New Life Found for Old Sea Scouts Building

"The vision of what the EcoCenter could be was absolutely clear from day one: a center that would make the natural world more accessible and better understood; a center that would engage thousands of children, adults, and families; a center that would use this wonderful 1900-acre outdoor classroom to teach and inspire."-Allan Berkowitz, Executive Director

Published in the Daily Post
Monday, June 25th, 2012

By Angela Ruggiero, Daily Post Staff Writer

A historic ship-like Palo Alto building used by the Sea Scouts for four decades has now become an environmental education center and the headquarters of the nonprofit group, the Environmental Volunteers.

Used by the Sea Scouts from the 1940s to the ‘80s, the EcoCenter that looks like a floating ship (masts and all) on the Baylands Nature Preserve will hold its grand opening on July 22 after four years of renovations.

The city of Palo Alto, which owns the building, approached the nonprofit education group the Environmental Volunteers in 2004 to consider taking on the project of restoring the historic building at the east end of Embarcadero Road, said the Environmental Volunteers executive director, Allan Berkowitz. The building had been deteriorating for the better part of 25 years, and flooding almost every day at high tide.

Fix it and it’s yours
Berkowitz and a task force took a year to consider what would be a $3.8 million project. In exchange, the city of Palo Alto offered an agreement: restore the building and the city will give the group use of the building for a minimum 40-year lease, at only $1 per year.

“For us, the opportunity to move into a nature preserve was just unheard of,” said Berkowitz. “It was a wonderful opportunity to expand our mission and to develop new programs.”

The group, which teaches children natural science through hands-on educational programs in classrooms and out in the field, launched a capital campaign and began raising the necessary funds for renovation. In six months, they raised their first $1.4 million.

However, there was no way to foresee the complexity of the project, said Berkowitz.

The building was designed by well-known Palo Alto architect Birge Clark and was paid for by philanthropist Lucie Stern for a grand total of $12,000 when it was built in 1941. Its iconic ship look-alike shape and size was specifically made for the Sea Scouts. Yet, the building is on a nature preserve, next to levees maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers and in a Federal Aviation Administration flight zone, said Berkowitz.

Educational purpose
Yet the outcome is an EcoCenter made to educate people of all ages, said Berkowitz. The center will have touchscreen monitors for hands-on education, art exhibitions, and house educational programs.

Although renovations were completed Feb. 13, the center has had a “soft opening,” said Berkowitz, since the Environmental Volunteers moved into the building in February.

Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, the center is staffed by a volunteer and open for those who want to take a quick sneak peek before the July 22 grand opening.

Berkowitz said it was decided to hold a soft opening for those who were curious and for former Sea Scouts who are nostalgic for their maritime days of rolling boats out of the then-Palo Alto harbor.

He said one man recently visited from Seattle to show his wife and children his old Sea Scout building.