The Great Escape

At this California lodge, green living means indulging in a bit of luxury


Historic buildings at the former Fort Baker have been converted to an eco-resort, Cavallo Point.

Credit: Kodiak Greenwood

UPDATE: Cavallo Point won LEED gold certification in February 2010, becoming the first National Park and the first on the National Register of Historic Places to achieve gold status.

On a clear November morning, my wife and I drive down a snaking road just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, as San Francisco shimmers on the other side of the bay. We're headed to Cavallo Point, a stylish ecolodge located on the grounds of Fort Baker—a 1905 Army base at the foot of the Marin headlands. The soldiers who once marched among the neat rows of barracks here have been replaced by fledgling ecotourists like us, intent on exploring an ambitious getaway that combines high-end hospitality and pampering with a keen ­environmental awareness.


It comes as no surprise that Cavallo Point (a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Hotels of America program) is enthusiastically green. After all, San Francisco is one of the nation's most environmentally conscious cities. What does surprise us is how comfortably preservation and sustainability blend together—how seamlessly the old fits in with the new.


We check in at a desk inside the former artillery barracks, with historic wood floors and a ceiling of restored tin panels. Here we learn our first green lesson: We could have taken a bus and a hotel shuttle from the airport to the lodge, instead of renting a car. Thankfully, our economy Ford (the rental company was out of hybrids) gets a decent 30 miles per gallon.


Across the grassy parade ground, we find that our spacious rooms occupy the former servants' quarters in a one-time commanding officer's residence. The bedroom and bath are filled with subtle green surprises. Instead of plastic water bottles, our fridge has a Brita filter. No plastic shampoo bottles, either; the shower has a metal dispenser. The radiators have individual knobs to control room temperature. The toilet is dual flush: Pull up instead of push down to use less water.


Other green elements are invisible. The windows allow for cross-ventilation, making air-conditioning unnecessary. The paint has low levels of volatile organic compounds harmful to the environment. The building's carpets and insulation are made of recycled materials. As for the restored pressed-tin ceilings, they're free of lead paint thanks to a chemically neutral process: Restorers sealed the individual tin panels in plastic bags and placed them in a freezer. A few hours and several vigorous shakes later, the paint fell off, sans acid. 


Mostly we're struck by the coziness of the place. The cushioned bench by our main window is perfect for admiring the view of the bay, the reconstructed porch outside ideal for sipping a late-afternoon cocktail. Stately cypress, eucalyptus, and Monterey pine trees encircle the site, sheltering it from the region's notorious winds.


The Army intended the base to be comfortable. During the 19th century, life for military enlistees had been miserable—drafty housing with no electricity the norm—which made recruitment difficult. When construction started on Fort Baker in 1901, the Army wanted the base to herald a significant improvement in living conditions.


Of course, the fort was also strategically significant, positioned at the mouth of the bay to help other nearby military installations protect San Francisco from hostile ships. Just before World War II, the Army added defenses against planes and torpedo boats, including anti-aircraft guns. Though Japanese submarines occasionally approached the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Baker never saw action. By the 1970s, with operations at the fort waning, the Army looked to dispose of the land, and with support from conservationists, the site became part of a national park.


"We are the beneficiary of some very wise decisions made by the Army, as well as its respect for open space," Steve Kasierski tells me one morning as we sit on the porch of a former barracks. A National Park Service employee and Cavallo Point's real estate project manager, Kasierski recalls how the buildings in this historic district languished for years, the roofs leaking and walls sagging. Rebirth took a decade, in part because of a lawsuit filed by ­residents of nearby Sausalito. They objected to initial plans that called for a 350-room hotel and expressed concern that increased traffic would prove detrimental to their ­community.


In the end, developers and local residents compromised on a 142-room lodge. The Park Service joined with a private resort group and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, a children's museum near Cavallo Point, to fund the $152 million renovation.


With 21 newly restored Colonial Revival buildings, each adapted for different uses—including a bar, conference rooms, and offices—Cavallo Point operates much like a college campus. Most of the structures here have wood frames, white siding, and red-shingled roofs. They're not architectural marvels, but the craftsmanship is impressive.


The ultimate sign of the project's success, Kasierski says, is how much the site still looks as it once did: "I think an Army trooper who was here in the 1920s, if he miraculously happened to be here now, would recognize the place."


