SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Among the rolling hills in this Bay Area city is what appears to be, at least at first glance, a spaceship.
A sprawling, multilevel structure sports a curved roof painted robin egg blue. At its center are a saucerlike dome and a gold spire rising into the sky.
This otherworldly spectacle is the Marin County Civic Center, the largest building ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. As was predicted during its 1962 dedication ceremony, it is “not a profile you will forget.”
Unlike some of Wright’s other creations that are privately owned or preserved like museum artifacts, the Marin County Civic Center remains open to the public and fully functional.
When I visited recently, a misdemeanor case was being tried in one of the distinctly Wrightian circular courtrooms. People walked down corridors, where the floors are red and the ceilings transparent, to reach human resources offices and printing services. County employees ate lunch on a patio shaded by a blue domed roof lined with gold spheres.
When, in 1957, Wright first drove to see where the civic center was to be built in the San Rafael hills, “he was delighted,” according to Aaron Green, Wright’s Bay Area associate. In his book, Green writes about visiting the site with Wright:
“At one point, we got out, climbed through strands of a barbed-wire fence, and then walked through knee-high grass. From the top of one hill, seeing the entire property, he said, ‘It’s as beautiful as California can have.’ He paused a few moments, then turned to me and without the slightest hesitation said, ‘I know exactly what I’m going to do here.”’
Wright’s vision was to work in harmony with the landscape, and build between the hills instead of leveling them. He drew up plans for county offices, a library, a post office, a jail and more, and presented them to the county supervisors. Construction on these buildings, however, wasn’t completed until after his death in 1959.
In the more than half-century since, the civic center has been named a National Historic Landmark. Tourists still come to take photos of its Art Deco entry gates, circular library and scalloped balconies. Multiple science fiction movies have been filmed here, and it even served as inspiration for the architecture on planet Naboo in the Star Wars movies — created by George Lucas, who started Lucasfilm in San Rafael.
Wright’s Bay Area works — of which there are 28, built and unbuilt — “demonstrate, perhaps more than his buildings in any other location, the amazing variety and innovation of his creations, and the fertility of his imagination,” the architecture expert Paul V. Turner wrote in his book “Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco.” These designs include a skyscraper, a gift shop, a bridge across the San Francisco Bay and even a doghouse.
Among them, the Marin County Civic Center buildings, Turner wrote, “constitute one of his most powerful works.”
What you get
For $1.6 million: A Norwegian-style chalet in Bear Valley, a two-bedroom townhouse in Malibu and a brand-new four-bedroom home in Oakland.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Drew Villierme-Lightfoot, who lives in Oakland. Drew recommends a desert escape along the eastern edge of the state:
“There is nowhere like the Eastern Sierras, the local name for the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, where the ice-capped mountains of the High Sierras empty their streams into the high desert of far eastern California near the Nevada border.
Mono County is particularly spectacular in its widely varying climates, topographies, and people. This area is rich in geothermal activity and there are many natural hot springs that are not heavily visited. This isolated gem is about a 5-hour drive from both L.A. and the Bay Area. It’s a must-visit for anyone who wants to escape humankind and set off into a magical desert oasis full of naturally replenishing streams and tubs.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
When Adrian Rodriguez, 17, found a purse with cash and credit cards in a shopping cart, he decided to make sure it got back to its rightful owner.
Rodriguez, who lives in Chula Vista, searched for a home address on the driver’s license in the bag. He drove to the front door and dropped off the purse, which eventually made it back to Eliana Martin, who had left it in the shopping cart.
Martin and her friend Melina Marquez were so moved by the gesture that they wanted to reward the teenager. But no one had gotten his name when he had stopped by the house.
So the two started a social media search using footage from a Ring camera, and eventually identified Rodriguez, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. They set up a GoFundMe in his name called “Fine Young Man Raised by Parents Right,” which has so far raised $16,000.
One commenter wrote: “Another reason I have faith in our youth! Thank you for being such a great example.” And another: “You demonstrated strong moral character, Adrian. Thank you for making the world a better place.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Totally awesome (4 letters).
Harrison Hill, Jack Kramer and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].