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The Building That Looks Like A Boat Off The Coast of Palo Alto

Read the transcript of this episode here.

«When I walk along the Palo Alto Baylands, I see what looks like a paddle driven riverboat that you would typically see on the Mississippi River. What is that boat and why is it there?» asked Agnes Veith of Sunnyvale. She’s a volunteer at Environmental Volunteers, the non profit housed in this building that really does look like a boat, and wanted to know more about its history.

If you’re a fan of Art Deco buildings in the Bay Area, you probably know of San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Or Oakland’s beloved Paramount Theatre. Or the iconic Hotel de Anza in downtown San Jose. There aren’t a lot of these nostalgic throwbacks to the 1930s still standing.

But Art Deco doesn’t really describe the building Veith is thinking of. It’s in a subcategory of Art Deco called Streamline Moderne, or Nautical Moderne. Which is to say: horizontal orientation, rounded edges, and porthole-shaped windows. There’s something that looks like a navigation bridge popping out onto a third story. A rainbow flag flies high and proud from a hoist at the top of the building. The paint job is a white Benjamin Moore might describe as “sand dollar” or “dune» with French blue accents.

Whimsy or cheese? I’m going with whimsy.

The building was designed for the Sea Scouts, a maritime program of the Boy Scouts of America, by architect Birge Clark. He’s the man behind the Palo Alto Post Office, the President Hotel and several Stanford buildings. Clark reportedly took his inspiration for the Sea Scout building from the pilot house of an old paddle wheel steamer.

So that’s the story of what hits your eyeballs as you’re walking in the Baylands. The history of the building is just as compelling.

Palo Alto philanthropist Lucie Stern commissioned it as a home base for the Sea Scouts. The building opened in 1941 to great fanfare, especially given the ongoing hostilities of World War II.

It was a pivotal moment for the local chapter, which taught teenagers from as far north as Redwood City and as far south as San Jose. Their counterparts in the Girl Scouts, were called the Mariners.

Kevin Murray was a Sea Scout. He joined in 1974, at the age of 14, and rose up through the ranks from apprentice to vice commodore for the western region. Over the years, he also became an amateur historian of the Sea Scouts on the Peninsula. He’s talked to old timers before they passed about the start of the harbor in 1928, and the decades of fun and education that followed.

«That harbor was alive and well. It was teeming with families, with teenagers, a bunch of sailboats. Aww, man, it was a whole other world,» Murray said. «Imagine right in front of that building, an 85 foot PT boat.»

A PT boat, by the way, was a motorized torpedo boat used by the Navy in World War II: small, fast, and cheap to build. They were cheap to give away, too, to programs like the Sea Scouts.

«Here I was, a 14 year old kid, and they put me on a WWII 64 foot tug boat. I started as a deck hand and then I graduated to become an engineer, working on an engine the size of a train. So the first thing I noticed was we were being treated as men, not little boys anymore,» Murray said.

There were adventurous trips to San Francisco and even Alaska. There were regattas and dances and life long friendships formed. Murray credits his time in the Sea Scouts for turning him into an educator. He was a political science professor for 30 years before he retired. Most of his brothers went into education, too.

But times change and so do social attitudes towards the environment. The dredging that made Palo Alto’s harbor operational stopped after a contentious citywide vote in 1986, to allow for this area to return to its native state as wetlands. Then in 1994, the Palo Alto and San Mateo County Sea Scout councils merged, and in 2002, they gave up the lease on the building.

Over the years, while sitting empty, the foundation sank three feet into the mud.

«If you come inside and you look at the floorboards, you can actually see the original floorboards and see some of the blackening as a result of some of that constant tide flow and flooding,» said Toby Goldberg, Director of Programs and Partnerships at Environmental Volunteers. The local non profit where Goldberg works, and Agnes Veith (our Bay Curious question asker) volunteers, hosts field trips for some 50 schools in Silicon Valley.

The organization got a hold of the building in the 2000s and lined up grant money to renovate it.

The refurbished Sea Scout building sits four feet higher than its forebear, to prevent future flooding due to tidal influx as well as sea-level rise. But four feet may not be enough. «During particular times of the year, especially king tides, if there’s a storm, the water actually does come up sometimes over the deck. So we have had instances where there was a question of ‘Did we need our kayaks for getting into work today?’» Goldberg said.

Hazel Watson, a former science educator, now with Environmental Volunteers, can wax more poetic. «A whole vista of cord grasses and the pickle weeds, with the channels that still remain here. Today, we’ve got lots of Northern Shoveler ducks and Ridgeway’s rails. Sunset is beautiful here. It’s certainly the best part of the day.»

Goldberg added the wetlands act like a nursery for a lot of organisms. «So we see things like bat rays and we’ll see harbor seals occasionally coming through. Birds galore, [depending on] the season. So every time you come out here, you’re going to be seeing different things, different birds, different insects. You can see that all from the deck of this building that looks like a boat.»

Don’t wait for the Sea Scout building to sink into the mud again. Make tracks and come see it, across from the duck pond, and bring your camera and a pair of binoculars.

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