The troops who lived here would be surprised at the way the century-old buildings function today. My wife attends a yoga class one morning in the former chapel, a surprisingly spacious sanctuary with rows of period lamps hanging from the ceiling. Later, we go for a hike, climbing a hill above the barracks and finding 10 acres of protected habitat for the endangered mission blue butterfly (no sightings this late in the season). Here in the heart of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just a 10-minute drive from San Francisco, hawks soar and bobcats and coyotes roam, oblivious to an abandoned NIKE missile site built to defend against Soviet bombers. We arrive at a lookout point just as the sun reaches the horizon, the Pacific Ocean and the bay visible above brown, rolling hills. As we stand tall against the wind, we experience a subtle shift in perspective, a sense that we're not masters of our environment so much as creatures awed by it.


It's a fogless night, and we can see San Francisco lit up across the bay as we head to dinner in the restaurant, housed in a former artillery barracks. Chef Joseph Humphrey earned two Michelin stars at his previous restaurant in Napa, and he darts in and out of the kitchen preparing crab wrapped in thin slices of pear, quail with dry-cured olives, and roasted lamb. All the food comes from local sources: the crab from Half Moon Bay, the quail from Wolfe Ranch in Vacaville, the grass-fed lamb from Pozzi Farms in Sonoma. Cultivating ­relationships with local growers fits right in with the green ethic, not only for diners (who benefit from tasting the freshest seasonal ingredients) but also for farmers and ranchers: Keeping their land agricultural means ultimately protecting it from development.


A few locals have questioned whether a high-end restaurant and luxury lodge belong in a national park, but Kasierski argues that there are plenty of affordable campgrounds and hostels on nearby park grounds. He also mentions that Cavallo Point's rates (rooms start at $250 a night) are competitive in the Bay Area market.


After a few relaxing days at Cavallo Point, it's time for an excursion into the city. One morning we head to Sausalito and catch a ferry that churns past Alcatraz Island and docks at the foot of San Francisco's financial district. At the ferry terminal, built in 1898 and restored six years ago, we find a farmers' market in full swing. We wander around the dozens of outdoor booths, following the lead of locals by nibbling samples of goat-cheese pizza and fried asparagus. The inside of the terminal, which houses a year-round market, features tiled walls embedded with mosaics made by area artisans.


Then it's on to a new building in Golden Gate Park we'd heard about before our trip: Italian architect Renzo Piano's California Academy of Sciences, unveiled last September. The structure's four-and-a-half-acre green roof is alive with native plants and insects and has already become a symbol of the way sustainability and pure design can coexist beautifully.


We venture inside to see the aquarium, the natural history museum, and the building's centerpiece: a giant glass bubble that houses a miniature rainforest. Piano incorporated the old museum's 1930s neoclassical African Hall into his new design, but we are most captivated by the coral reef display and the colorful collection of stingrays that glide through the water.


After we make our return ferry trip, and by the time I meet Cleveland Justis back at the Cavallo Point restaurant, I'm feeling rather smug about my ecotourist credentials. Justis is the director of the Institute at the Golden Gate, created to establish a green research center at Fort Baker. Already the institute has attracted organizations for conferences, luring them with reduced room rates.


"This building we're in once housed people who were defending our nation," Justis says, between sips of coffee. "Right now our enemies are much subtler: climate change and environmental degradation. We've been able to transform this place from something defending against our old enemies to something confronting our new ones."


He points out that the 14 new buildings on the site (including guest rooms and the spa) feature the latest in green technology: solar panels, radiant-heat floors, and energy-efficient windows. Designed to be sympathetic with the existing buildings, the new construction replaced 1950s-era troop housing that was deemed historically insignificant.


The solar panels and other green elements weren't incorporated into old buildings, for fear of compromising their integrity. But Justis sees an opportunity to continue the conversation. How can the historic buildings be outfitted with solar panels, for instance, without disturbing their rooflines? In fact, soon after my trip, the park service convened a conference at Cavallo Point to discuss 21st-century design on its land.


I've focused on little things during my stay at Cavallo Point—turning off lights we're not using, eschewing plastic water bottles, eating more local foods—and it's a start. But we need to think about our larger choices, about how, in the midst of a recession that has helped check sprawl, we can make better use of the nation's existing historic infrastructure. Certainly, Cavallo Point shines in part because it demonstrates the creative possibilities of adaptive use.


I can't think of a better place in which to ponder such matters. The next time we visit, however, we'll forgo the rental car and catch the bus instead.           


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