The iconic blue roof of the Marin County Civic Center has been repaired or replaced at least three times since the original building was finished in 1962, but it’s never been done quite right, according to architectural historian Bill Schwarz.

The complex, two long buildings joined by a rotunda and dome, was envisioned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed it in the late 1950s, as a bridge across several small hills on the site (hills which the county, in its proposal to him, had cheerfully offered to bulldoze away if they interfered with his work). Working in distant Wisconsin after a single gestalten visit to the site, Wright designed the entire campus surrounding the county structure, too, including a U.S. Post Office.

The arched façades of the long administration wing and the adjacent Hall of Justice do give a sense of the arches of a bridge, and in that sense they work well with Wright’s vision. The only persistent problems, said Schwarz, have been with the roof.

“There were failures all along,” said Schwarz, who has worked in and around the building for decades, and seems to know every part of it intimately, from the soaring dome above the library to the tunnel connecting courtrooms in the Hall of Justice to a nearby jail.

He knows the building’s weaknesses as well as its wonders. Some of those weaknesses expressed themselves as streams of water running through the roof.

Lots of them.

“Maintenance always knew where the problems were. If they were expecting rain, they knew where to put the 46 buckets,” Schwarz said.

There are only a couple of buckets out in the corridors to catch leaks today.

A $17.8 million roof replacement and repair project, managed by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc. (WJE) and being built by Petaluma’s Arntz Builders Inc., should be finished on schedule a year from now, said Patrick Zuroske, facilities planning and development manager in the county’s capital projects office.

Once that job is done, the county will ask for bids on a separate job to replace the long, arching skylights above the building’s central atriums. He didn’t estimate how much that job would be likely to cost. “We won’t know the cost until the bids come in,” he said.

The skylights will have to be fixed, however, said Schwarz, because some of the leaks come through them rather than the roof itself.

Besides periodic patching and major repairs 20 years ago, said Zuroske, there have been many “subsequent leak repairs over the last decade.”

In 2015, he said, county staff realized a major roof repair was required. WJE was hired the following year to study the problem and oversee the solution.

Zuroske said that once WJE evaluated the problems, it was so obvious that a “complete removal and replacement” of the roof surface was required that “there was no debate regarding alternatives.”

Because Wright’s creation is on the National Register of Historic Places, construction must adhere to certain standards set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Zuroske said.

There’s gold in the hills

One of the toughest problems in the project was accurately matching the particular “Marin Blue” color of the roof of the structure, even though that color wasn’t part of Wright’s original vision.

Wright, who finished the design of the building and its surrounding campus, but died in 1959 before it was built, didn’t originally intend for the roof to be blue at all. His vision, expressed in design documents and an enormous model of the structure (which had to be shipped cross country by train) called for a gold roof to match the color of Marin’s hills in summer.

“The bid documents put out in late 1959 called specifically for a fluid applied roof membrane — clear plastic with suspended bronze dust in it,” said Schwarz. But contractors hired to do the work worried that the roof would quickly tarnish and fade under the remorseless California sun, and they went to the architects asking for a change.

Another recently completed Frank Lloyd Wright project gave them inspiration — the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wis., near Milwaukee. It had a dome like the Civic Center and had been colored blue.

So the roof became blue, although Schwarz says blue isn’t all that easy a color to preserve for a long time, either, pointing out the windows of the Board of Supervisors’ meeting chamber at the bleached blue roof of the Hall of Justice, yet to be replaced.

“Blue is a very tough color to keep,” he said.

Red, white and blue

But in doing the reroofing, it turns out blue is also a tough color to match.

“We were lucky that there was an original swatch of the Marin Blue color from the original roof of the Hall of Justice,” said Zuroske. He enlisted the help of Schwarz, who had worked with Wright’s firm, Taliesin Associated Architects, to match the blue.

But matching that color and getting it into a liquid, elastomer form that could be sprayed onto the new roof surface took at least 10 attempts, said Gregory Reidenbach of Northbrook, Ill.-based WJE, which has a local office in Emeryville.

Sika Corp. mixed the color and painted it onto sample tiles similar to the surface of the roof and sent them out from its lab in New Jersey. But WJE staff kept sending them back, again and again, until it was exactly right.

To obviate any of the leaking problems of the earlier roof projects (the latest replacement was in 1998), WJE has had to completely strip away all traces of previous coatings and materials from the concrete roof structure. This is done, Reidenbach said, by “hydrodemolition,” where pressurized water is sprayed on the surface and then vacuumed up.

Once the surface is clean, a red primer is applied, then two layers of white base. The first, thicker white layer contains a scrim, or mesh, of plastic. At last, the iconic blue is sprayed onto the surface. The different colored coatings bind together, creating a layer that is about 100 mils thick, a “mil” being one-thousandth of an inch, Reidenbach said.

While working around the Fourth of July, Reidenbach said, he could see red, white and blue sections of the roof.

So far, the library dome and adjacent administration wing of the Civic Center have been mostly repaired — workers are now applying color at the southern tip of the administration section. When this work is done, which should be soon, according to Zuroske, scaffolding will be shifted to the Hall of Justice and its roof will get the same treatment.

The long history of the Civic Center has not only allowed for improvements in the technology of waterproof coatings, but it has given workers a chance to learn from and improve on the past.

Having the entire roof redone at one time will be useful, said Schwarz, since the original materials on the administration and courthouse wings were different from the start. The library and administration section got the original polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, treatment in 1962. But the Hall of Justice, which wasn’t completed until seven years later, got a different, polyurethane coating.

The two different coatings weren’t equal — the original PVC layer on the library and administration side “didn’t perform well” from the start, Schwarz said.

The complete reroofing project in 1998 and 1999 was not enough, he said, to solve all the problems, though he’s pretty confident this new repair, with its complete removal of all original and intermediate layers down to the concrete surface, will do the job.

But not forever, of course.

Roofs last about 20 years, he said, though a good one shouldn’t start leaking as soon as it’s been put on, like some of the past versions at the Civic Center.

Schwarz, who’s been associated with the Civic Center pretty much since its start, doesn’t have a formal title at the place, although everyone in the corridors and offices knows who he is and greets him by name when he passes by. He often acts as an interpreter and preserver of the architectural vision of the big building, and has added many touches to it, including a wooden cabinet in the lobby for newspapers, meant to replace unsightly metal machines that once held them.

Original Frank Lloyd Wright drinking fountains in the halls have newer, ADA-compliant railings near them, designed by Schwarz himself, with motifs picked up from other building features.

When people complained about the original seats in the big Board of Supervisors’ chamber below the library because they were uncomfortable, and suggested getting rid of them, Schwarz fixed them by raising them several inches so they could be retained.

He doesn’t just help keep the building together, but also repairs the enormous design model made by Wright, which is on display in the building. One of his jobs is to repaint the model’s roof (now blue to match the actual structure) when it gets damaged or deteriorates.

At 75, Schwarz might not be around the next time the county needs to replace the actual building’s roof. But if he is, he might very well be involved then, too.

“I’m drawn to details,” he said.