Deficient report preceded permit to demolish Bo marine lab

David Briggs
The Coast Guard raised a temporary flag pole and flag, then lowered the flag in a symbolic ceremony last Thursday to commemorate the demolition of the Bolinas marine lab.  

The Coast Guard lowered the flag at its old lifeboat station in Bolinas last week and handed it off to a professor from the College of Marin, which will raze the property this month to create a new marine laboratory. The ceremony marked the end of the historic buildings, but local historians say the decision to demolish one of three remaining lifeboat stations in the Bay Area is based on a faulty report. 

“These buildings are really historic, valuable things to keep and preserve,” said Ralph Shanks, the author of four books on Coast Guard history. “I think it’s very, very sad that we’re going to lose this historic station.”

The Bolinas Bay Lifeboat Station opened on Wharf Road in 1917, after a wooden ship wrecked just below today’s Commonweal and 23 people died. Equipment and crews were coming from San Francisco, so the Coast Guard decided to add a station that could respond to emergencies in the dangerous waters further north. 

Crews were involved in a number of daring rescues and saved countless lives. One incident that stands out was in 1926, when a ship named the Yosemite, carrying 827 tons of dynamite, was struggling in the rocks near the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Crews boarded the vessel and saved everyone on board. Another rescue, after World War II, involved saving hundreds of soldiers who wrecked at the Farallon Islands on their transport home.

“It’s the stuff you write novels about,” California historian John Martini said.

Elia Haworth, the curator for the Bolinas Museum, wrote that many of the guardsmen who served were new immigrants to America. They created a little community within town, and fisherman would gift them with fish to show appreciation for their life-saving efforts.

“The station bustled with activity as guardsmen ran drills in the lagoon and ocean, helped locals and taught kids to swim,” Ms. Haworth wrote in a history of the property.

The station consists of a two-story main building, a boathouse and a lookout tower on the bluff above. Across the street, a pier was built to launch the boats. But in 1947, the lagoon was silted in, trapping boats inside at low tide, and newer technology like helicopters had emerged to help lifesaving efforts. The station was closed. 

The College of Marin purchased the property in 1955 and, nine years later, opened a marine lab. Now, the college plans to rebuild the lab, which closed in 2006 due to a number of health and safety issues, including a black mold infestation.

The college’s application for county permits included a report by Mark Hulbert, a historical resources consultant. Mr. Hulbert found that although the property has a history, the buildings are not eligible for protection because most of the original materials have been covered up or replaced. The buildings “have been materially and functionally altered,” and “the integrity of design is not intact,” he wrote. In a December hearing, county planners accepted the finding that the structures are not historical resources. 

But Mr. Shanks, Mr. Martini and local historian Dewey Livingston all disputed the conclusion to the Light this week. None of them were consulted by Mr. Hulbert, and they say that if they had been, they could have provided important context and information. 

Mr. Hulbert declined an interview this week. “I don’t know if I’m in a good position to talk about that,” he said.

Joe Mueller, a biology instructor at the College of Marin who spearheaded the project, says the cost of preserving the building while still meeting code requirements for public education facilities would have proven prohibitively expensive.

The main building is filled with hazardous materials and has structural defects. To meet accessibility requirements, it would need a ramp, a wheelchair lift and wider doors and hallways, lead architect Lance Kutz said.

“Simply put, it came down to either keeping the building for historical reasons or not having an educational facility,” Mr. Mueller said. 

The Bolinas station is one of three remaining lifeboat stations in the Bay Area, and the other two, on Point Reyes and in the Presidio in San Francisco, are considered national historical landmarks, which comes with the highest level of protection and makes properties eligible for preservation grants and technical assistance. The other lifeboat stations weren't mentioned in the report.

“I can tell you, they're rare,” Mr. Martini said. “I don’t know how someone could’ve reviewed it and said it didn’t have historic integrity.”

Mr. Hulbert’s did not access original plans or any related documentation, nor did he evaluate the insides of the buildings. Instead, his findings are based on how the buildings were altered by the college in the 1960s when they first adapted the property for use as a marine lab. 

At that time, the college added a new door, wood trim, tile roofing, shingle siding, steel handrails, gutters and downspouts to the main building. External walls were added to the corners to stabilize the structure, and two brick chimneys were removed. What remains is the structure’s overall form, porch, door and window openings, and windows. The boathouse underwent similar alterations, such that only the original west side and attic windows remain, the report found.

But Mr. Shanks, who spoke at last Thursday’s ceremony, told the Light that when he looks at the building, he clearly sees its original character. He said the station is the last in California built in the Chatham architectural style, characterized by the shape of its roof, the protruding porch and two stories.

Mr. Livingston, who has been conducting evaluations of potentially historic places for 30 years, said the report is not well-researched and contains errors and bogus justifications. He said the integrity of the building could be improved by removing the exterior alterations.

But although Mr. Livingston and Mr. Shanks disagree with the report’s findings, they said they decided last year to stay out of the issue because they appreciate the value of field education. The marine lab will be situated at a prime location near the lagoon, Duxbury Reef and surrounding parkland. It will host students of all ages with the goal of inspiring them to become scientists who will work to protect the environment. The project is supported by many local groups who want to see the building used in a beneficial way, and some residents have complained about the derelict property attracting trespassers. 

The use permit, design review and coastal permit were signed in December, and deconstruction began on Monday. The roof and siding will be taken down until May 21, then the wood framing and concrete foundation will be demolished until June 7. The land will be graded and a fence will be installed by June 17, after which the college’s architect will continue to work on the drawings of the new lab, presenting it to the town along the way. 

The college will host a virtual meeting on May 24 to discuss what kind of fence to use and update residents on the progress. The design will incorporate a symbolic nautical lantern and a metal plaque on the front gate to acknowledge the site’s history. Representatives from the college said they were excited to return in a few years to again raise the flag.