September 6, 2013 7:39 pm

Distinctive design style aboard Sausalito’s houseboats

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Just five minutes’ drive north of San Francisco is a houseboat community known for its eclectic, one-of-a-kind style
Sausalito near San Francisco has been home to houseboats since the 19th century©Alamy

Sausalito near San Francisco has been home to houseboats since the 19th century

On the shoreline of Richardson’s Bay in Sausalito, just five minutes’ drive north of San Francisco, is a small community of about 400 houseboats. Among them is a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal complete with onion domes, a converted second world war balloon barge and a floating home built by Japanese joiners, furnished with tatami mats and sliding paper walls.

It was in this area that Otis Redding co-wrote the song “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” in 1967. Once a haven for bohemians and hippies, the harbour has since attracted more affluent residents, but the unusual character of the houseboats lives on.

Houseboats have been fixtures of Sausalito since the 19th century, when wealthy San Franciscans kept floating boats with curved roofs known as “arks” anchored in the bay.

After the devastating earthquake of 1906 many of the boats were pulled to shore and placed on wooden pilings above the waterline, becoming permanent residences for people who had lost their homes.

Living room in Susan Neri's boat, the Lone Star

Living room in Susan Neri's boat, the Lone Star

It was not until after the second world war, with the closure of many shipyards, that the houseboat community came to life. People were able to buy or rent boats for very little and residents, such as artist Jean Varda and philosopher Alan Watts, boosted Sausalito’s allure. At the centre of the community was a ferry boat, the S.S. Charles Van Damme, known as “The Ark”, which became a popular party and performance venue during the 1960s.

Chris Tellis grew up in Sausalito and has lived in one of the area’s oldest and most famous floating homes, the Yellow Ferry, for 50 years. In 1956, his father, a builder, bought the abandoned 1888 side-wheeler ferry boat for $1,800 and converted the vessel into an 80ft long, 8,000 sq ft home.

“There is nothing like living on the water,” says Tellis. “Everything is moving. The birds, the water itself, the reflection of the sky in the water. It is like a kinetic meadow around you.” Outside, egrets, herons and sea lions are among the resident wildlife. Once inside his boat, there is a striking concrete fireplace that was designed and sculpted in 1960 by artist Leo Krikorian, a friend of the family; a lithograph by Al Garvey depicting Jean Varda’s sailboat, the Cythera; and tapestries which belonged to Tellis’s mother. From the master bedroom, there are views straight through the paddle wheel out into the bay.

Storm lantern, £29,
Perch counter stool, £191.66,
Storm lantern, £29, Perch counter stool, £191.66,

The Yellow Ferry belongs to a different time in Sausalito. “There were no codes [in the 1950s and 1960s], so people just built whatever fantasies they wanted to,” says Tellis. The early houseboats were fashioned from whatever people could get their hands on. Some were beautiful, but others were decrepit and dangerous and in the 1970s Marin County tried to clean up the area and impose regulations. The authorities built several houseboat docks hooked up to utilities and encouraged locals to move on to them. Many did but others resisted resulting in the so-called “houseboat wars”, when protesters clashed with developers. “Now [development] is constrained,” says Tellis. “There are homeowners’ associations, regulations and height limits (no boat is allowed to be taller than 16ft).” Prices have also rocketed, with some houseboats valued at more than $2m.

Though there are the odd examples of very sleek and contemporary interiors, architect Kathy Shaffer, author of Houseboats: Aquatic Architecture of Sausalito , says that the houseboat interiors are usually eclectic in style, rather than contemporary. “Most of the furniture and decorations are one-of-a-kind creations, custom-made and built in.”

Lyra natural rattan two-seat sofa, £225,
Set of six lamps, €1,350,
Lyra natural rattan two-seat sofa, £225, Set of six lamps, €1,350,

The decoration of Susan Neri’s boat, the Lone Star, a former second world war landing craft converted in the 1960s, is typical of this approach. Like many of Sausalito’s early houseboats, it was adapted using whatever materials were available at the time. Her windows were salvaged from a Victorian house before it was torn down as were her sliding French doors.

Neri, a graphic designer, remodelled the interior with the help of a local carpenter taking out some of the windows to create walls to make space for a kitchen and office. The original teak floors are covered with Persian rugs, while there are also displays of fossilised shells, skulls and cowboy spurs (a little nod to the boat’s name). Colour is much in evidence, with apple-green walls, yellow-ochre painted beams, a red lacquered Chinese screen and a shelf full of 1930s Fiesta pottery.

Found Thai pouf, £187.15,
Alamo cushions, £68-£128,
Found Thai pouf, £187.15, Alamo cushions, £68-£128,

One of the most unusual boats in Sausalito, the Train Wreck, belongs to Henry and Renee Baer. Built in the 1980s by architect Keith Emmons, it incorporates a carriage from a 120-year-old Pullman train.

About a third of the 2000 sq ft floating home is taken up by the train car which was sliced in half and set in a ‘V’ shape on top of a concrete base. The carriage, which houses the kitchen, dining room and a spare room, still has its original mahogany walls and floors.

Inside, the couple display the spoils of their travels in Europe, Bhutan, Nepal and the Mekong Delta. Henry Baer, whose wife is a retired interior decorator, says that “most things are one-of-a-kind”.

There are several drums and wooden crocodiles that once graced the heads of canoes in Papua New Guinea. The couple share their living room with a vintage carousel horse brought over from Spain. Baer says that although he and his wife travel all over the world, “coming back is like going on holiday again” and he says there is no place in the world he would rather live.

Oval Yacht table, £14,300,
Boucherouite rug, $760,
Oval Yacht table, £14,300, Boucherouite rug, $760,

According to Neri, boats like hers are beginning to fade away. As it has a wooden hull, it has to be taken to the boatyard every five to 10 years to be repaired. In contrast, many of the newer boats are built on top of floating concrete boxes.

Now 72, Neri is nostalgic for Sausalito’s heyday. “People are less adventurous [now]; they are interested in property values and before it was a free-for-all for artists and writers,” she says. “There was a lot of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It was quite a place.”

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