Spreckles Boathouse Spans Centuries

The Spreckels Boathouse in Shelter Cove as it appeared around the turn of the 20th century  |  photo courtesy of the Sausalito Historical Society  |  post by Larry Clinton

Last week we told the story of the ark Omphale, which was destroyed by fire off of A Dock in July, 1996, not in December as was inaccurately reported. The Omphale had an equally noteworthy neighbor at Waldo Point Harbor for many years: the Spreckles Boathouse. In the fall of 1977, the Sausalito Historical Society newsletter recounted the 99-year history of this waterfront landmark. Here are excerpts from that article:

The undignified demise last Tuesday of the rotting boathouse at Waldo Point gave little hint of its glamorous past. Listing so badly that passing tourists had taken to calling it the Leaning Tower of Pizza, it had lost all vestiges of a history that began in the late 19th century in a favorite enclave of the wealthy yachting community of San Francisco Bay. Shelter Cove, the small inlet at the south end of Sausalito, was for a brief period the domain of the Pacific Yacht Club, built in the cove in 1878 as the home of the more exclusive of Sausalito’s two yacht clubs of that era. In 1895, the club added a boathouse directly below where the Cote d’Azur apartments now stand.

But by 1905 the yacht club was in financial trouble and two of its members, Adolph and John Spreckels, heirs of the giant sugar fortune, purchased the club’s four-acre property on Shelter Cove. Adolph took over the clubhouse as his residence after the 1906 earthquake, commuting to San Francisco on his steam yacht, the Lurline, listed in 1899 records as the costliest yacht in California at that time. This period was the heyday of the little boathouse. In 1915, during the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, some 50 English dancers were quartered there. Viewed from the Sausalito hills, the building was a small white jewel set against the blue waters of the cove. When the Spreckels property was sold in 1924, the graceful peaked-roof building was valued at $5,500, a considerable sum in those days.

The estate changed hands several times in the ensuing years until, in 1958, the site was cleared for the construction of Cote d’Azur. As a newspaper article sadly put it, “Before the new, the old must go—gone—for progress.” But although Shelter Cove was radically transformed, the boathouse miraculously escaped the wrecker’s ball for another 19 years.

Demolition contractor Harold Holzinger, hired to raze everything on the Spreckels site, took possession of the boathouse. Finding the hillside too steep to remove the house by land, he brought in a barge and towed it up Richardson Bay to Waldo Point, tying up at Gate 6 at the north end of the Donlon Arques property. He rented out the interior space until the building passed into the ownership of the Arques houseboat harbor in 1971.

One of the early tenants there, Jim Tichy, reminisced in the Independent Journal last week: “There used to be some nice parties there. Musicians would come in and play.” But by the early ’70s, dry rot and other forms of destruction that afflict ancient wooden barges had taken their toll on the boathouse understructure. As Holzinger’s rent-paying tenants gave way to random squatters, who crashed at “the Spreckels” for short periods but took no interest in it as a home, the pleasant atmosphere enjoyed by those who lived there in the ’60s gave way.

By that time, too, the boathouse had begun to tilt ominously to one side. And although there was a lot of wishful talk about restoring it, right up to a couple of years ago, nobody responsible for the building wanted to sink that kind of money into it, and it was allowed to die a slow death.

ln the end, as the lower floor slipped into the water and the structure came under condemnation orders from Marin County, even vagrants didn’t try to live there anymore. It ended its days posing for the cameras of tourists. Looking like a sad-funny clown performing for coins, it became the most striking symbol of that “crazy houseboat bunch north of Sausalito” and a great photograph to show the folks back home.