttrini property...   Vera wrote to Taliesin West laying out the county's needs and inviting him to come to Marin to see the piece of prime property for himself.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright was born in 1867 and grew up in rural Wisconsin in the decades following the Civil War.   Until his death in 1959, he was a witness to nearly a century of unprecedented scientific and technological innovation which radically altered American landscape and culture.

Wright's distinctive architectural style, which he called "organic architecture", stems from the belief that a building should appear to grow from it's site and that certain dominant forms should be integrated throughout.   Organic architecture is also characterized by the use of natural colors and materials and by the creation of open spaces which highlight and accommodate natural foliage.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Architectural Career
Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural career spanned seven decades.   From the late 1890's through the early part of the 20th Century, he revolutionized residential design, lowering overall building height, eliminating basements and attics, and breaking up of the box-like spaces characteristic of Victorian architecture.   This style, known as the Prairie Style, is exemplified by Wright's design for the Robie House in Chicago.

In 1932, when Wright was 65 years old, he founded his own school of architecture, the Taliesin Fellowship, in Spring Green Wisconsin.   Students and designers came from all over the world to live and work at Taliesin as his apprentices.   In 1937 he founded a second school, Tailiesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Over the course of his life, Wright designed over 1100 structures including residences, shops, hotels, religious buildings, skyscrapers, bridges and museums.   He also designed furniture, art glass and carpets.   Nearly five hundred of Wright's designs were actually built.   Among the most famous are: Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, the Johnson
Wax Administration Building, the dramatically cantilevered private residence, Fallingwater, and New York's Guggenheim Museum.

Marin County Civic Center Cronology
1952   Vera Schultz is elected to the Marin County Board of Supervisors.   She was the first woman Supervisor and the only Supervisor with a college education.   She earned the title of Marin's "First Lady" as a champion of good government and a quality environment.

1956 April 27:   The Marin County Board of Supervisors purchases the 140-acre Screttrini Ranch in Santa Venetia for $551,416 for use as the site of the new Civic Center and County Fairgrounds.

1957 April 26:   Board members Walter Castro, William Gnoss, James Marshall & Vera Schultz as well as the entire Civic Center Committee meet Frank Lloyd Wright in San Francisco and attend his lecture at U.C. Berkeley.

1957 July 30:   Frank Lloyd Wright speaks at a public meeting at San Rafael High School.   His contract is signed after the meeting by four of the Supervisors (William Fusselman dissenting).   The next day he is driven to the Civic Center site for the first time, and inspired by the landscape announces that he has come up with his design.

1958 March 25:   Wright presents his preliminary plans to the Board of Supervisors.

1958 April 28:   Wright speaks to over 700 people who come to see his drawings at San Rafael High School.

1958 April 28:   The Marin County Board of Supervisors votes 4 to 1 to accept Wright's plans and authorizes the acceptance of bids for construction.

1958 September 3:   Model of Wright's master plan for the Civic Center is displayed.

1959 March:   Frank Lloyd Wright is awarded the commission to design to design a post office on the Civic Center Campus site.

1959 April 9:   Frank Lloyd Wright dies.

1959 April 15:   Board votes to continue contract with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for the construction of the Civic Center.   William Wesley Peters, Chief Architect & Aaron Green AIA, Associated Architect, in charge.

1959 November 10:   Blueprints for Civic Center Administration building are approved.

1959 December 22:  Rothschild, Raffin & Weirick, Inc. of San Francisco are awarded construction contract for Administration Building.

1960 February 15:   Ground breaking for Administration building.

1960 June 7:   Supervisors Schultz and Marshall defeated in general election.   Supervisors J. Walter Blair and George Ludy voted in.   The Board of Supervisors is now dominated by an anti-Frank Lloyd Wright faction, led by Supervisor Fusselman.

1961 January 10:   Board votes 3 to 2 to halt work on Civic Center site and possibly convert it for use as a hospital.

1961 January 11:   Work halts at Civic Center.   With Harold Stockstad as it's chairman, the Marin Countil for Civic Affairs is formed to fight for the Civic Center.

1961 January 17:   Work resumes on Civic Center after public is polled by the Marin Independent Journal and votes 8152 to 1225 against the work stoppage.

October 31:   Decision is made to change roof color from gold to blue.

December 5:   J. Walter Blair recalled from office and Peter Behr voted in to take his place.

1962 March 27:   Landscaping bids solicited.   Two firms are selected:   Watkin & Sibbaid of San Anselmo and Paradise Engineering Construction Inc. of Corte Madera.

To the present day:   Since then, a whole 'nother even longer wing has been added to the Civic Center (everything north of the spire).   A fabulous concert hall has been added down a ways on the other side of the lagoon, along with a popular set of exhibition buildings.   And last but not least, several years ago a new subterranian county jail was cleverly built into a hill at the north end of the Civic Center -- it's rumored that it has a direct staircase to hell...

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Tomate Farcie said...

I visited Tailiesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona, about 4 years ago. If you're in the neighborhood, make time for the visit, it's certainly worth it.

Thank you for posting this comprehensive chron on the building of Marin Civic Center and FLW.

Strictly between you and me, I don't think the Civic Center looks as good in person as it does on your photographs (or maybe it was having to go there to argue traffic tickets and what not that ruined it for me ;) ?)

Stacey Huston said...

unique shapes and colors.. thanks for sharing

photowannabe said...

This is great information. I had forgotten a lot of it. I can't believe I never made it there to see it up close and personal.

JoAnn's-D-Eyes said...

Hi Don.....
NOTHING BETTER TO DO::::You are so great in this documentation!
Wow man this is stunning and awsome!!!!! I love this shots and the story behind it, thanks so much!

Ehh Don, you make me blush thanks for the compliment for my blog, today I posted another nice one..

Greetings from JoAnn

Tomate Farcie said...

I came back to clarify my previous comment (and to look at these photographs again!)

I didn't mean to put down the FLW building in Marin! It's just that I've been inside a number of times, and drove past it nearly every day for years and years, and I've never, I mean NEVER seen that building the way I did through your lens!

I guess what I was trying to say is that your photographs of that building are nothing short of spectacular!

I see that you've added some new shots of the Civic Center to your Big Site, too?

Very, very cool and how nice for us. Thank you so much for posting!

chrome3d said...

Funny how you selected only details from the building and I have no real view of the whole house, except from the photos that I have seen before. Only good details then, no trashy corners!

Tash said...

Very n-i-i-i-c-e. I almost had us miss our return flight from NYC this fall because I had to go see the Guggenheim Museum - the building, didn't have time for the art. I never know about this building - I'm adding it to must see places. Thanx.

AphotoAday said...

Thanks for mentioning the new photos on my Civic Center site

I've been adding and subtracting from the "big site" recently, and there will be more to come...

Brag, brag, brag, but I've shot everything on the "big" site with the Canon5D that I've only had a year and a half... The site should be twice as good in another year and a half at this rate...

I LOVE YOU said...


tiger said...


Miss jane said...


under construction