Marin County Civic Center

Added by jon buono, last update: October 14, 2011, 8:12 pm

Marin County Civic Center
Frank Lloyd Wright's Concept for the Marin County Civic Center., source: Marin County Library
3201 Civic Center Drive
San Rafael, CA 94903
United States
37° 59' 48.6168" N, 122° 31' 43.2696" W
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Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Administration (ADM)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):
History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

The original purpose of the Marin County Civic Center was to consolidate the government officials, offices, and other resources of Marin County. In addition, the Civic Center site was meant to serve as a recreation center for the region. Wright planned theaters, exhibition halls, and other public facilities at the civic center in hope that it would become a true suburban center.

Located just off Highway 101, the Marin County Civic Center serves as the government and cultural center of Marin County in northern California.

When Frank Lloyd Wright died on April 9, 1959, plans for the Administration Building, the Hall of Justice, and the Library (which connected the two wings) had been approved as well as preliminary plans for a theater, auditorium, fairground pavilion, and lagoon. Although the construction of other buildings on site had been endorsed before Frank Lloyd Wright died, of the structures that have been built, only three can be attributed to him: the Administration Building and Hall of Justice which are connected by the Wright-designed Library, and the U.S. Post Office. The original master plan for the site was designed by Wright; however, this was not fully realized in the final design of the Civic Center.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Frank Lloyd Wright accepted his 770th commission to design the Marin County Civic Center on July 30, 1957.
Architectural and other Designer(s): Frank Lloyd Wright; Aaron Green, Taliesen Associated Architects; Wesley Peters, Taliesen Associated Architects; William Schwarz, Taliesen Associated Architects; DMJM
Others associated with Building/Site: Marin County Board of Supervisors
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): In 1994, the new County Jail designed by DMJM with input from Aaron Green, one of the original architects working on the project, was completed. This structure is the last new building to have been constructed within the complex. The jail is seen by some as an alteration of the Civic Center site. The jail was constructed because the county was under court order to improve prison conditions. The punishment for not doing so would have resulted in steep cuts in state funding for the region. In 1998, the original men's and women's jail located in the Hall of Justice was retrofitted to serve as modern office space for county employees. Although the Civic Center survived a 7.1 magnitude earthquake with no visible damage in 1989, there was a concern that the building's long term stability could be affected by such a natural disaster. Therefore the need for a seismic retrofit of the Administration Building and the Hall of Justice was deemed necessary, and the project was completed in 2003. Although a major undertaking, the building's architectural integrity was considered throughout the building process.
Current Use: Currently, the site is utilized with its original function and intention as the civic center for Marin County, California.
Current Condition: During the past few years, portions of the Marin County Civic Center have undergone various restoration projects. In 1999, conservation funding for the Civic Center complex had reached $28 million dollars; however, $24 million of that was used for the seismic retrofit, which could be classified as an alteration to the building as opposed to a conservation measure. Regardless, some restoration work of the building has been undertaken, including the restoration of the Administration Building's 172' gold tower (completed in 2002) and recoating the roof with blue polyurethane. In 2004, the architectural firm of Mark Cavagnero Associates was hired to develop a new master plan for the site. As the firm states on their website, "due to deterioration of the facilities and the change in the nature of the site uses, the site is underdeveloped and in need of renovation." Therefore, the firm wished to build upon Frank Lloyd Wright's original design intentions while taking into account the nature and uses of the site today.
General Description:

Wright's cojoined Administration Building and Hall of Justice are the architectural showpieces on the Marin County Civic Center complex. The 800' long Administration Building and the 580' long Hall of Justice are connected by the Library, a

