Better than New: Preserve, Protect Bit by Bit

"Better than New: Preserve, Protect, Bit by Bit", San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 2012

by John King

To see how historic preservation has evolved in America during the past 50 years, come with me to Palo Alto and consider the home of Environmental Volunteers on that city's Embarcadero Road.

The nonprofit organization nestles against Mayfield Slough in a building that looks like a snug cross between a paddleboat and a vintage ocean liner, complete with porthole-like windows. The Bay Trail emerges from the marshes, slides along the building on a raised deck and slopes back down to meet the shore.

Nobody would consider this an architectural masterpiece, not even the architects who designed the clubhouse in 1940 for the Stanford Area Council of the Sea Scouts. But after prolonged neglect and then a $3.8 million restoration, it is better than new, put to use in ways its creators could never have imagined.

While the story of the new EcoCenter is unique, the basics embody 21st century preservation in the Bay Area and the nation. Ornate landmarks still are revered, to be sure. Increasingly, though, the buildings that society seeks to protect are the ones that offer reminders of what once was taken for granted as part of the everyday landscape.

In the case of Palo Alto's former Sea Scouts building, the arc of its life conveys how profoundly that city has changed, and the region's priorities as well.

The structure was designed by Birge and David Clark, local architects best remembered for their Mission Revival work. But this was a very specific job for a very specific client: an organization that offered boys and girls the chance to sail the wide-open bay. The Clarks responded with modern whimsy and "as much nautical paraphernalia as could be worked into it," the Palo Alto Times noted approvingly at the time.

Decades passed, environmentalism took hold and Palo Alto in 1984 stopped dredging the bay along its shoreline. The marshes returned, as did shorebirds. The bay is the better for the change, absolutely - but the Sea Scouts had moved on by 2000 because their building no longer offered water access to young sailors.

Seeking a tenant

As the clubhouse settled into the mud, the city looked for a tenant willing to bring it back to productive life. The match turned out to be Environmental Volunteers, founded by four stay-at-home moms in 1972 and now an organization with nine employees and a mission to convey the wonders of nature to schoolchildren.

Executive Director Allan Berkowitz bounced the idea of a waterfront center off potential donors - and with pledges in hand and a smart restoration design by Cody Anderson Wasney Architects, restoration work began in 2008.

"Restoration" hardly conveys the scale of what follows. For starters, the building was moved 40 yards off site while 19 concrete piles were driven 53 feet into the mud. The clubhouse returned and now, with an eye to sea level rise, sits 6 inches higher than it did in its prime.

The reborn facility includes a small exhibition space open 12 1/2 hours a week, with the original floors of Douglas fir in all their mottled glory and stained plywood walls the same as the ones that once surrounded the scouts.

Battles of '60s, '70s

Compare this to the preservation battles of the 1960s and '70s as the movement entered the mainstream.

In the recent book "Jackie After O: One Remarkable Year When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Defied Expectations and Rediscovered Her Dreams," author Tina Cassidy recounts how the widow of the 35th president, still married to an ailing tycoon, began her emergence as an independent force by stepping forward in defense of Grand Central Terminal.

It's hard to imagine today that anyone could have questioned the worth of a sumptuous train station from 1913, regal from afar and a labyrinthine wonder inside - "a city within a city, a vast place with vaulted ceilings and a four-sided golden clock in the middle of the main concourse," Cassidy writes. But the owner wanted to pop an office tower on top.

Media event

Opponents, outraged, arranged a media event in the Oyster Bar above the concourse that would be sacrificed to the tower's footings. Cassidy describes a society page's worth of luminaries lined up before the press, and the former first lady who condensed the issue to a sound bite: "If we don't care about our past, we can't have very much hope for our future."

Her words rang true then. They ring true today. The difference is that with each passing year, their meaning grows more nuanced and complex.

Click here for the original article in the San Francisco Chronicle.