"The good building ... is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built. ... I am proud to make the buildings of this county characteristic of the beauty of the county." - Frank Lloyd Wright, architect
IT MAY BE the most important newspaper poll in Marin's history.
Old-school politicians certain that they represented the will of the people voted 3 to 2 to abandon construction of the Marin County Civic Center on Jan. 10, 1961, as a newly elected Board of Supervisors majority headed by "courthouse gang" conservative Bill Fusselman took control amid bitter political upheaval.
Instead of proceeding with construction of county administrative offices spanning knolls at the 140-acre Scettrini Ranch along Highway 101 in Santa Venetia, Fusselman wanted to convert the building into a county hospital. Some 125 construction workers were laid off.
It was the latest wrinkle in a project that generated pitched controversy from the start, back in 1956 when the county bought the ranch for $551,000.
Debate boiled the next year after officials shepherded by Supervisor Vera Schultz hired 90-year-old Frank Lloyd Wright to design the complex - even though he charged 2 percent more than other architects.
The project seemed headed for the rocks in midstream when Fusselman, lone foe of the plan
on the old board, took over with new colleagues who were seated after an election in which Schultz and an ally were ousted from office.
When news of the decision to scuttle the Civic Center project reached the Independent Journal newsroom on B Street in downtown San Rafael, managing editor Jack Craemer sprang into action, running a poll the next day asking readers to weigh in. The newspaper's coupon poll, mailed by readers to an independent auditing firm that tallied the results, indicated residents favored the project 8,152 to 1,225. The poll prompted a change of heart on the county board, and construction of the Civic Center resumed Jan. 17, 1961.
The county board's vote to stop construction, then resume it, is among events noted by the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center Conservancy 50th Anniversary Committee, a group coordinating events celebrating a government complex now hailed as California Historical Landmark No. 999.
While the Administration Building turned 50 on Oct. 13 - an occasion marked by resolutions, cake and a spirited 1960s-era party in the county library - other milestones in the building's history, including the pivotal 51-year-old newspaper poll, are being saluted over the next year by celebrants as cause for reflection.
The 10-member anniversary committee includes former Supervisor Annette Rose, chairwoman of the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center Conservancy, and several other conservancy members, as well as county employees such as Laurie Thompson, librarian for the Anne T. Kent California Room at Civic Center, and volunteers like Joan Brown, former head of the Civic Center volunteer program. The panel is headed by Deborah Vick of San Francisco, who serves on local and national conservancies that champion Wright's work.
The Civic Center, Vick said, is a building important "not only to the county of Marin, but also to the state, nation and world." It became both a state and a national historic landmark in 1991, and now is part of a package of 11 Wright sites vying for a spot on the World Heritage List maintained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The celebration of the building continues at 10 a.m. Jan. 17, when San Rafael Postmaster Raj Ghoman will host ceremonies at the Civic Center Post Office. Mail will be emblazoned with a special postmark honoring the 50-year anniversary. The postmark program will continue through Oct. 13.
Savvy stamp collectors who seek a keepsake are expected to submit envelopes that include the 2-cent U.S. stamp honoring Wright that was issued on Jan. 8, 1966.
A banner will be installed in the Administration Building celebrating the anniversary of the day construction resumed on the building a half-century ago.
Other events planned throughout the year include a continuing educational exhibit at the county library, a youth photography contest featuring the Civic Center at the county fair, tours of the building and performances by serenading musicians, as well as a symposium on architecture in September and a commemorative event in October. A schedule will be issued when dates are determined.
Rose said the youth photo contest will pose a special challenge for students who will be asked to photograph the building inside and out and "look at the Civic Center in a different way."
Joan Brown noted the Civic Center is a special place.
"Having loved working in the building more than 30 years, I have a deep appreciation both of the history of Frank Lloyd Wright's Civic Center and of the flexibility of the building itself for those working within it," Brown said.
"My spirits were lifted each day by the natural light provided by skylights and windows with views of our green and golden Marin hills, luxuriant indoor tropical plants blooming year-round, and the lovely curving and circular design details."
©2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)
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