New Details, Old Controversy
Exploring the untold story of an iconic Marin building.
“In Marin County you have one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen, and I am proud to make the buildings of this county characteristic of the beauty of the county.” — Frank Lloyd Wright, in comments to a public meeting in San Rafael, July 1957
THE MARIN COUNTY Civic Center is the most distinctive government complex in the United States, and it’s the only government project designed by Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. The story of how it came to be, and the heated controversy created when Wright first proposed his design, is a memorable chapter in the history of American architecture.
In the early 1950s Marin County’s rapidly growing population was served by an antiquated courthouse in downtown San Rafael, along with various county offices scattered around 12 locations. So in 1953 the Board of Supervisors began seeking a site for a new courthouse and county offices. On April 27, 1956, the county purchased a private ranch in San Venetia just east of Highway 101 for $426,000. During the following year, a committee interviewed dozens of architects, providing 26 names to the Board of Supervisors, one name being Frank Lloyd Wright. In April 1957 four of the five supervisors met with Wright in his San Francisco office to discuss the project. Finally, on June 26, 1957, four of the supervisors voted to begin negotiations with Wright after recommending him as the architect. And that’s when the trouble began.
Marin County’s government was dominated by an old-boy network until the election in 1955, when a more progressive group took office. The new board consisted of four men and one woman, Vera Schultz. She had been elected to the board in 1952 and, as the first woman ever to serve on that body, acquired the moniker “First Lady of Marin.” Schultz was the most ardent backer of Frank Lloyd Wright as prospective civic center architect. She had the support of three of the men on the board, but the fourth, William Fusselman, and his ally County Clerk George Jones, did everything they could to prevent Wright from getting the commission. They would come very close, more than once, in a sustained effort to derail Wright’s plans and force the board to pick another architect. If not for Schultz’s unwavering support and ironclad determination in the face of heated opposition, Wright’s version of the center would never have been built.
Fusselman attributed his opposition to several factors. At the June 26 board meeting he accused fellow supervisors of “crawling to Wright at the bidding of one of his vassals to bow and kiss his hand,” mainly because he felt they had not given adequate consideration to architects based in California. He also protested that Wright’s fee was too high, since Wright was asking 10 percent of the total construction costs when most other architects were charging 8 percent. In response, Planning Director Mary Summers pointed out that Wright’s tally was “really quite inexpensive when you consider it includes the costs of a master plan for the site,” usually paid separately in large government projects. And Schultz reminded Fusselman that he’d chosen not to even accompany board members when they went to visit Wright.
But Fusselman’s most aggressive objections had to do with Wright’s purported political reputation. When four of the board members signed a contract with Wright on July 30, 1957, Fusselman refused to sign. He would soon launch a whole new line of attack including an array of bitter, vitriolic personal accusations that nearly made Wright decide to withdraw from the deal.
The day after the four board members signed the contract, Wright appeared before a crowded room in a public meeting at San Rafael High School. He told the audience they would be getting a “fresh, convenient and beautiful civic center,” with plenty of parking. The Marin Independent Journal reported the next day that “Wright’s sharp wit and caustic observations kept the audience of about 600 applauding and laughing during a one-hour show.” In his opening remarks he declared, “Civilization without a culture is like a man or woman without a soul. Culture consists of the love of beauty in the human spirit.” Then he took questions from the audience. One man asked how he would halt the “cancerous growth of present building developments that are ruining Marin County.” Wright replied, “Well, there’s the atom bomb,” then launched into a tirade about utility poles and wires and “tiny lots” that were jamming homes side by side, adding, “We’ve got to go out and abolish the realtor. I’ve hated him since the inception of my architectural career.” Next he took citizens to task for their apathy in not demanding higher-quality development. “If you are up for something better, you are going to get it,” he said, adding with characteristic arrogance that “when people go for an architect, they should go on their hands and knees as far as they can go to get the best, because the best isn’t good enough.” Supervisor Fusselman was conspicuously absent from this meeting.
PERSONAL AND POLITICAL ATTACKS
Political objections to Wright first surfaced on July 25, 1957, when a Marin County Veterans Service officer said the architect was not fit to design the veterans’ memorial component of the civic center complex. “We don’t like his war record, and we don’t want his name on our Veterans’ Memorial Building,” W.P. Duhamel said at a supervisor meeting. “We think Wright is a pacifist. From what I’ve heard, during World War II, he had several conscientious objectors among his men [staff]. His name was mentioned in the 1948 report of the House Un-American Activities Committee and I would say unfavorably.” The supervisors ignored Duhamel and passed a resolution restating their decision to draw up a contract with Wright. Once again, Fusselman was the lone dissenter — an opening salvo in an ugly campaign to impugn Wright’s patriotism and loyalty as an American citizen.
