The Ladies of the Ice House

By Steefenie Wicks

Four women who have worked at the Sausalito Historical Society’s Visitor’s Center since the idea was conceived, have taken on the role of good will ambassadors for the city. Doris Berdahl, Robin Sweeny, Bea Seidler and Julie Warren have all been involved with this Sausalito Historical Society project since its opening at the Village Fair on Bridgeway, in 1993. As they make the first impression on most visitors and tourists, they are informative and entertaining and most helpful to the 30,000 people who walk across the entrance of the Ice House each year..

All of these  ladies have been part of Sausalito‘s history for the past 50 years.  Doris is from Dan Diego and Robin grew up in New York City and was elected mayor of Sausalito four times. Bea relocated here from the Midwest, and managed Sally Stanford’s successful campaign for Mayor. Julie, the youngest of the group, was born in Sausalito and grew up here while her father was Mayor.   Julie speaks both French and Spanish and delights when she can chat with visitors from these locations as they are so pleased to be able to communicate in their own languages.

They all agree that one of the most asked questions by visitors is, “where can I find a good place to eat?” The answer is anywhere in town because all of the restaurants are wonderful.  But because these ladies aim to please, they can suggest a place where you can get lunch if your layover in town is 15 minutes or 45.

There are other docents at the Ice House, which is open from 11:30-4: PM each day.  But this column will focus on the four “founders.”

Doris recalls that this entire project came about because of the Sausalito Centennial.

She explains that one of the owners of the Village Fair, who considered himself a history buff, heard about the project and wanted to participate.   Because he and his partners were in the process of selling the building, they offered the Historical Society a location on the 4th floor.  This area was big enough to set up an exhibition. There was a retail space adjacent to the exhibition area and it was decided by the Historical Society’s board that they would sell items to help support Historical Society projects.

The Village Fair location was opened to the public and tourists alike in 1993.  Bea Seidler remembered that somewhere in her vast files she has one of the original invitations sent out to announce the event.

All of the ladies agree that many things soon started to go wrong at the Village Fair location. When it rained, the roof leaked on the exhibits and some of the photos on display were almost ruined.  It was after one particularly bad winter that the Sausalito Historical Society’s Board decided to look for a new location. 

Enter Michael Rex and the Ice House.

Most of the residents in town will remember that the Sausalito Historical Society and the Parks and recreation Department had to vie to win the $1 per year lease on the building known as the Ice House.  Rex, a local architect, had used the structure as an office for over 13 years and events in his business and personal life swayed him to pass the building on in hope of keeping it in Sausalito and being able to have the public benefit from its presence.  With the help of the Mayor Amy Belser the Sausalito Historical Society became the proud owners of the structure.

Robin mentions how when tourists from other countries visit the building they are surprised to find out its history because many of them have no idea of how ice was stored or moved.

Doris talks about the process of moving the Ice House to its present location.  One of the Historical Society’s dedicated members, Phil Frank, launched a campaign to move the Ice House.  The idea was to ask each resident for a donation of just $1 to help pay for the move.   This drive was very successful and the residents of Sausalito were more than generous in their personal contributions to see this project happen.

In 1996, Doris, Robin, Bea and Julie were on hand for the opening of the Ice House and the location of their new Sausalito Visitor’s Center.

When each of the ladies is asked about her favorite memories of the Ice House,  they all have the same answer: their faith in human beings is always reinforced while working there. Each can tell the story of a wild eyed tourist who has lost his wallet and desperately walks into the Visitor’s Center only to find that someone has turned it in.  It’s a great pleasure to return the item and put that tourist at ease so he or she can still enjoy their visit to our little City by the Bay.

I call upon Sausalito’s good will Ambassadors and Ladies of the Ice House …to take a bow, for Sausalito is lucky to have such an awesome bunch of gals representing this town and its residents.


Ice House ladies Doris Berdahl, Robin Sweeny, Bea Seidler and Julie Warren (l. to r.)

