A princess came to town last Wednesday. She was dressed in sensible black heels, thick pantyhose and a silken neck scarf. Eighty-eight-year-old Elettra Marconi Giovanelli, her hair a soft nest of fading blonde curls, was visiting West Marin to bear witness to her father’s electric legacy.
The princess is not the daughter of a king. She is royalty by marriage, having wed Prince Carlo Giovannelli in 1966. But her father, the legendary Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, looms large in history as the inventor of the radio.
Mr. Marconi founded his telecommunications company in 1897, the same year he sent out the world’s first open-sea wireless message.
In 1912, Mr. Marconi’s company acquired a number of radio stations in America, among them station KPH, in San Francisco. In order to create a signal powerful enough to cross the Pacific, a receiving station was built in Marshall and a transmitting station in Bolinas.
After World War I, the government sought tighter control over radio communication and in 1920 formed the Radio Corporation of America, which bought out Marconi’s holdings. Maritime service continued in Marshall until 1939.
Now the site, a state historic park, is believed to be the last Marconi receiving station left in North America. “The only reason this was preserved was a chain of custody,” said Matthew Trout, the Marconi Conference Center’s facilities manager.
The Radio Corporation of America owned the site till 1947. When a dentist subsequently bought the property to use as a resort, he realized it would be more useful to repurpose the existing structures than to tear them down. In the ’60s, when Synanon, the drug-rehabilitation-group-turned-cult moved in, they too kept the buildings in order to house people.
“It’s the only intact receiving station as far as I know,” Mr. Trout said. “The historical value is immense—very little is done today that doesn’t involve wireless communication.”
For the past few decades there has been little community use of the Marconi center, said Hal Russek, general manager of the state park. Mr. Russek hopes to refurbish buildings that have fallen into disrepair by bringing in a for-profit partner to “hopefully make it a centerpiece of West Marin.”
Princess Elettra liked the idea. She had travelled to West Marin after seeing Silicon Valley, curious about the West Coast’s new innovation hub. She brought three Italian scientists in tow; one of them, Alessandro Pasquali, is working on an invention to harness power from light waves.
“The princess appreciates this field because she said her father—if he’d had the time—would have studied light connections,” he said.
Mr. Pasquali explained that light is part of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy that Mr. Marconi had devoted his life to studying. “We are continuing the last frequency of her father,” he said.
Preserving and extending her father’s legacy is one of Princess Elettra’s main preoccupations. In 2014, she announced that she would begin work to establish her father’s 15th century palatial home in Bologna, Italy as a kind of incubator for American college students studying science and technology. “I have the responsibility to use [the palace] for the memory of my father,” she said.
At Marconi, the princess seemed delighted to just be on the grounds her father had owned. “Bello!” she proclaimed often, unperturbed by the little piles of deer droppings between her steps. When Stephen King, a volunteer with the Maritime Radio Historical Society told her that the Marconi transmitting center in Bolinas was still in operation, she told him to send her love and wishes to listeners during the next broadcast.
Princess Elettra said she had many beautiful memories of her father, who died when she was 7. “I only want to remember my father,” she said. While she never had any desire to be an inventor herself—“I never wanted to be competitive; I am not a genius,” she said—the princess was grateful that her father “gave so much benefit to humanity, and gave them the possibility to speak to one another.”
Inside a dilapidated former dormitory for unmarried workers, the princess pressed her hands into the stones of a defunct fireplace.
“We’re going to make this place beautiful again,” Mr. Russek told her.
“Yes!” she replied emphatically.
“We want to restore it, not replace it,” he added.
“And keep the name of Marconi!” was the princess’s swift rejoinder.