West Marin’s Lodge at Marconi Celebrates the Past and Present

Photo by Steven J. Magner

Marshall has long been a place for respite; though within the county, it feels miles and decades removed. Those who have cruised Shoreline Highway, maybe to enjoy a bayside lunch at Hog Island Oyster Co. or The Marshall Store, probably never knew the Lodge at Marconi was perched above Tomales Bay, just a short trek down the road.

Though the new team behind the dog-friendly, 45-room property would like more people to know about the destination, they have no intention of disrupting its distinctly West Marin vibe. Rodney Fong, one of the owners and a former Redwood High School student (as well as the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce), reiterated that this was a “historic repair and replace” mission; they did not add any new structures. That means the original building coexists with the bulk of the guest housing, added in the 1970s. The design refresh — let’s call it camp-chic — is minimalist, modern and functional, with a focus on natural woods and a neutral palette of brown, gold and green.

For the last many years, the 62-acre property was run by California Parks and Recreation as a rustic venue, largely used for corporate off-sites and other events where the bucolic setting was the star. Old online reviews praise the location, the creature comforts less so. But the location’s pre-trust-fall years are even more storied.

Guglielmo Marconi, after whom the site is named, is often credited as the “inventor of the radio.” Italian-born Marconi established himself with radio-wave advancements that could send wireless signals thousands of miles (as opposed to two miles, the previous known limit). It was the Marconi Company that operated the radio on the Titanic, and it is solely due to SOS calls made on the equipment that the RMS Carpathia, nearly four hours away, was able to reverse course and return to rescue more than 700 people floating in lifeboats.

In 1913, when his business was expanding in the U.S., Marconi built a small hotel on the site of what is now the Lodge at Marconi to house staff from his nearby transpacific radio station. Fong says his favorite spot on the property is what the website calls “Antennae Site,” where a 270-foot Marconi tower used to be and which has unobstructed bay views.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the property fell into the nefarious hands of Synanon — a rehab facility turned cult. One common trait of its members was a shaved head, which led both George Lucas and Robert Altman to cast them as extras in their films THX 1138 and California Split, respectively. The group became increasingly violent and problematic, its members and leader eventually arrested. The property was relinquished in the early ’80s.

Now, the only shadiness existing here is under the towering trees that dot the property’s three-and-a-half miles of hiking trails, often used by locals and their dogs. Support of local residents was core to the project. Fong speaks of West Marin’s beauty and tranquility and says the neighbors “have every reason to be protective of it because it is so special.”

Rather than fight the locals, the property’s team has celebrated them. From the food and beverages sold on site to the activities offered, it’s all about local businesses. One unique offering comes from Richard Vacha, who runs Point Reyes Tracking School and shows people “the intimate view of nature” they can experience by adapting a “respect and curiosity” approach. John Finger, the founder and CEO of Hog Island Oyster Co., says, “We’re excited to see some TLC being lavished on this beautiful site and look forward to working with the Lodge at Marconi team.”

The site will continue to subtly evolve. A spa is set to open in the coming months and there are plans to further draw attention to Marconi’s work. The hotel team is working with a Radio Marconi historian to develop a walking tour around the property including old photographs and artifacts to tell the story of Marconi in California. But as fabulous and fresh as the property is, it is staying true to its past. “It has a long history of nonprofit retreats,” says Fong, and while they hope to welcome others from around the Bay Area and beyond, management has no desire to fundamentally change. Music to West Marin’s ears.

Adirondack chairs overlooking Tomales Bay
Photo by Steven J. Magner