Where is the floating art colony of Sausalito? With its almost three miles of waterfront on Richardson Bay, Sausalito has been always been a great place to anchor a boat. This little town has a history as a safe harbor for ships restocking water and supplies. More recently, it has welcomed a number of retired boats. Once docked, these old boats became magnets for Sausalito’s art community. The SS Lassen, a lumber carrying ship built in 1917 was retired to Sausalito in 1936 after a fire in its engine room ended its first career.
The SS Lassen
Jewelry makers and artists Ed and Loyola Fourtane chartered the SS Lassen in 1936 after the fire. It was towed to the Arques Shipyard at the foot of Johnson Street in Sausalito. The Fourtanes used the pilot house of the ship as their jewelry showroom and invited other artists to live and work on board since there was lots of room. Living was cheap, fishing was easy and jug wine flowed freely on board the Lassen. But by 1959 the city of Sausalito condemned the boat which had been damaged by winter storms. The boat and it’s floating art colony survived, though, until a fire in 1968 finished it off.
Golden Gate Bridge and Marinship
After the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, many of the old wooden paddle wheel ferries that moved passengers from the North Bay to San Francisco became obsolete overnight. Some of these mighty boats were docked and left to rot along the Sausalito waterfront. With three miles of bay shoreline, and the end of the World War II shipbuilding frenzy at Sausalito’s Marinship shipyard, there were plenty of spots to park these old boats, and lots of people who welcomed them. Marinship also supplied a wealth of abandoned materials and surplus crafts that people in search of cheap or free housing pounced on to build houseboats. This was the beginning of Sausalito’s floating art colony and houseboat community.
The Ferry Vallejo was rescued from pending demolition by artist, Jean Varda. Varda purchased the boat along with surrealist artist, Golden Onslow Ford, and the architect Forest Wright. They then made extensive renovations and improvements. Ford’s and Wright’s share of the boat passed to the philosopher Alan Watts and poet Elsa Gidlow in 1961. As the Society for Comparative Philosophy’s home base for parties and functions as well as Varda’s love of entertaining, the Vallejo became a spot where art blossomed and parties were wild and free. The 1960s were the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. All were to be had in abundance on the Vallejo. One famous gathering on the Vallejo known as the Houseboat Summit brought together Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. After its wild days were over, The Vallejo was lovingly restored. No longer a floating art colony, it is now a private residence in the houseboat community.
The Ferry Issaquah was also briefly owned by the artist, Jean Varda, but he sold it soon after. It was moved to a berth at the north end of Sausalito where grand plans for offices and restaurants did not materialize. As the Waldo Point Harbor houseboat development grew, what remained of the rotting Issaquah was scrapped. The two pilot houses were rescued, though. They are currently at 300 Napa Street where they serve as a gatehouse and museum for the Galilee Harbor houseboat cooperative community.
Ferry Charles Van Damme
The Ferry Charles Van Damme was brought to Sausalito in 1957 and sold to shipyard owner, Don Arques. For a while it was a popular restaurant and gathering place known as Juanita’s Galley, then a nightclub called the Ark, and a venue for rock concerts. In 1983, during the houseboat wars, the old boat was bulldozed for the development of the Waldo Point Harbor houseboat marina in a dramatic clash between developers and protesters clinging to the smokestacks. The smokestack and paddle wheel of the old boat were recently dug out of twelve feet of bay mud and will be preserved as part of Sausalito’s history.
Floating Art Colony in Sausalito Today
These days you are as likely to find artists, writers, musicians, poets, and photographers living on floating homes on the bay, as in the hills and flats of the town. There is a vibrant artist’s studios group in the Industrial Center Building, as well as the Labor Day weekend gathering of artists and musicians on the waterfront at the Sausalito Art Festival. Caledonia Street and Bridgeway both have unique shops and studios featuring art by local artists. TG Travel group offers an Art Tour and Painting Class with Sausalito artist and author, Susan Sternau that provides a wonderful glimpse into the artistic life of Sausalito.