"The Marin County Civic Center is composed of two buildings, the 580-foot
long Administration Building and the 880-foot long Hall of Justice, which
are set at a slight angle to each other and joined together by a central
rotunda 80 feet in diameter. The rounded ends of the buildings are built
into the sides of two low hills. The main entrance drive passes through an
archway on the ground level of the Administration Building; the Hall of
Justice has two archways, one over the road leading to a back parking lot
and one providing access to the county jail. The separation of access is
primarily for security reasons. The roadways follow the contours of the
site and provide access to parking lots as well as circulation around the
whole site and to the fairgrounds. The U.S. Post Office is located near
the main entrance to the grounds on San Pedro Road." - NAT REGISTER NOMINATION
"The Marin County Civic Center complex is composed of two long wings
set at a 120 degree angle to each other and hinged together by a rotunda
with a shallow dome backed by a 172-foot, triangular tower. The form of
this complex embodies Wright's belief in democratic values that place
human services above the regulatory instruments of government. This belief
is expressed by the visual dominance of the Administration wing, which,
although shorter than the Hall of Justice wing faces the main access road
so that most of the cars pass through its single broad arch on the way to
the main parking lot and other parts of the grounds. Beneath the dome,
which is the pivotal element of the plan, is the county library; the
adjacent tower was originally meant to transmit radio programs. Thus,
the two branches of government meet at the place of dissemination of
knowledge and information. Since this central node is also backed by a
terrace with a pool outside the cafeteria where employees may relax or
eat, "the power and authority of the state ... find their raison d'etre
in the wisdom of the citizenry from which, architecturally at least, their
expressions emanate."(l) - SAME
"The United States Post Office building, which stands near the
entrance to the civic center grounds off San Pedro Road is a onestory,
eliptical building in plan, which faces south. The building
has a flat roof hidden by a parapet and is constructed of reinforced
concrete block masonry painted the same color as the civic center
complex. A broad, round-arched canopy is cantilevered from the facade
above a glazed wall divided into five sections by metal mullions,
which has double, glazed entrance doors at each end. This entrance
porch is approached by four steps which compose a base rounded at the
ends where it joins the building. Originally, a large plastic globe
of the world was mounted on a pole centered outside the glazed wall.
Over time the plastic deteriorated and the globe was removed. This is
the only alteration to the building. The cast-concrete canopy is
embellished with a band of indented, circle motifs running across the
cornice. On the back side of the building is a recessed loading dock,
which is sheltered by a projecting canopy. Each of the curved walls
flanking the loading dock has two round windows. The interior is
divided into a mailroom on the north side and an eliptical lobby on
the south side. The lobby is separated from the mailroom by a wall
divided into a section for mail boxes and a counter area." -NAT REG

Construction Period:

"Both the three-story Administration Building and the four-story Hall" - NAT REGISTER

Original Physical Context:

Constructed over a span of nearly 25 years, the complex is comprised of six buildings as well as natural landscapes, park land, and water features.
"The master plan for the site respects its topography. The buildings,
hills, roads, parking areas, lagoon, and prominent landscape
features were linked together to facilitate the movement of people and
automobiles. The north portion of the site was set aside for the
county fairgrounds. Various features of the fairground that Wright
designed for example, the amphitheatre--were altered or never built;
the lagoon is the major surviving feature of this part of the grounds.
A landscape plan prepared by Aaron Green working with Frank Lloyd
Wright is attached; it shows a disposition of trees and other vegetation
that remains largely intact. Pine trees are dominant around the
building complex; many varieties of non-native trees, including oaks,
poplars, willows, occur around the site. The hilltop at the south end
of the Administration Building, which has a terrace outside the
entrance to the top floor, is planted with native plants as a specimen
landscape." _NAT REG
"Three structures on the site do not contribute to the district.
They are: a garage of 1971, which stands on the lower, northwest
portion of the site near Route 101 where the county fair pavilion was
planned; the Veterans Auditorium and associated exhibition buildings,
which were designed by the Taliesin Fellowship/Taliesin Associated
Architects tp be stylistically compatible with the civic center
buildings and completed in 1971. The approximately 81.5 acres of the
site that fall within the dotted line on the attached site map may
have a high degree of integrity and convey Frank Lloyd Wright's
intentions.for the expression of democracy in a design that integrates
architecture and landscape." - NAT REG

Technical Evaluation:

Although Frank Lloyd Wright is known for his innovation in construction materials and design, it seems the Marin County Civic Center does not warrant significance from the technical standpoint. The method of construction here is similar to that of other buildings constructed before the center.


The Marin County Civic Center is significant in terms of the social history of Marin County. By the middle of the 1950s, a drastic change of both the demographics and politics of Marin County had taken place. Before this period of time, Marin County had a very small population which was run by an exclusive clique of elected officials. However, during World War II, this area just north of San Francisco was heavily settled by new migrants, those of whom were needed to build ships for the United States Armed Forces. This newly arrived population brought with them new political ideals, which lead to the election of the first woman to the County Board of Supervisors in 1953, Vera Schultz. The newly elected official spearheaded an effort to reorganize the county government from a piecemeal organization of small local city governments with separate budgets to a county administrator form of government, resulting in a centralized power. The Marin County Civic Center is a product of the new governmental organization of the region.

