The Madonna: Short-Lived Colossus of the Waterfront

By Larry Clinton

“Among the most creative of the houseboat builders was Chris Roberts, who was well known among the locals, as well as the authorities who took a dim view of his activities,” says musician and historian Joe Tate in his blog Joe adds, “Though somewhat impractical, his creations were stunning and beautiful. The ‘Madonna’ was built around an old piledriver which had a tall wooden structure about 70 feet high around which he created his vision of Mary, mother of Jesus.

“We generally referred to the Madonna simply as the ‘Tower’ and often employed it as a place to have parties. Although horizontal space was limited, Chris was always happy to make the place available. This allowed him to recruit cheap labor from the drunks who showed up.”

The Madonna towers over its neighbors (upper right).  To the left, past the ferry Vallejo, is the next-highest structure, the Owl.        Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

The Madonna towers over its neighbors (upper right).  To the left, past the ferry Vallejo, is the next-highest structure, the Owl.        Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

Chris Roberts told the short-lived waterfront newspaper Garlic Press that he began building the massive structure in 1967.  "Well, we worked on it for about a year and a half. About three or four hundred people have lived on it over the years, because that's the kind of place it was, anybody could stay there. It was never locked.”

One night just before Christmas, 1975, the Madonna erupted in flames.  Here’s how Pete Ritardo recalled it soon after in the Garlic Press:

The flamboyant tower, the Madonna of Gate Five -- star of Life Magazine, Paris Match and others, yet cut off in a strange way from the life force of the waterfront, as it sat unfinished for years on its slowly rotting barge -- burned Saturday night, December 21; the charred skeleton, timbers of the retired pile-driver on which the tower was built, now sits two hundred yards offshore on a piece of underwater property leased by Don Arques to Marin County.

The paper quoted an unnamed neighbor, who was one of the first to notice the flames: "Well, I was just peaking on peyote, which I had been eating all day, and just getting out of the bath tub when I heard like this huge crash, and saw this huge flame shooting out of the Tower. . . For a minute I thought I was having an hallucination, and then it hit me that the Tower was really burning, and I went outside and started yelling, 'Fire! Fire in the Tower!'

"I saw this guy, and he was either trying to beat out the flames or trying to fan them, I don't know which. "When I left my boat, I said to myself, well, this is it, I've lost everything, because I'm right next to the Madonna you know. . . It was beautiful -- like at one point I saw Mescaline in the flames -- beautiful, and at the same time scary. . ."

According to the paper, the Marin City fire department received a call at 9:24 P.M., and responded with three vehicles. When they arrived on the scene, help was immediately called for and eventually twelve vehicles were summoned. The flames were visible for miles around, and a crowd of spectators numbering in the hundreds gathered.

By the time a hose had been stretched to the end of the access pier, it was clear that the fire would have to burn up the 1/4-inch redwood sheathing of the main tower before it could be brought under control. Efforts were concentrated on trying to save the boats to the south and east of the Madonna, especially the Helmet-Dome boat inhabited by Alan and Cassandra. Bucket lines were formed to wet down roofs, and neighborhood fire-fighters were forced to pour water on their heads to keep from being burned by the constant rain of sparks and chunks of burning wood.

"We'd been talking about this for years," said Cassandra later, "that the worst thing that could happen would be a fire in the Madonna with a wind at low tide." And of course, that is exactly what happened. With the tide receding, Martine and Bennett's houseboat -- which had been tied up to the Madonna's bay side, was removed by frantic efforts with just inches of water to spare.

The Helmet-Dome boat was not so fortunate and was forced to sit out the fire just a few feet down- wind. Steam rose from the aluminum-sheathed portion of the roof: the water directed at it vaporized on contact.

After about 45 minutes,  the Madonna's sheathing had been pretty well burnt off; the front lower portion still remained, and the windward northerly wall. Under the swaying, burning 2x4 frame the yellow-suited firemen worked their way into the Madonna. As the fire's intensity diminished, they were finally able to turn water on the pile-driving tower, and by shutting off the other hoses to increase the water pressure, reached the top.

The crowd began to head home hours before the fire fighters, who stayed until 3 A.M. cleaning up and stowing their equipment.

No one had been hurt, and nothing at Gate 5 had been severely damaged except for the Madonna itself. Though the fire had started suddenly and had reached an intense level in a matter of minutes, everyone in the adjoining houseboats had been able to get to safety.

Chris Roberts provided the epitaph for his epic creation: "It was a sculpture, that's all. And at the same time a place for people who had nowhere else to stay, a kinetic sculpture in a sense. And that's all I can say about it."

Roberts also built the “Owl,” another unusual houseboat on which he lived. It was constructed around an old wooden stiff-leg crane which also had a towering structure. Though much shorter than the Madonna, it was still huge compared with the neighboring houseboats.  The Owl is still afloat on South Forty Pier.