Proposed Inverness Park home 
would raze historic retreat

David Briggs
A former Russian Orthodox hermitage at the top of Balboa Avenue—from which frustrated monks trucked their chapel in 2008—would be demolished under plans submitted to the county. A Seattle architecture firm has envisioned a steel and concrete structure with aged-wood siding, a caretaker’s unit, an art studio, a lap pool, a meditation hut and two septic systems for the site.

An anonymous developer wants to tear down the remnants of an old monastery in Inverness Park to build six new structures, totaling 8,300 square feet of building area.

The 17-acre parcel near the start of Drakes Sum- mit had been the home of St. Eugene’s Hermitage, a Christian community that lived in cramped cottages, made candles and whispered prayers in a small, white chapel, since 1951.

The monks departed in 2006 after repeated attempts to expand provoked neighbors’ ire, leaving the property unoccupied and littered with fir needles for the past several years. The new owners, Hidden Dragon, L.L.C., submitted designs to county planners last month to demolish the four existing structures and construct a 5,494-square-foot two-story home, a second 750-square-foot residence for the caretakers, a 1,316-square-foot detached studio for art or writing, two garages, a lap pool and a “meditation hut.” They also plan to install two septic systems, two 5,000-gallon water tanks, a 1,000-gallon propane tank and four parking spaces for guests. Four dozen Douglas-fir, California bay, coast live oak and madrone trees have been proposed for removal, 31 of which have a protected status due to their size; 28 California live oak big leaf maple and buckeye trees would be replanted.

The Inverness Association’s design review committee will be taking a look at the application over the coming weeks, said Bridger Mitchell, the group’s vice president. The Community Development Agency is accepting comments on the application’s completeness and the project’s merits until next Friday, Sept. 12.

Designed by Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, whose other residences have been described in The New York Times as “ruggedly elegant” and “uncomplicated” in form, the primary residence is a steel and concrete structure with a painted metal roof. Its walls will feature an aged-wood siding to match the dense forest around the home, and its rooms look out onto the landscape through large windows.

The design was intended as a transition between the meadow and the forest on the parcel, a mediation “between those two experiences while being in and of both,” said architect Steve Grim. A pavilion structure was utilized to reduce bulk and keep a low visual profile from the street. Inspired by the J.B. Blunk house, the design is mean to be “sustainable, healthy and visually unobtrusive,” Mr. Grim added.

Chris Stanton, who is representing the titleholders through his San Rafael-based firm, Inverness Construction Management, would not disclose the names behind the limited liability corporation. The agent behind the L.L.C is Whitney Rugg, who lives in the luxury Presidio Landmark apartments that were recently remodeled from a dilapidated, graffiti-painted hospital in San Francisco, according to the Secretary of State’s records. 

The home will be their secondary residence for now, but the owners plan to retire here, Mr. Stanton said. (A young couple with a child who have previously lived in West Marin will be the property’s stewards and live full time in the second cottage, he added.)

In that sense, the property is returning to its oldest use: Inverness began as a hideaway—or a hermitage, if you will—for those in “the Establishment,” as historian Jack Mason writes in “Earthquake Bay.” During the summer, “bankers, doctors and judges from San Francisco and the Valley cities, and academicians from the Berkeley scene” retreated to their Inverness houses, which “reflected taste and affluence that set the town apart from the jerry-built summer colonies elsewhere in the county.”

The first house on the parcel, which appears to still be standing, was built in 1920 by James Cobb, who worked in the insurance business and lived in Berkeley with his wife and five children. During the summer town’s heyday—between the building of a horse-and-wagon stageline to Point Reyes Station in 1905 and the Great Depression’s downturn that bank- rupted the hotels—the house was a vacation home, presumably, or even a rental.

A later owner, Maria Lurie of San Francisco, gifted to the property to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1951. It was named St. Eugene’s as a memorial to her son Eugene Lurie, an infantryman who was killed on the last day of World War II only hours before peace was declared.

The first inhabitant, Rev. Dimitry Egoroff, built two small cottages: one with a chapel suitable for one person to occupy and another with a kitchen and reception area for guests. “In the California forest, on the small hill on which the monastery stands, an air of detachment from one’s surroundings, which were somewhere down below, wafted,” Rev. Egoroff recounted in a 1956 sermon. “The location reminded one of something Athonite”—a holy mountain in Greece with twenty Orthodox monasteries—“and breathed an untroubled peace.”

Under vows of poverty, chastity and solitude, Rev. Egoroff lived alone, praying the morning matins and the nightly even-song until his health began to decline after 18 years. At each sunset, his chanting, “Thou makes darkness and it is night,” echoed through the forest accompanied by floating trails of incense.

After the founder left, several monks trickled in and out until a group of nuns moved from Calistoga in 1983. They resumed a years-long project to construct a small chapel suitable for services. Completed in 1988, it was built around the cupola from the belltower of Holy Trin- ity Cathedral in San Francisco, where the young Mr. Lurie had been a member of the congregation before his death. A relic with a piece of a saint’s toe and painted icons of Jesus surrounded the walls, all lit by beeswax candles on silver bases.

When the nuns could no longer care for the property and moved to Santa Rosa, the Monastery of St. John’s took over operations in 1996. They continued to make candles in a rusting shipping container and pray in regular devotions, but the growing organization of about a dozen monks needed to expand beyond the original dwellings, which had been intended for one or two people and had since fallen into disrepair due to crude construction and an infestation of black mold after years in fog. The monks’ plans faced continual rejection—“stymied by Marin County officialdom”—and eventually, fed up, they dismantled their small chapel, loaded it onto the back of a flatbed truck and carried it off with them north to Manton, a remote town in Tehama County, in 2008.

Mr. Stanton said the new owners, like the holy men before them, have “concerns” about how their plans will be received. “I wouldn’t equate it with the chapel, a residence and having 30 people at the site,” he said, “but you know, it’s West Marin, and so we plan to see some objections raised.”

One wonders how the men and women in black robes would react to seeing their cottages bulldozed, how the monks who renounced this world to instead plead daily for repentance would feel observing the new owners towel off from the pool and retreat into their own meditation hut.

In his 1956 sermon, Father Egoroff gave his own arguments justifying a “small, modest, secluded” life. “A person in the world becomes accustomed to the world and starts to live by its interests. But we know that everything in the world is temporary and swiftly passing,” he preached. “As for man, his days are as the grass: as a flower of the field, so shall he blossom forth. For when the wind is passed over it, then it shall be gone, and no longer will it know the place thereof.” 


This article was corrected on Sept. 12.