Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
At Marin City’s MLK/Black History Month Celebration in February, I was surprised to learn of the long and storied history of the Golden Gate Village public housing complex. Royce McLemore, president of the Golden Gate Village Resident Council (GGVRC), gave a brief oral history of the 6-building development, which inspired me to dig a little deeper on my own.
The Marin City Public Housing Development officially opened in March 1960, after “Seven years of dreaming and striving,” according to this newspaper. During that period, various designs and concepts were put forth to replace the crumbling wartime residences which had been slapped up to house workers at Sausalito’s Marinship and had suffered years of deferred maintenance. It was when County Supervisor Vera Schultz got involved that things really began to jell.
Shultz, Marin’s first female supervisor, had a reputation as a gadfly when she was elected in 1952. One of her first campaigns was to engage Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Civic Center. She prevailed over fierce opposition, showing the feisty determination that marked her long career in local government.
According to the book “VeraFirst Lady of Marin” by Evelyn M. Radford, when the war ended the white shipyard workers fled Marin City. “The Blacks couldn’t flee,” however. “The Blacks couldn’t go back home because mechanization of agriculture had taken place during the war. Field hands had been replaced by machines. Subrosa community covenants kept the blacks locked in their social and cultural cul de sac.”
Evelyn Radford recounts how Vera and a Marin City committee sought federal funding from Senator Estes Kefauver for whom Vera had campaigned in his 1956 run for the Vice Presidency: “Ushered into his presence, she threw her problem into his lap. ‘I need your help,’ she fumed.
“Kefauver reached for the phone. He made one call and Vera got a lesson in how people in Washington respond to a voice from the Hill. Doors to Housing and Home Finance opened like magic.”
Schultz eventually convinced the County to hire an associate of Wright’s, Aaron G. Green to design the public housing complex. He had seen the Civic Center project through to completion after Wright’s death. Green told Marin Scope, “This is the first link in transforming a rundown relic into one of the finest communities in the world.” His description was validated by the first structures, poured concrete buildings topped with red tile roofs, with sliding floor to ceiling windows and concrete patios overlooking Richardson’s Bay.
According to the website agaarchitects.com, Green and his colleagues believed that a community has a right to expect federal government projects to be utilitarian without defacing the community. The entire project was never fully built out, but the six high-rises were awarded First Honors in 1964 by the Public Housing Agencies of HUD for design excellence from among 700 entries. The development was regarded as outstanding by jurors who said “This highly original design meets the challenge of the site’s topography and dramatic situation. Each floor of the hillside apartment buildings is accessible from grade without ramps or stairs. The buildings on the lower part of the site are intimate in scale, carefully detailed, and show a sensitive selection and use of materials.”
The complex remained nameless until the early 90s, when the Marin Housing Authority sponsored a naming contest, which was won by Grace Stover, who still lives there. Grace told me she didn’t receive a prize and didn’t even get her 15 minutes of fame since the local papers don’t seem to have run any articles about her victory. I guess this one will have to do.
In 2017 the property was placed in the National Register of Historic Places and was also listed in the California Register of Historical Resources. According to a notification Reese McLemore received from
the state Office of Historic Preservation, “Placement on the National Register affords a property the honor of inclusion in the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation and provides a degree of protection from adverse effects resulting from federally funded or licensed projects.”
Despite its impressive pedigree, the aging complex has been threatened with demolition by the Marin Housing Authority. The residents have counter-proposed a deep green renovation of their existing homes, no new buildings, and a pathway to home ownership through a limited equity housing coop (LEHC). Learn more about the history — and potential future — of this special place at http://www.ggvrc.org.
Thanks to Royce McLemore, Grace Stover, Felecia Gaston and the Marin City Historical and Preservation Society, plus Carol Aquaviva of the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Library for their assistance researching this column.