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.