Photo courtesy of  Steefenie Wicks







The History of Gabrielson Park

By Larry Clinton
As you spread your blanket for the first Jazz and Blues by the Bay concert of 2013 this Friday, you might want to reflect back on a time when that part of Sausalito was known as “The Hole.”
Here’s a brief history of the area, excerpted from the June 8, 1971 MarinScope:
Visitors from around the globe pause in the picturesque park in the heart of Sausalito’s waterfront and enjoy the sweeping view of San Francisco Bay and the City of San Francisco providing a spectacular backdrop.  But the esthetic park, created by the Sausalito Rotary Club as a community project, is perhaps the most appreciated by the residents themselves, because most of them remember when the area was known as “The Hole.”
The name was unflattering but unfortunately fitting.  For at high tides the property filled with water and the water  became a muddy, murky unattractive lake.  The City owned property had been leased to an individual for fifty years leaving the City powerless to improve it.  The lessee was equally powerless to improve it due to building restrictions.  The choice location remained an eyesore.
Then in 1964, under the presidency of the late Marcus Davis, the Rotary Directors voted to take on the task of beautifying “The Hole.” Soon it became apparent that the undertaking was monumental and the Club was momentarily stopped.   Work finally started in 1965.  “The Hole” was filled with over a thousand cubic yards of sand and planting soil.  Then irrigation pipe was laid, paths defined and dwarf pines planted, all according to plans previously drawn.
Suddenly the project came to an abrupt halt.  The City proposed to buy the lease back and use the site for a new library.  A library bond issue put to the voters failed.  By now a year and a half had elapsed.  Meanwhile the lease holder, impressed with the Club’s initial efforts to provide a community park, released the property without cost for that use.
The Club resumed its work with renewed enthusiasm.  Materials were either donated by Club members or purchased at cost.  All labor was that of volunteer Club members.  And honors were bestowed on member and past president George Carney whose untiring efforts played the major role in completing the project in November of 1968.
The parked was named Gabrielson Memorial Park in memory of the late Carl Gabrielson, a true Rotarian well known for his outstanding contributions to his club and varied civic enterprises both in Japan and Sausalito.
A one-time member of the City Council, Carl Gabrielson died in 1964.

George Gabrielson (l.) with fellow City Councilman and park enthusiast Earl Dunphy.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society.


The Ice House Cometh…or One Man's Vision/ A Town's Historical Landmark

By Steefenie Wicks
The year was 1982:
He made sure no one was there, then went back inside, made the cut deep in the wood and pushed the thick wooden piece through; when it fell outside on the street, it made a loud noise.   This brought people out of their businesses and from up and down the street and when they saw what he had done they cheered.  A s he stood in the newly cut window looking out at everyone, he burst into tears and at that moment he knew that he had made the right decision and he would spend the best part of 13 years developing the Michael Rex and Associates architectural firm in this storybook structure . . . the Ice House.
I sat down recently with architect Michael Rex and asked him if he could fill me in on how the Ice House was saved.  He began by saying that in the early 1980’s, he had been eyeing the fanciful structure for some time because it was obviously abandoned.  One night at a party he brought up the subject with his friend, cartoonist Phil Frank.  Frank advised him to speak with the owner of the building and offer him $1.  Michael was not sure that would work but he knew the property owner.  They were both members of the Rotary Club and his name was Ed Couderc.  
The Couderc family had owned the structure since 1952 and it was used to dispense ice purchased from the Union Ice Company in San Rafael and brought to Sausalito on open flat bed trucks that carried about 10,000 lbs. per trip daily.  When the Couderc family owned the structure, the ice was fed out of the chute by the coins placed in the slot that would trigger a conveyor belt.  When the ice fell off of the belt into a chute it would trip a rod with another switch to stop the machine.  Ed remembers as a child that his father would get calls from the Police department in the middle of the night because the machine would not turn off and ice was filling up the streets.
At the next Rotary meeting Michael approached Ed and offered him $1 for the building and Ed said “why not, but you’ll have to move it because I need the land.” Rex offered rent the site for a monthly fee and the deal was struck.
“When you walk into an old building it’s like you are walking into a story,” Rex says. “The story of the structure is there in the walls, the floors, the windows and the doors, the heritage of the place is so important.”  This becomes apparent when you enter the 19th century structure that now houses the Historical Society’s Visitor Center and Historic Exhibit in downtown Sausalito.
The Ice House had at one time been a Northwestern Pacific railroad “cold cargo hold.”  The first of these “cold cargo” cars were called “reefers” and were brought about by the same Union Ice Company that the Couderc family would later do business with.  Edward W. Hopkins, a nephew of San Francisco railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins, founded Union Ice in 1882.   It’s believed that the structure downtown has been part of Sausalito since the 1920’s when it served the iceboxes of the local residents.   
Rex noticed that sometimes the best things about a place go unnoticed.  When I asked what about the Ice House goes unnoticed he pointed out that the floor has never been polished and yet it has a shine that can only come from having ice drug across it for almost 100 years, but who notices the floor?
With the growth of his architectural firm, Rex began looking for larger office space in 1997 and that meant a new home for the Ice House.  A new home because it could no longer stay at its location on Caledonia Street.  Once again Rex came to his friend Phil Frank, and Phil came up with the idea of moving it downtown.  Frank set about drawing cartoons of townspeople pulling the Ice House downtown.  He and Rex started a fundraising project to relocate the structure, and in the middle of the night in 1999 the building was moved to its present location.
“Phil had an affinity to the Ice House and he had a love for old structures,” recalls Michael  “His encouragement for me to purchase the building changed my life and I have many wonderful memories of times spent in that building.  He was instrumental in the whole campaign to save the building, to move the building and gather the support of the town and the Historical Society.  Without his support and energy things might have taken a turn and the Ice House could have been destroyed.”
In closing I asked Rex what he thought about the structure now that it has become a historical landmark. His reply was simply, ”Old buildings are the physical embodiments of history, and oh, the beauty of it all. For beauty is timeless and is appreciated by all people of all ages  … if you design beauty you create joy and that is what I have done with my work all my life.  If the Ice House represents that then I’m very pleased and proud.”

