The Navel of the Universe

In this aerial photo, c. 1962, the Omphale is the first of three boats moored between the Yellow Ferry and A Dock  |  photo from Sausalito Historical Society  |  post by Larry Clinton

Old-timers may remember the Omphale, an old ark in Waldo Point Harbor that burned to the waterline 27 years ago. Thanks to Sausalito Historical Society co-founder Phil Frank, we can now share the history of this one-time local landmark.

In the 1970s, Phil was one of the editors of an alternative newspaper, The Garlic Press, which was “published at whim” for residents of the Gates community and Richardson Bay. Following are lightly edited excerpts from Phil’s June 1975 article:

Bordered on the north by Mimi Tellis’ Yellow Ferry Harbor and on the south by T.J.’s dock is the northern section of the Arques Shipyard. Within those perimeters live 30 souls, in six boats, one ark and the unoccupied Spreckles house—undoubtedly the best reference point for leading a stranger to the area. [The Spreckles house had been towed to Waldo Point from Shelter Cove in 1958 and by the 70s was dying a slow death due to neglect.]

The Omphale is an ark located at the corner of Grove and Humboldt streets, believe it not, and is the most northern dwelling on the Arques property. Originally found in Alameda by the ex-wife of Varda, the barge was towed to its present site some twelve years ago and has been slowly decaying ever since. In the process she has had a spicy and varied life. The building was put up piece-meal, each space being rented out to raise enough money to continue its metamorphosis (not unlike what is now happening). After the central ballroom space became a reality many famous and infamous personalities graced the decks for fund-raising dinners, costume parties, legitimate and illegitimate theater, and just plain blasts. Alan Watts still walks the decks at night, as does Varda, Fritz PerIs [German-born psychiatrist who coined the term “Gestalt therapy”], and probably too many dogs and cats.

Omphale means “center of the universe” as well as “belly-button” and was the name of a Greek goddess who held Hercules in bondage for a period of time. The remains of the boat were purchased some year and a half ago by another person with a dream of restoring it to its original splendor. Since then work has been more or less continuous depending on the world economy and personal economy. The most critical order of business was to keep it from collapsing, so the entire north side has been rebuilt from the mud up; hopefully the rest will follow. The master plan includes bringing everything up to code (of course) as well as totally redoing the exterior with shingles. The ballroom has already been redone. Fifteen tons of concrete were removed from the deck and a new wooden floor was installed. When completely remodeled the ark will hold a darkroom, movie theater, bicycle workshop and numerous other work areas. The four living spaces are also being refurbished. Most of the construction has been done to keep it from becoming a sister to the Spreckles house.

Al Garvey, a Sausalito artist and carpenter, helped with the early restoration of Omphale. He recalled:

In 1962, shortly after I finished building my houseboat, a lady called Virginia Barclay knocked at my door looking for a carpenter. She said she could never deal with a builder who was not also an artist, and would I be interested? Why not! So off we went—building, rebuilding, tearing down, and building again.

The barge was an old, old wooden job originally used to carry rocks to the building site of the Bay Bridge—110 ft. by 35 ft by 12 ft. of stanchions, X-members, rotten decks, and holey bottom. Virginia had a tug push it as high up onto the mud as possible at Waldo Point, where it commanded a spectacular view of the whole of Richardson Bay.

Within a few weeks the most unlikely looking crew of carpenters was swarming all over the mud, constructing what began to look like a dirigible hangar. This shell, two stories high, covering the full width of the barge and extending to a point about 20 ft. aft of the rake, was to be the outer frame of the first apartment, where Virginia would camp and direct her artist-carpenters in the creation of what would, in time, become the Omphale.

Most of the materials were scrounged, picked up at wrecking yards, or just washed up on some convenient shore. The materials were important because they dictated a good part of the design.

At the beginning, the only concrete notion we had was that there must be a space in the center large enough for a badminton court. This would also serve as a ballroom The rest of the barge must have income-producing apartments to pay for the whole, as there was no financing, available for so mad a project.

Spaces created themselves as the by-product of a new room or a wall or a deck; and these spaces were in turn molded to suit the needs of the whole. There were never any drawings. The houseboat grew and developed like a piece of sculpture, each addition pointing the way towards a new direction.

Marion Saltman, who lived on the ark in the 60s, shared these reminiscences with Marinscope in 1985: “Omphale was gorgeous then. It had three units and in the middle was a huge open space used as a gathering place, a banquet hall, even a badminton court. The boat was funky and beautiful. It had big windows and stained glass, built simply, from materials at hand.”

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the Omphale functioned as a new age wellness center. But in December, 1996, a two-alarm fire destroyed her, injuring one resident and causing the disappearance of a cat. Marinscope reported: “The blaze occurred on the four-office, two-apartment structure at the harbor’s Dock A. Seven out of eight people who were in the building were forced to escape by jumping into Richardson Bay. Resident Mike Keiser suffered second degree burns on his face and head when he tried to go back into the building to a get a fire extinguisher. About 70 firefighters from the County of Marin, Sausalito, Mill Valley, Tam Valley, Tiburon and Corte Madera contained the fast moving fire in about two hours. Although it was difficult for firefighters to get to the seed of the fire because the Omphale was surrounded by water, the fire did not spread to adjacent houseboats. Resident Tina Osinski, wife of Keiser, is still missing her cat, Miss Peanut, who was inside the building at the time of the fire.”