Many thanks to Rebecca Nelson Sylla ’81 and Pam Keon, P’07, ’10 for compiling this information over many years—we are grateful for your dedicated research.
In order to tell the story of Marin Academy, you need to talk about the importance of place. As odd as it sounds, Marin Academy is an “old soul” in the sense that it was born out of the schools that had come before it. While MA officially got its start in 1972, there have been schools operating on the very same site since 1866. MA’s is considered the oldest independent school site in California.
Our story begins in the 1860s. San Rafael was mostly rural. While it did have agriculture and some businesses, few families settled here. Instead, people from across the Bay enjoyed coming to Marin County for weekend getaways. Visitors would take a ferry to Sausalito then catch a train that brought them north to San Rafael and beyond.
In an effort to attract families to San Rafael in 1866, an all-girls school was built on part of the site where MA’s current library resides. The girls academy didn’t last many years; records show that the building was sold and moved closer to Fifth Street. The new owners, the O’Connor family, expanded it in size and height in order to create what was to become the Tamalpais Hotel. The O’Connors also had cottages for out-of-town visitors, located just to the west of the hotel on what we today call Cottage Avenue.
In 1890, Dr. Arthur Crosby, Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, along with a group of civic-minded people, decided to start a school to help encourage people to move to Marin. These gentlemen originally wanted to start a college but decided it would be best to first have an elementary school and then create a college with its graduates.
The Mount Tampalpais Military School (MTMS) was founded by these gentlemen and opened in 1890 with 21 students in a building located on the corner of 4th and E Streets. By the second year, the school enrollment increased to 70. The school purchased the Tamalpais Hotel and cottages and moved to that site.
During this same time, one of the founding school members, Mr. Arthur Foster, a philanthropist and local businessman, purchased the O’Connor House that sat north of the hotel and cottages. He donated the building to the MTMS and it was renamed Foster Hall. Mr. Foster was very generous and also gave the land in Ross Valley that became the SF Theological Seminary.
The Mount Tamalpais Military School continued to grow. Classes included mounted and cavalry artillery training which took place on the Parade Grounds (now MA’s playing field). The MTMS was the only school in the west to offer such training.
Sports were an important part of school life at the academy. There are pictures beginning in the late 1800s of baseball and football teams. The local papers would carry highlights of the games. Students came from all over the world to MTMS for the excellent academics and training.
In 1925, enrollment began to decline and expenses surged. The board of directors sold the academy, as they were all shareholders. Mr. A.L. Stewart, a local businessman, purchased the property and reopened the school as The San Rafael Military Academy (SRMA). The campus expanded. Four dormitories that had been built during World War I were sent by barge from Mare Island and rolled up Fifth Street to surround the Circle. Today, Thacher Hall sits on one of the original sites of these dorms.
The original Tamalpais Hotel was torn down, as it had become a fire hazard. Shortly thereafter, in 1936, a new building called The Administration Building was constructed 150 yards west of the original structure. (Today we call the Administration Building the BBLC.)
Military schools were opportunities for young men to develop both academically and as individuals. They were not meant to necessarily be a conduit to military service. Boys as young as six came to study at the San Rafael Military Academy, many of them as boarding students. Great effort was made to create a nurturing home life for these students.
In 1930, the pool was built, and the “Old Gym,” as it is called today, was constructed. Tennis courts existed on what is now the Performing Arts Center. The SRMA moved those courts to what is today MA’s faculty parking area, right next to the swimming pool.
In 1945, Mr. Stewart died. His estate sold the school to a group of dedicated parents and business people. After five years, the school began to struggle. A major fundraising drive was undertaken, and enrollment steadily increased. However, the reprieve was short-lived. The school was still in debt.
The San Rafael Military Academy owned half of its land and had an option to buy the remaining half that was leased. In an agreement to help allow the school to continue, the Episcopal Church purchased the leased land and assumed the SRMA debt to become the school’s landlord. The SRMA could now continue operation as well as take care of much needed capital improvements.
In 1960, the school built an auditorium with a science wing. Today, MA’s Performing Arts Center sits on this site. Additionally, the SRMA purchased the Jewish Community Center on Mission Avenue to expand its campus. Today MA’s Visual Arts Center sits on that site.
As the 1960s came to a close, the perception of military schools shifted away from that of an opportunity for boys to develop into responsible leaders and contributors to their communities, and enrollment plummeted dramatically—along with enrollment at many single-sex schools. The SRMA Board of Trustees and the Episcopal Diocese worked fervently to develop creative solutions to continue operation, even exploring the possibility of accepting female students.
The school changed its name to The San Rafael Academy in an effort to remove a stigma. They tried to incorporate an ROTC program on campus. The church even brokered a deal with the Katharine Branson School, an all-girls school in Ross, to merge. However, the board split virulently on this matter. Half wanted to merge. Half wanted to continue as it was already doing and to raise enough money to refinance and remove the Episcopal Church as landlord.
Our story almost ends here. Or, is it just beginning?
The Episcopal Church was very committed to keeping the property used for educational purposes. The Diocese asked all its trustees to resign, as the board was so deeply divided about the future of any school. The school corporation dissolved, and the last San Rafael Academy students graduated in June 1971.
All but two trustees resigned. At the next board meeting, the first order of business was to elect four new trustees: Jim Thacher, Malcolm Manson, Reverend William Geisler, and Reverend Spencer Rice. This newly-seated board’s first order of business was to change the bylaws and allow women to serve as trustees. Their second order of business was to elect Barbara Mendenhall and Sylvia Hunter Kingsley to the board.
Enter Marin Academy.
This small group of educators and private individuals had been diligently seeking an opportunity to establish a progressive independent high school that would incorporate experiential learning and citizenship with intellectual development. They envisioned a school that would be accessible to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Against the social unrest of the times, the founders sought a balanced approach to education with, of course, an emphasis on scholarship, and also on the performing and fine arts, athletics, and outings.
In August 1971, the board changed the school’s name to Marin Academy and in 1972, hired Bill McCluskey as head of school. In September 1972, with optimism, courage, and enormous dedication on all parts, Marin Academy welcomed a student body of 60 and a faculty of 15, each one excited about embarking on this new adventure. Within weeks of starting classes, students were going on outings and participating in minicourses, learning about the natural world, and challenging themselves to try new things and develop new competencies. The concept of one’s place and one’s responsibilities as a member of a community was also key, with students pitching in from the beginning to help improve the campus and contribute to the betterment of the school.
Since Bill retired in 1984, Marin Academy has had three heads of school: Bruce Shaw, Bodie Brizendine, and Travis Brownley. During this time, we have seen the construction of new buildings, an increase in the number of students and employees, and the creation of traditions that exist today, such Crossroads/ Aim High, the Conference on Democracy, the Literary Festival, the Thacher Lectures, and the E.E. Ford Fellowships.