Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
John Mays, who restored and expanded the Casa Madrona Hotel, died in March 2020, but his
obituary ran just last week in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It tells of some of the innovations he introduced at the venerable landmark, such as naming the upstairs restaurant after his daughter Mikayla. He hired his dear friend, renowned artist Laurel Burch, to help renovate the space. She painted a colorful mural at the entrance titled “The Legend of Mikayla.”
The large white Italianate building had been built as a private residence in 1885 but was later converted to a boarding house and hotel. Over the years it changed hands several times.
Historical Society member Liz Robinson recounted the misadventures of two previous operators of the Casa Madrona, Robert and Marie Louise Deschamps, in a 1979 issue of Marinscope.
The couple had come to Sausalito in 1959 responding to an ad to operate a “small hotel.” Their son, Jean Marie, told Liz, “the building was in ruins. Mattresses on the floor, broken furniture (and very little of that)! It was a flop house!”
Liz recounted: “M. and Mme. Deschamps had no hotel experience when they arrived and nothing had prepared them for the cast of characters they would find inhabiting the Casa Madrona and its rowdy beer/wine bar—a hang-out for a noisy, brawling bunch. . . Often, in the morning, no matter how securely everything had been locked the night before, the bar would have been broken into and all the beer would be gone…”
Jean Marie told Liz, “It was a boarding house for down and outers, most of whom rarely paid their bills. Eventually they decided to close the hotel, ostensibly to remodel, in fact to get rid of some of the least desirable guests.”
John Mays acquired the property in 1976 in an estate sale and one of his first challenges was to keep the structure from slipping down the hillside. John buttressed up the unstable hillside below the old Victorian hotel, and came up with the idea of having rooms stepped up the hillside like little cottages, tying them in with the old hotel at the top. Eventually he purchased the Village Fair next door, which had its own colorful history.
The Historical Society’s Doris Berdahl told the story in this newspaper in 2009:
“The big, bulky structure at 801 Bridgeway–originally a parking garage and purveyor of ‘gasoline, oils, greases, tires, tubes and accessories,’ later the Village Fair and now an elegant inn, spa, and restaurant serving award-winning Tuscan cuisine—has come a long way since it began servicing Sausalito’s first horseless carriages back in 1924.
“In fact, this photo says it all. As a parade passes down Bridgeway, the man standing in front of his Model T Ford at far right, apparently pouring water into an overheated radiator, avails himself of one of Sausalito’s newest amenities—a gas pump and water hose. They grace the front of the building in a straightforward, no-nonsense display of what the new garage has to offer.
“By the 1940s, it was clear that the massive parking garage in the middle of town, meant to serve San Francisco commuters in the days before the bridge, had to be demolished or put to some other use. Happily, there were creative people around who saw its possibilities. The building became the birthplace of the Trade Fair, which showcased local artists along with then-avant garde furniture, pottery, jewelry, handwoven fabrics and other arts and crafts.
“When the Trade Fair moved to the ferryboat Berkeley, then moored on the Sausalito waterfront, a kind of natural evolution took place at the former garage site. New owners pioneered the concept of transforming a once-industrial building into an attractive shopping arcade, setting the stage for the later development of Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery in San Francisco. Small boutiques, selling unusual, often imported, merchandise not found anywhere else, began to fill the old place, converting its former automobile ramps into walkways and stairs. These ascended to the top floor past lush plantings, fountains and waterfalls. A favorite feature for many years was the lower ramp, dubbed Little Lombard Street.
“The Village Fair lasted for a half-century, attracting devotees from all over the world. It closed with the transfer of ownership in the late `90s, a victim of a deteriorating building, changing times and the fact that its marketing concept had been extensively copied in other places. For a long time, regular visitors to Sausalito couldn’t believe it was gone. To this day, they come into the Visitors Center across the street, often after a long absence, still cherishing memories of the Sausalito of 20 or 30 years ago. And the first question they ask, often indignantly, is, ‘What have you done with Little Lombard Street?’
“Fortunately, while Little Lombard is gone, the building that housed Mason’s Garage lives on, playing a handsome new role in the life of downtown Sausalito. Who would have predicted the European sophistication of Poggio, or the luxurious accommodations of Casa Madrona, back in the days when a constant succession of little black cars rumbled up the runways and you could fill up your tank right out at the curb.”
John Mays’ Chronicle obituary notes that he also served as a Director and then Board President of the Center for Attitudinal Healing. Ironically, the same issue of the paper carried an obituary for the Center’s founder, Jerry Jampolsky.