Corinthian Island

Marin’s tiniest community is a true tale of two cities
Photos by Tim Porter

Get this: diminutive Corinthian Island has only 58 homes on three streets (Alcatraz, Bellevue and Eastview avenues); it isn’t an island (150 years ago, possibly — not now) but rather a somewhat steep 15-acre waterside hill adjoining Tiburon and connected to Belvedere by a spit of land. Strangest of all, it encompasses the two municipalities—a third of it lies in Tiburon, two thirds in Belvedere. As best as anyone knows, the Belvedere-Tiburon border runs between Eastview and Alcatraz Avenues.

“I’ve heard that the kitchen of one Corinthian Island house is in Tiburon, and its living room is in Belvedere,” says Joan Linn Bekins with a laugh in her voice. That is not the case for the home where she and her husband Don live (yes, they’re of the Bekins Van Lines family): “We’ve been on the Belvedere side of Corinthian Island for 44 years—and love it.” Frederick Kelley, who along with brother James was a developer of the island, built the Bekinses’ home 100 years ago. Like most in this hillside area, it’s a multilevel residence. “Counting the boathouse, we have seven levels,” says Joan, “though we do all of our ‘living’ on three floors.”

There’s little doubt Corinthian Island’s appeal is twofold: its views and its convenience. “I can walk to the post office in five minutes and to the library in ten minutes,” says Paul Kraus, who’s lived here nearly 50 years; other residents likewise exult in being just a quick stroll from downtown Tiburon and the San Francisco or the Corinthian Yacht Club. Corinthian Island homes overlook either picturesque Belvedere Cove or historic Tiburon, and almost all have a partial to full-on view of San Francisco Bay, including its bridges and the city skyline.

Once named Valentine Island, the ersatz isle got its name from a group of amateur sailing enthusiasts who in 1886 founded the Corinthian Yacht Club (CYC) in what the founders believed was “the finest spot on the bay.” As Marin historian Branwell Fanning explains, “The name ‘Corinthian” was intended to evoke the image of ‘ancient amateur athletes.’” From that came the Kelley brothers’ Corinthian Island Company, which started developing the land behind the clubhouse in 1907. A few years later, that original clubhouse burned down and July 4, 1912, marked the dedication of a sparkling new white clubhouse that still stands proudly on the eastern lip of Corinthian Island. The CYC is the second oldest yacht club on the West Coast.

“A lot of interesting characters live here,” says Maria Woodward, who has lived in what she calls “a little cottage over the water” on Corinthian Island since 1965. Then Woodward quickly and lightheartedly changes the subject to protect her neighbors’ privacy. However, in the age of Google, remaining a recluse here is nearly impossible. Just a little online snooping reveals that Woodward herself wrote last year’s The Ghosts of Belvedere and Tiburon, a musical that played to SRO crowds at the Corinthian Yacht Club. Meanwhile, Kate and Cam Baker—who live atop Corinthian Island in the brown shingled home that harbors the island’s only pool—are part owners of Larkmead Vineyards in Calistoga. And half a block down the hill from them, where a colorful naval captain named Elmer Towle resided for many years, now live Javier and Rose Burillo — he’s the developer of Las Ventanas, the award-winning resort in Baja.

In addition to Google, most people on the Tiburon Peninsula read The Ark, the weekly newspaper whose co-publisher, Barbara Gnoss, happens to live on the island’s Alcatraz Avenue with her husband George, a San Francisco attorney. However, Corinthian Island’s most talk-about resident of late is Philippe Kahn, the Swiss immigrant who arrived penniless in Silicon Valley and, among other technological advances, found a way to blend a digital camera with a handheld phone. Along with his wife, the equally talented tech innovator Sonia Lee, Kahn created an environmental foundation and raised four children; on his own, he plays the flute on an almost professional level and leads Pegasus Racing, a championship-caliber ocean sailing team.

Over a year ago, Kahn bought the property adjacent to his own with the intent of connecting the two homes—but the town of Belvedere balked at the concept. So he’s currently building a new home next door with the intent of making it the primary family residence. “It’s common knowledge in the neighborhood that once they finish the new home, the one they’re living in now will house crews of Kahn’s numerous racing sailboats,” says Dave Gilbert, owner of Tiburon Land Company, a local residential realty firm.

Six months into the new home project, only its retaining walls and foundation have been completed because, due to Corinthian Island’s narrow one-way roads, most materials must be barged to the construction site (rumors claim $20 million has been expended to date). Meanwhile, Kahn has earned the appreciation of his neighbors by dredging a channel into Belvedere Cove so it can accommodate sailboats in the neighborhood of 60 feet in length.

One grateful neighbor will be the new owner of a residence currently listed by Gilbert’s Tiburon Land Company. “This home started life over a century ago as the Belvedere Fishing Club,” claims Gilbert. “Then sometime in the 1950s, it began its transformation into an eccentric 3,600-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath home.” The property’s current price: $4.75 million. Its amenities include the oft-touted walking distance from nearby bars and restaurants and the two yacht clubs. “Other consequences aside,” Gilbert points out; “its price could be less than defending a DUI.”

At press time, Corinthian Island had only two other properties listed. One is the Bekinses’ landmark home featuring a lovely view of Belvedere Cove and a potential for six bedrooms. “We’ve listed it at $8 million,” states David Kirchhoff of Decker Bullock Sotheby’s International Realty. The other listing is a building site offered by Craig Swanson, also of Decker Bullock. It has “a view over Tiburon to the open space and includes approved plans by former Tiburon mayor Miles Berger for a modern four-bedroom, four-bath, multistory home,” Swanson says. This property’s price: $900,000.

Needless to say, Corinthian Island is not your typical cookie-cutter community.

Categories: Environment, Neighborhoods