The History of Houseboats on Richardson’s Bay

Waterfront living goes as far back as the 1880s, when colonies of “arks” existed off Belvedere and on the creeks of Larkspur. Arched roofs, sliding doors and decks fore and aft were hallmarks of ark design. Used chiefly as warm weather recreational boats in various quiet waterways, they were called arks – as opposed to houseboats — because they were designed to float on the bay waters at high tide and to sit on the mud flats at low tide. They were also pulled ashore during the winter. After the earthquake and fire of 1906, many arks were adapted for full-time residential use by families left homeless.

Shortly after California achieved statehood in 1850, Richardson’s Bay had been subdivided into underwater lots to create a West Coast Venice with canals and city streets. When the idea failed to materialize, the state sold the tideland lots into private ownership, but retained title to a number of the “underwater streets.” If you see what looks like a vacant berth, it’s most likely one of those mythical streets, since the original zoning remains in effect as a means of controlling the size of our community. Today, land swaps are being negotiated to clear up this regulatory ambiguity.

When the World War II liberty shipyards were returned to civilian use, free spirits, artists and philosophers like Alan Watts and Jean Varda began living on abandoned ferries and houseboats made from surplus military vessels such as landing craft and lifeboats. This artistic and cultural center greatly expanded during the peace and love era of the 1960s. The 1970s saw a period of houseboat wars pitting residents against County and State agencies to preserve their right to live freely on the water.

Approximately 400 floating home berths were eventually permitted in five designated residential marinas. The commitment of the floating home dwellers to their environment is evident. Artists, writers, photographers and entrepreneurs are inspired daily by the beauty of the waterfront.

Our homes float because they displace their weight in water. Floatation is usually a concrete hull but can also be fiberglass, wood, steel or Styrofoam. Living dockside, residents enjoy all the creature comforts of land dwellers. Municipal utilities, cable television and broadband computer connections offer 21st century amenities.

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