EcoCenter History

A Building With A Unique History

“Notable as a unique example of streamline moderne architecture, locally famous Palo Alto architect Birge Clark took inspiration from the pilot house of an old paddle wheel steamer for the building’s design. The structure, with its porthole-shaped windows and sleek facades, received a 1999 Preservation Award from the Art Deco Society of California as an outstanding example of art deco style architecture.”

In the early 1940s, philanthropist Lucie Stern commissioned the building as the future home for the Sea Scouts, an organization committed to enhancing boating skills, water safety, and knowledge of maritime heritage. In 1941, the building opened and the Sea Scouts launched boats onto the Palo Alto harbor, a thriving harbor that once fronted the building.

Early Years as the Sea Scout Base

“Built in Streamline Moderne style, the Sea Scout Building with its porthole windows, navigation bridge, flag hoist and smokestacks was designed to resemble an actual ship. It was the home to the local Sea Scouts, an offshoot of the Boy Scouts that taught boys and girls aged 14-20 how to excel in water activities. On the weekend of May 30, 1941, Palo Alto’s “Fairy Godmother” and greatest benefactor, Lucie Stern — who had given $13,000 for the base’s construction — christened the building by smashing a bottle of Atlantic Ocean seawater on the deck rail. The three-day extravaganza of dedication activities included a bonfire, a jiu-jitsu demonstration, a magic show, barbecue and formal dance. On Sunday, the event concluded with the formal inspection of more than 150 Palo Alto and visiting Sea Scouts. The building was abandoned after the Yacht Harbor closed in the mid-1980s.’ — Matt Bowling, San Jose Mercury News, April 15, 2010

Whimsical Architectural Gem

The style of the building is Streamline Moderne, also known as Nautical Moderne, which characteristics include: Horizontal orientation, Rounded edges, Corner windows, Porthole windows, Smooth exterior wall surfaces, Flat roof with coping, Horizontal grooves or lines in walls, Subdued colors: base colors were typically light earth tones, off-whites, or beiges; and trim colors were typically dark colors (or bright metals) to contrast from the light base.

20 Years of Deterioration

In 1986, the Palo Alto City Council voted to close the harbor and allow the Palo Alto Baylands to restore to their natural state as tidal salt marshes. Over time, the building’s original foundation sank three feet into the mud. The Sea Scouts relocated to Redwood City and the building began to deteriorate. The abandoned building flooded daily at high tide and was subject to decay and vandalism.

New Life for the Building

In 2003, the building was given local historic status, and the City of Palo Alto set out to find a partner to restore the facility. In 2004, Environmental Volunteers was given the opportunity to embrace the restoration project.

The EV committed to restoring this historic landmark, beloved by hundreds of Bay Area residents who remember it as the Sea Scout Base. With the unanimous support of the City Council of Palo Alto, in addition to supporters such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the EV partnered with CAW Architects, Inc. to transform the building into a public nature center. Following several years of planning and permitting including 15 local, state, and federal agencies, and a successful $3.8 million capital campaign, Environmental Volunteers successfully completed a full restoration and transformation of the building into a public nature center.

Restoration Begins

Groundbreaking for the new EcoCenter took place on Sept 14, 2008 and construction began in October 2008. The first phase of construction was intended to prevent further damage to the building. The building was moved from its degrading foundation. A new foundation with 50-foot sunken piers was engineered and constructed, and the building was moved back onto this new foundation. The new building sits 4 feet higher than its original state, to prevent future flooding due to tidal influx as well as sea-level rise. The building then received a complete exterior rehabilitation, including removal of lead paint, restoration of the original siding, new roof and doors, and a restoration of the original windows.

A Nature Center is Born

Environmental Volunteers moved in on February 13, 2012 and the Grand Opening celebration was held on July 22, 2012. Today, the EcoCenter serves as the headquarters for Environmental Volunteers and functions as a public nature center and community education resource. The building is owned by the City of Palo Alto and leased to Environmental Volunteers for 40 years. The building’s deck and pathways provide a key missing juncture of the 400-mile San Francisco Bay Trail.

In 2014, the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) recognized the restored EcoCenter with a Citation Design Award. The AIA recognized the EcoCenter’s transformation from a historic building into a contemporary education center while overcoming daunting technical challenges and retaining the building’s original whimsy.

The goals of the EcoCenter are to:

  • Increase science literacy for local students
  • Provide opportunities for volunteer service
  • Model sustainability and green building practices
  • Create a community gathering place for environmental education
  • Expand programs responsive to the needs of the community and changing environment

A Green Building

We call the EcoCenter “the ultimate recycling project”. As you enter the building, look for round markers that denote the Green Building features that the EVs incorporated during restoration. These include refurbished siding, flooring, and windows; blue jeans insulation; and soda bottle carpet.We hope you’ll drop by the EcoCenter during our open hours and see this unique community treasure for yourself! To learn more, visit our EcoCenter page.