By Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society
The following is updated from a Spring 2016 cover story in the Historical Society newsletter, Moments in Time:
The Ice House Visitors Center and Historic Exhibit has been a downtown landmark since 1999, hosting more than 30,000 visitors a year. But the origins of the structure remain a bit of a mystery.
For years, we’ve been describing the Ice House as a former Northwestern Pacific Railroad refrigerator car, or “cold storage hold,” but it turns out that no evidence exists to support this theory. In fact, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society is unfamiliar with the “cold hold” terminology. When the Ice House was declared a historic landmark in 1998, David Hodgson, then chair of the Historic Landmarks Board, estimated that the building dates back to the late 1800's, judging by its architectural features such as insulation made of stripped redwood bark. Architect Michael Rex, who owned the building for several years, agrees, based on the use of square nails, which date to the Victorian era. Rex, who remodeled the old ice vending facility from its original shoebox design, also points out that it would have been too wide to ride on the Northwest Pacific’s narrow-gauge tracks.
Ed Couderc, whose family owned the structure for a quarter of a century, recalls that old photos show an ice storage house or cooler at the foot of Princess Street, in the mid-1920s. He says the structure “has also been placed on Pine Street below Caledonia in the 1930s.”
Long-term resident Margaret Jewett told the Historical Society that Jack Douglas, who sold coal and wood out of the building that would become the Marin Theatre, also operated the Ice House. When the theatre was built in 1942, Douglas moved both businesses next door to her family home at 309 Caledonia. Until the Ice House was moved again, to the corner of Caledonia and Litho, Douglas “got his electricity for the refrigeration from our house,” Margaret recalled. “We ran the line through the kitchen window and plugged it in to the wall outlet.”
The structure was acquired by the Couderc family in 1952. Even after refrigerators had become ubiquitous in Sausalito homes, the coin-operated facility continued to dispense blocks and cubes of ice, primarily for boaters and fishermen, until the compressor failed in 1976.
At that time the Coudercs padlocked the building, and it was used for storage for 12 years.
Searching for a home to start his architecture practice, Michael Rex asked Ed what he intended to do with the old building. When he replied, “tear it down,” Michael offered to save him the cost of demolition; he would take it off his hands for a buck, an idea suggested by the Historical Society’s Phil Frank. A handshake and a Bill of Sale drawn up on a napkin closed the deal.
Rex remodeled the building, enclosing the loading dock for a reception area, installing windows, removing the original flat roof and extending the walls up to the height of the gable shaped roof, which had been installed over the ice box as a rain cover. A monitor was added along the ridge to bring in natural light. The original blue and white color scheme was preserved.
Rex leased the land under the building from the Couderc family, but they eventually sold the property. When the new owner terminated his lease in 1996, Rex offered to give the structure to the City, in return for a tax write-off. The City accepted the donation in July 1997.
As Historical Society Vice President Dana Whitson wrote in Marin Scope in 2016, “After a public discussion on alternate uses for the building, the City Council voted to move the Ice House to its final home, a City-owned site at the corner of Bay Street and Bridgeway in downtown Sausalito, to replace a temporary SHS History Exhibit and Visitor Center opened during the City’s 1993 centennial at the former Village Faire (now the Casa Madrona Hotel and Poggio Restaurant).
Under the leadership of Phil Frank, the Historical Society raised funds for the relocation and conversion of the building into the Museum and Visitor Center in 1999. Rex volunteered to prepare the necessary plans for the new site and the Rotary Club of Sausalito provided much of the labor. In the early hours one morning in March 1999, the Ice House rolled down Bridgeway to its new home where the Historical Society has continuously operated the facility for the City ever since.
The City and Historical Society always intended to improve the site around the Ice House once funds became available, according to Dana: “The plan for the plaza began to take shape following Phil Frank’s death, as his friends and fellow citizens sought to use funds donated in his memory to build a project that Phil would have loved. In 2010, the Sausalito Foundation raised over $32,000 to build the Plaza.”
Thanks to the generosity of the Foundation and many other donors and supporters, the SHS will soon begin construction on an attractive new plaza adjacent to the Ice House, where the public can linger and learn more about Sausalito history. Look for an announcement of a groundbreaking ceremony soon.
This project will also be celebrated with a fundraiser at Sausalito's elegant historic mansion, The Pines, on Friday, January 11. Guests can explore the beautifully restored 4 story Queen Anne Victorian house, enjoy wine and hors d'oeuvres and bid on fabulous silent auction prizes and three live auction destination vacations. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to http://www.sausalitohistoricalsociety.com.