Architect Michael Rex in his office today.
Photo by Steefenie Wicks


Early Life in Sausalito

by Annie Sutter
This story is condensed from a series of articles which ran in the Marin Scope in 1987-88.

What sort of a place was the Sausalito that William Richardson and his family inhabited in the late 1830’s? An answer is provided by his son, Stephen, in a series of articles published by the Call Bulletin in 1918 when the son was 87 years old.
 “My early life in Sausalito was perhaps the happiest time of my life. A horse trail ran from San Rafael to Sausalito, very much the same as the main highway goes today. The country was entirely untouched by man, and the wild oats grew shoulder high, in spite of the great herds of wild animals browsing in the fields. On an ordinary jaunt from Sausalito to San Rafael I would see enough elk, deer, bear and antelope to fill a good sized railroad train. I never grew tired of riding through wonderful forest land and over ridges overlooking the sea.” The land grant which Richardson received in 1838 totaled over 19,000 acres comprising land from the bay to the sea, and was called Rancho Saucelito. “The bay as my father knew it was a fairyland of enchantments ... the waters had not been fouled by tailings from the mines, and were still crystal clear so that a pebble could easily be seen at a depth of 30 feet. The timber reached in many places down to the shore. The stillness was unbroken save for the shrill piping of the myriad shorebirds, and elk with huge branching horns, graceful antlered stags, and huge grizzly bears stood statuesque on the hillsides.”
Richardson’s daughter wrote that she saw bands of elks, hundreds in a band, swimming from Angel Island to the shores, and remembers fields of yellow poppies stretching as far as the eye could see. However, all was not Paradise, as attested to by one visiting sailor who, in 1837, “sailed for Whaler’s cove ... remained an hour or two ... shot a rabbit and got most confoundedly poisoned by what is here called ‘yedra’ - (poison ivy.)”
Having finally officially received the grant to Rancho Sausalito, Richardson built his home, an adobe, at the intersections of today’s Pine and Bonita. By 1841 the family was well established in Sausalito. Many are the reports of his hospitality. In those days of life in early California the concept “mi casa es su casa ‑ my house is your house” was an accepted way of life. Californians were expected to ‑ and did - open their homes to visitors and to entertain lavishly. “Entertaining in those days was wholesale, not retail,” recalled Stephen. “It was necessary for the hostess to invite practically the entire population ... you were sure to have at least 100 guests draw bridle at your door at the appointed day. And when you realize that no feasts ever lasted for less than one week...”
As well as entertaining neighbors and extensive family, Richardson extended his hospitality to visitors on ships and was, in turn, invited to dine on board, often in equally lavish style, as described by daughter Marianna. “My father always dined the officers of the men‑of‑war. The dinner consisted of barbecued meat, stewed chicken with chili beans, corn and other Spanish dishes, all of which they enjoyed very much . They would praise our way of cooking and would always invite us to dine on board their vessels ... and entertained us in a splendid state serving a grand dinner using their finest china, having several table cloths of the finest linen, removing one after each course.”

