Posted Monday, April 16, 2018 by MCVB Staff
By John Egan
The Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael stands as a testament to arguably the most revered architect in American history.
As the last commissioned work by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Civic Center was the only government project he ever designed. Sadly, Wright—a prolific and innovative designer of homes, churches, hotels, schools and other buildings—wasn’t able to see the completed center, as he died in 1959, well before the project was finished.
You, however, can see the center in all of its architectural splendor.
On both group and self-guided tours, visitors take in an array of extraordinary design features at this national and state historic landmark. Among them, according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, are the center’s distinctive pink stucco walls, blue roof, scalloped balconies, and the flattened dome of the circular library and its connected gold tower.
“The interiors feature glass walls and are arranged around open atriums in order to promote the transparency that Wright felt governments should promote. Though Wright planned the atriums to be open to the sky, practical considerations saw barrel-vaulted skylights put in following Wright’s death,” the foundation says.
ArchDaily, an architecture site, notes that Wright went beyond architecture in shaping his vision for the Marin County Civic Center. He was involved in every design detail, including the furniture and the signs.
The overall design conveys Wright’s belief in organic architecture that is close to nature, ArchDaily says.
“The horizontality of the project and its placement fall in line with Wright's philosophy,” according to ArchDaily, “and truly accommodate the landscape and harness its beauty.”
The beauty of the property belies the controversy that preceded its construction.
County supervisor Vera Schultz decided Wright should be the architect of the civic center and enlisted her friend Mary Summers, chair of the planning commission, to ensure that only Wright would be considered for the job. In July 1957, the board of supervisors voted 4-1 to negotiate with Wright for his services.
Two days after that vote, Wright arrived at San Rafael High School to lay out his plans for the civic center and sign his contract with Marin County. Wright and county officials were met with a wall of opposition from the American Legion and the Taxpayer Alliance, though. In front of a crowd of 700 people, Wright was accused of being a communist sympathizer and a promoter of draft resistance during World War II, according to an account from Wright’s foundation.
Schultz, Summers and their allies ultimately prevailed, and Wright—who forcefully challenged the accusations leveled at him—forged ahead with his design of the civic center.
Schultz and Wright almost assuredly would be proud of the status the Marin County Civic Center has attained. In 2015, the center was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was among 10 Wright-designed structures that were recommended for the prestigious UNESCO list. So far, none of those structures have been elevated to UNESCO World Heritage status, though.
With or without UNESCO designation, the Marin County Civic Center still is an architectural wonder.
As pointed out by CNET, Wright’s design of the civic center “is actually quite simple,” with the entire complex comprising two long buildings—the Hall of Justice and the administration building, which are linked by the 80-foot dome. But elegant simplicity was a hallmark of Wright’s work, and the Marin County Civic Center remains one of the most remarkable examples of his genius.
At 10:30 a.m. every Wednesday and Friday, specially trained docents lead 90-minute tours of the center. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for seniors, full-time students and youth 5 to 17 years old; they can be purchased through the Marin County website. Groups of 10 or more can schedule private tours by calling 415-473-3762.
You also can take a virtual tour of the civic center through an app available for iOS and Android. The app includes historic and recent photos, drone videography, 360-degree photos, oral histories, sketches and blueprints.
For all you need to plan your Marin County vacation, visit the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website or Facebook page.