Cultural & Aesthetic:
As Frank Lloyd Wright's 770th and final commission, the Marin County Civic Center warrants cultural and aesthetic significance. His first civic structure, it was the only commission in which Mr. Wright was truly able to create the "architecture for democracy" of which he was a proponent. In designing the Civic Center, Mr. Wright hoped, "Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture." Additionally, the Marin County Civic Center is significant because of the design's relationship to nature. Immediately after Wright was appointed to design the center, he spoke at a town meeting about the project stating, "Marin County has everything. The buildings of the new Civic Center will express this natural beauty; they will not be a blemish upon the landscape." This sentiment is furthered by Wright seeing the site for the first time, upon which he remarked, "It's as beautiful as California can have. I know exactly what I'm going to do here. I'll build these hills with graceful arches." --- "For Wright, the location of this governmental complex in a suburban area endowed with gentle hills and valleys and removed from any dense urban center, was the perfect setting for the partial realization of Broadacre City, his American Utopia. A drawing published in The Living City, 1958, captioned "Typical street view at the Civic Center", shows part of a structure that echoes the Marin County Civic Center complex in its fenestration, use of arches, and drive-through archway on the ground level. The drawing was one in a last series of Broadacre City studies that collected into one setting many of Wright's favorite works as, for example, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which also appears in the distance in this drawing. Finally, Wright's unerring ability to marry buildings to their sites here led to one of his most striking solutions. In having the two building wings bridge the valleys between three hills, he also recalled revered works of classical antiquity such as the Roman acqueduct at the Pont du Card. This composition also confirmed his statement, "The good building is ... .one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before ..." The rhythmic, low-lying structure complements the landscape and offers a serenely human vision devoid of the hierarchical expression of power so recognizable in traditional 19th and early 20th century centers of civic authority." -NAT REG
General Assessment:
Marin County Civic Center is significant on a social and historical level as well as a cultural and aesthetic level. Although Frank Lloyd Wright passed away before the complex was completed, his building designs as well as his master plan certainly guided the construction and design process of the complex as a whole. The three structures which were not planned by Frank Lloyd Wright were still influenced by his original intention. Veterans Auditorium and Marin Center Exhibit Hall were both designed by Taliesen Associated Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural firm. Although the last structure, the County Jail was designed by DMJM, the project was still influenced by Aaron Green, the architect who had worked in conjunction with Frank Lloyd Wright from the beginning of the project until his resignation in 1972. --- The Marin County Civic Center is Frank Lloyd Wright's last major work and is the only project of his only realized project for a government building. It is his largest constructed public commission and one of the crowning works of his long preoccupation with organic architecture, which he defined and redefined from the 1930s to the end of his life. In addition, the building contributes to the broad pattern of the evolution of the form of government buildings in the United States. The US Post Office building, which stands near the entrance to the civic center grounds, is the only federal commission ever executed by Wright. ---- "The Administration Building/Hall of Justice complex of the Marin County Civic Center is the last major work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest 20th century American Architect. The civic center complex is the largest constructed public project of Wright's career and the only one for a governmental jurisdiction. Also located on the grounds of the civic center is a U.S. Post Office, which is the only federal commission ever executed by Wright, who, ironically, was the first architect to be represented on a postage stamp. The civic center is one of the finest expressions of "organic architecture", a concept that Wright labeled as his own. The history of the Marin County Civic Center also contributes importantly to the broad pattern of the evolution of the form of government buildings in the United States."
Text references:

Book, Carl F. "Preservation of Marin County Civic Center of Concern to Local Residents." Bulletin: The Quarterly Newsletter of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy 7 (1998): 5.

"Buildings for Democracy: The Mildred and Stanley Rosenbaum House and Marin County Civic Center." Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly 15 (2004): 4-21.

Carey & Co. Inc. 15 February 2010.

Fimrite, Peter. Marin County Workers to go to Jail to Get Work. 15 February 2010.

Fimrite, Peter. Turning Blue: At Marin County Civic Center, All That Glitters isnít Gold. 15 February 2010.

Green, Aaron G. An Architecture for Democracy: Marin County Civic Center. California: Grendon Publishing, 1990.

Hess, Alan. Frank Lloyd Wright: The Buildings. New York, NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 2008.

Historic Sites in Marin County. 1 March 2010.

Ed. Sol Kliczkowski. Frank Lloyd Wright. Glouster, MA: Rockport Publishers, Inc., 2003.

Land and Living Network. 1 March 2010.

Levine, Neil. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Marin County Civic Center Website. 14 February 2010.

Marin County Civic Center Chronology. 15 February 2010.

Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects. 1 March 2010. 15 February 2010.

National Register of Historic Places Website. 1 March 2010.
Nesmith, Lynn. "Wright Done Wrong." Architecture 79 (1990): 35.

Rand, George. "A Civic Center and Its Civitas: Marin County Civic Center." AIA Journal 69 (1980): 46-57.

Shaw, Alison. Seismic Retrofit of the Marin County Hall of Justice Using Steel Buckling & Restrained Brace Frames. SEAOC Convention, 2000.

"Wright Ship of State." Progressive Architecture 48 (1967): 30.

Recorder/Date: Kimberly DeMuro / March 2010
Additional Images
Marin County Civic Center
The Administration Building upon Completion., Source: Marin County Library
P.O. Box 230977
New York, NY 10023
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