Richardson’s homesite c. 1841.
Photo courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society and Sausalito Woman’s Club


The Captain of the Port

by Annie Sutter

This story is condensed from a series by Annie Sutter on William A. Richardson which ran in the Marin Scope in 1987 and 1988.


Sausalito’s first settler, first landowner and first entrepreneur was William A. Richardson who arrived in the sleepy village of San Francisco on board a British whaling ship in 1822. He became involved in the commerce of the growing town, built several small boats, and soon discovered what would become Sausalito. In 1837 he was appointed Port Captain of San Francisco by Governor Vallejo, a position which provided the enterprising Richardson with an open invitation to profit in lucrative trading schemes across the bay. After the 1820s, ships of many nations began calling at San Francisco Bay to trade goods: clothing, silks and velvets, shoes, liquor and spices in exchange for hides, tallow, otter skins, produce, wood and water. Richardson set up a business on today’s Valley St. beach supplying wood and water to visiting ships. One historian observed: “Capt. Richardson naturally couldn’t support his family on the meager Port Captain’s wages, but the name of the game was graft with a bit of smuggling on the side. What with knocking down some of the customs money, and conniving with ship captains to avoid port taxes, he was soon doing very well.”

Word had gotten round to ship captains that if they fired a cannon twice outside the gate, Richardson and his Indian crew would come out and pilot them into Sausalito, thus avoiding the expense of dealing with the officials on the other side of the bay. There, in what came to be called Whaler’s Cove, he ran things according to his own rules, and the whalers and an increasing number of American ships found it expedient to deal with Richardson’s sensible approach; get on with the trade, avoid the tax, and split the difference. By 1843 his mismanagement of his port duties had become so flagrant that the Administrator of Customs complained that Richardson was making up rules to his own advantage. The result was that he was dismissed from his post as Port Captain, but by then his cattle and hide business was thriving and he had made so many friends among ship captains that they no longer hove to in San Francisco, but dropped anchor in the shelter of Richardson’s Bay where they provided a ready market for his beef and fruits and vegetables. The historian Bancroft observed; “Any administrator who attempted to regulate whalers in San Francisco Bay was confronted by hard‑faced captains bent on keeping their port expenses small, by merchants after cheap goods, and by rancheros who bartered their agricultural surplus for ‘slop chest’ goods.”

In 1844 a new official named Diaz was appointed to San Francisco. After discovering that more whalers had passed over to the Sausalito anchorage, Diaz crossed the bay to try to enforce the port regulations. He found the anchorage teeming with evidence of illicit trade. He noticed a large kettle on the beach. Richardson replied that it was his, that a whaling ship had left the kettle. Then Diaz discovered that the Alcade of San Francisco had brought his launch alongside a whaler and was unloading a barrel of honey, salt pork and ship’s bread. Reports of the blatant disregard of his authority continued until Diaz announced that he was withdrawing all guards, and informed Richardson that he was responsible for what might happen. Richardson’s answer rivals today’s bureaucratic responses: “This Captaincy is not responsible for anything you may do regarding the whaling ships anchored in Sausalito, because of their having anchored by arrangement with orders which the Custom House gave; this is my answer to your Official Letter dated today.”

Richardson had other means of avoiding customs duties ‑- use of the Sausalito shores as storage. When the whalers did submit to customs inspection, it was often with lightened loads. Bancroft  reported that “a goodly amount of fabric, liquor, clothing, food and household goods were hidden beyond the beach at Whaler’s Cove.” Shanghaiing? While we have no evidence that Richardson was trading in sailors, he was willing to harbor deserters. A cook, a carpenter and a ship’s boy found employment in his benevolent domaine after deserting their ships. Yet, for some reason, the name “Rancho Shanghai” became attached to Richardson’s place. A sketch done by a visiting sailor in 1855 is entitled “Shanghai Rancho near Saucelito‑Cala,” and is followed by the notation “this would seem to be a nickname with some innuendo.”


Next week: A description of Marin in the 1840s written in later years by Richardson’s children.


William Richardson, c. 1854