At the next supervisor meeting, on August 2, Fusselman brought out his big guns. The meeting was supposed to finalize the decision to proceed with Wright’s plans and be followed by a site inspection with Wright. Instead, it turned into a three-ring circus. Bryson Reinhardt, an American Legion member from Mill Valley, demanded to file a seven-page report into the meeting record, accusing Wright of having “a record of active and extensive support of Communist views and enterprises.” The gathering erupted into acrimonious debate. The report had been prepared by J.B. Mathews, a former HUAC staff member and investigator for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
The first person to respond was the architect himself. He labeled the charges “ridiculous, and an unjustified insult that had been buried long ago. There’s no substance in that. I’m a loyal American, everybody knows it — I am what I am. If you don’t like it, you can lump it. To hell with it all.” Then he stood up and stalked toward the exit. Supervisor Castro asked him, “Do you mind?” Wright responded angrily, “Yes, I do mind being insulted like this!” He continued to the exit doors, then paused, turned around, and waved his cane toward the audience. “This is an absolute and utter insult — and I won’t be subject to it!” he thundered and disappeared through the chamber doors.
After Wright left, Schultz declared that Marin County had been “humiliated” by the accusations: “This county does not look into the political beliefs of any of its employees. It is certainly inappropriate that we should subject a man of Mr. Wright’s caliber to the reading of such unfounded and unsubstantiated charges.” Only Fusselman demanded that the report be read into the record, so it never was. When the meeting adjourned, the other four supervisors drove to Santa Venetia to join Wright in inspecting the site. The architect was already walking briskly up and down the hillsides despite his 90 years, scurrying all over the hilly terrain, ducking between the strands of a barbed-wire fence and climbing over another. When the supervisors caught up with him he was on one of the hilltops talking to several reporters and local citizens.
“Splendid!” Wright declared to the assembled group. “It’s as beautiful as California can have.” Two 15-year-old girls asked him to pose for a picture, and he obliged.
“Are you going to knock down these hills?” one of them asked.
“Not a single hill,” he replied, smiling enthusiastically.
Another citizen asked him if he planned to make any further site visits before drawing his plans.
“I don’t have to drink a tub of dye to know what color it is,” he replied.
Two hours later, Wright returned to the courthouse to sign the contract as the new civic center designer. It called for a projected budget of $8 million. (In the end the final cost for the entire project, including the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium and the fairgrounds, came to $19,532,000.) Wright had to sign a carbon copy because clerk Jones had failed to show up with the contract (Supervisor Castro found a carbon copy in his pocket). So Wright finally was designated the architect of the Marin County Civic Center, although Fusselman would continue to try to thwart its construction over the next few years. His efforts were in vain, since the majority of Marin County’s population clearly supported the project.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Frank Lloyd Wright died on April 9, 1959. The Board of Supervisors voted a few days later to continue the project with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, with Wes Peters as chief architect and Aaron Green as supervising architect (both men Wright protégés and associates), who worked from Wright’s detailed drawings to carry out his plan essentially as he had designed it. One alteration they did make was to change the color of the roofs from gold, as Wright had desired, to sky blue after it was determined that the gold paint would quickly tarnish into a dirty brown. Construction on the Administration Building began February 15, 1960. The post office, the first building to be completed, opened in May 1962, and the Administration Building was dedicated on October 13, 1962. The previous year, Fusselman had made a final effort to halt construction via a stop order from a newly elected board (two more of his allies now had seats) but the order only lasted one week. Construction resumed on January 17, 1961, after the Marin Independent Journal polled its readers; 8,152 favored the project and only 1,225 opposed.
In November 1963, the board voted to commission the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to draw up plans for the Hall of Justice. Aaron Green designed a series of circular courtrooms, as well as movable walls in some offices, which were not part of Wright’s plans, but his detailed drawings for the jail did conform to Wright’s concept. Groundbreaking came in 1966, with construction, supervised by Taliesen Associated Architects, completed in December 1969. The building opened to the public in January 1970.
The dedication brochure for the Administration Building contained this statement from Wright: “We will never have a culture of our own until we have an architecture of our own. We will have it only when we know what constitutes a good building — the good building is not one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built.”
Anyone who doubts the Civic Center meets this criteria need only engage in a very simple exercise: Imagine Marin County without it.