How Marin Academy Began

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.

Marin Academy’s Foster Hall, 2012

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.

Barbara Mendenhall, Bill McCluskey, Jim Thacher

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.

Bike Day, 1981

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.


About Travis

Head of School, Marin Academy.
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4 Responses to How Marin Academy Began

  1. Chris Jannes says:

    Thanks, Travis… This is so great to read. I’m there in the front row of the 1981 Bike Day photo (front row, 4th or 5th from the right, dark Bike Day T-Shirt, and a very 80’s way of trying to part my hair in the middle!).

    There is so much more from the early days of MA. There are the old dorms that were barged up the San Rafael Canal from Mare Island and then trucked up to MA. By the time MA came into existence, they were used a storage, the senior lounge, a smoking lounge, a chapel-turned-recording-studio, a surfboard-waxing room run by some of the teachers, and more. They were torn down in 1982 and I have some great photos of the demolition.

    Then there was the rifle range in the basement of what we called the Administration Building. Founding head of school Bill McCluskey used to encourage students to bring their rifles to school to practice the rifle skills! It was not uncommon to hear target practice happening during lunch.

    There were teachers living upstairs in Foster Hall and students rarely, if ever, went up there. Math teacher Roger Hall lived there with his family, and Biology teacher Barney Stout and his wife, Barabra (head of Finance) lived there as well. So did Athletic Director Daryl Ravani. And of course, there were always stories of Foster Hall being haunted. Barney Stout used to talk about that in Biology class and he was VERY serious about it. Academic Dean Ray Boring and his wife, Admissions Secretary Maggie also lived on campus in the front of what we called Dorm 1, which is now Founders Hall.

    There were also a lot of married faculty and staff… Head of School Bill McCluskey and Librarian Betsey McCluskey, Biology teach Barney Stout and Finance Director Barbara Stout, Ray and Maggie Boring, and of course James Shipman and Beau Leonhart! And there was also the teaching team of brother, John Morris (English) and Jim Morris (Math).

    The new gym used to be the student parking lot, and as you mention, the teacher parking lot used to be the Tennis Courts. We were allowed to leave campus for lunch, but not in our cars. Imagine how difficult it was to try and sneak off campus hen your car was parked right in the middle of everything. The small square building next to the new gym used to be called the infirmary. It was never an infirmary during MA times, but was a classroom and MA’s first computer lab. You can still see the Red Crosses in tilework on each side of the portico and you enter the building.

    Campus space seemed tighter back then. As a photography student, I recall the darkroom would move from year to year. It used to be is a storage close in the bottom floor of the Administration Building. Then it moved to to a small space in the back of Dorm 1 (Founders Hall) and finally ended up in an old theater room in the science wing of the Performing Arts building. Other art classes too place in the Visual Arts building, which also used to be the YWCA.

    There is history in every corner of the campus, even the center… the concrete pads on each side of the flagpole used to have cannons on them from the military academy days. Driving by in the late 60s and early 70s, I recall seeing marchers on the field, and hear guns go off during ceremonies. There was also a large scoreboard on the field and huge wooden bleachers. Both of those stayed until the early days of MA. The wooden bleachers that stretched along the edge of the field parallel to Mission Street were torn down, and the scoreboard got overgrown into the trees before it was removed.

    The area above the field, which is now a garden, used to be a Par Course. It was a gift from one of the classes in the 1970s. Par Courses were a big thing at the time!

    Even the bathrooms had a story around them. Since it was a boys school for so many years, there were boys’ bathrooms in each building and in the gym, but the girls’ bathroom were fewer and farther between!

    And, the campus had a Coke machine in front of the gym, as well as a payphone… two things that rarely appear on a high school campus today.

    I haven’t been on campus in years, but I still drive by and it always brings back good memories. My brother was there from ’75-’79 and I was there from ’80-’84, so between us, we saw a lot of the early years (even when there were two minicourses per year). Only a few of the teachers are left from that time… Glenn Stanfield, James Shipman, Pam Maffei, and our 1984 Faculty Representative John Hicks.

    Thanks for your blog entry about the history… I hope some of these details can help keep the history alive.

    Chris Jannes ’84

    • Travis says:

      Wow! Thank you, Chris, for your detailed and thoughtful comments. What a pleasure it is to read and learn how clearly your days at and around Marin Academy have stayed with you. Please join us for the 40th Anniversary Celebration at Bimbo’s on April 20th, 2013! Invite to arrive shortly.

  2. Pingback: Point Reyes National Seashore Lifeboat Station at Chimney Rock | Destination:TBA

  3. JamesStevinson says:

    My grandfather went to MTMA in early 1900’s. Would like to see more early photos.

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