Shel Silverstein's Old Sausalito Houseboat, Then and Now
Beloved songwriter and poet Shel Silverstein’s old houseboat in Sausalito, California, is up for sale, and it looks like something the "A Light in the Attic" author dreamed up. Located in the once-upon-a-time fringe beatnik commune on the waters of Richardson Bay at Waldo Point Harbor, the home is rich in history and just downright cool to look at.
So come on in, dreamers, and take a tour of Silverstein’s old house. We’re also taking a deep dive into the history of the houseboats in Richardson Bay, which developed into a hippie and beatnik commune occupied by residents who fought against the march of progress for as long as they could.
First, the details: This house was built sometime in the 1950s or 1960s and measures a surprisingly large 1,200 square feet. It’s small, but this ain’t a tiny home.
There are two bedrooms and one bathroom, and it’s up for sale at $783,000.
Built to Defend America
The house is built on an old barrage balloon ship, a ship outfitted with a massive balloon to prevent dive-bombers during World War II.
They weren’t too effective at that, although they were somewhat effective in stopping 231 V-1 bombs sent to destroy London in 1944.
In America, around 430 of these barrage balloon ships were defending the West Coast in 1942.
Silverstein worked as a writer and cartoonist for "Playboy" throughout the 1950s and mid-1970s. Moyer worked at the publication as a photographer. Together, they traveled the country and compiled feature stories.
In 1967. Hugh Hefner sent them to California to work on a story as part of an illustrated travel journal for Playboy (which was turned into a book called "Playboy's Silverstein Around the World" in 2007). There, when meeting with a friend of a friend, they discovered the eclectic community of Richardson Bay.
Nudity and Boats
Moyer and Silverstein were enamored by the commune.
"There were a few hundred boats. It was total freedom," Moyer told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. The music, the people, the architecture, the nudity — all we could say was, 'Wow!' So Shel bought a boat, and I bought a boat. And that was that."
Inside the Houseboat
Moyer had his own houseboat for a long while and then took over Silverstein’s floating abode when the writer died in 1999 at the age of 68.
Moyer passed away in 2016 at the age of 92.
A Light in the Ceiling
Today, the houseboat has undergone a thorough renovation (keep reading for some "before" shots), although not thorough enough to totally change the home’s character.
The bones are still here, and much of the woodwork remains.
Beautiful Stained-Glass Windows
The stained glass also appears to be original, as is the dark wood flooring, which has been scuffed with time and long past parties.
In this screenshot from a YouTube video, Silverstein is introducing the band Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.
During the 1960s, the Richardson Bay houseboat area was home to hippies, and then the beatniks. Artists flocked to the area, and at the time, these homes weren’t taxable.
Most, if not all, didn’t even have running water or sewage hookups.
A Look at the Past
Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show — later shortened to just Dr. Hook in 1975 — was a folksy rock band that enjoyed commercial success in the 1970s.
They met Silverstein sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when a producer wanted Dr. Hook to cover songs written by Silverstein for the movie, "Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?"
Silverstein wrote the songs on Dr. Hook’s debut, self-titled album, and their second album, "Sloppy Seconds." So if you’re looking for more Silverstein songs, there are two whole albums full of 'em.
Before the Renovation
This before photo comes from an old listing made for the houseboat in 2017, not long after Moyer died. It sold for $375,000.
There used to be a balcony overlooking the bottom of the boat, surrounded by wood balusters. They’re still there, although they have a new coat of paint.
The hole has been covered, making a large table with a glass viewing pane.
This pre-renovation picture takes a closer look at the home’s old unfinished wood walls and the custom woodwork surrounding a glass windowpane.
The window is still here, but the parrot is gone.
The house has definitely been touched up.
The concrete flooring has a whole new sheen, and there are art panels by the windows.
Vintage pendant lights add to the home’s warm feel.
Converting the Bow
The bow of the boat has these cool, custom painted doors with portholes, which were there before the renovation.
By the doors, a breakfast bar has been carved out of the wood, creating an open concept living area.
A Closeup of the Doors
Originally, these homes were made by locals and local artisans, with much of the materials made from salvage.
While we’re not sure if these doors are original to the time when Silverstein lived here, they do look quite old.
The new kitchen is a far cry from what it used to be.
For starters, the kitchen used to be in the galley, where there was "an old Franklin wood-burning stove," according to "A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein" by Lisa Rogak.
Though Silverstein "rarely cooked, he would invite friends over for coffee in the morning," Rogak reported.
All New Everything
The developers made surprisingly good use out of this room, transforming it into a spacious kitchen and extending the countertop to the "built-in seating" area to create a work station.
We say "built-in seating" because it’s not exactly built-in if it’s part of the hull, is it?
The house is now artsy and stylish, but less bohemian than what it used to be, which reflects the surrounding area.
After Larry Moyer passed away, the Sausalito Historical Society published this remembrance column:
"[Larry] spoke of days when he could go to a local hangout where one could purchase dope, guns and alcohol all at the same location. Residents wore cowboy boots, carried knives and everyone hung out together. He liked the fact that most of his clothes had come from things that someone had discarded but still looked good on him."
This picture of a friendly St. Bernard reminds us of a poem by Silverstein called "Double-Tail Dog," which begins:
"Would you like to buy a dog with a tail at either end?/He is quite the strangest dog there is in town./Though he's not too good at knowing just exactly where he's going,/He is very very good at sitting down.”
Keep Calm and Carry On
A poster reading "Keep Calm and Carry On" is mounted on the wall in this space. Which is quite fitting.
During World War II, the wartime shipbuilding company, Marinship Corporation, located on Richardson Bay, produced Liberty cargo ships, fleet oilers and tankers. The company was only in operation from 1942 until the war’s end in 1945.
When it was decommissioned, it left behind a junkyard of ships, which became the floating foundation for the Richardson houseboat community.
Before the Renovation: The Kitchen
This is what the now-kitchen looked like before the renovation.
The home was falling apart, but we wished we could have seen it outfitted with all the stuff that Moyer owned.
The downstairs has been fashioned into a very livable living space. Silverstein didn’t use the "Evil Eye" as a main home, but rather as a place to work and party.
According to Rogak, Silverstein got seasick easily. This usually wasn’t a problem in Richardson Bay, where the waters are calm. But when there was a storm, Silverstein was likely in the bathroom rather than at the typewriter.
'Show It At the Beach'
In his album "Songs and Stories," Silverstein wrote a song called "Show It At the Beach" about the Sausalito area.
"Even though I’m from Chicago, I live in Sausalito now," Silverstein said during a "Soundstage" performance in 1979. "What’s been going on there, it’s been going on in a few places now, is that we have new beaches out there. ... What they’re doing is, they’re closing down. They’re closing them down on the East Coast, too, so I did a song about the situation."
The opening lines:
"Oh they won't let us show it at the beach, no they won't let us show it at the beach
They think we're gonna grab it if it gets within our reach
And they won't let us show it at the beach."
Yes, it’s about exactly what you think it’s about.
When Silverstein lived here, the galley was only accessible via a ladder.
Now there’s a place for a cruiser bike.
Cruising the Community
Fun fact: After a car accident which left him rattled, Silverstein avoided driving whenever possible.
According to Rogak, he chose places to live where driving wasn't necessary, like Sausalito, Chicago and Key West.
His main home, located in Key West, was destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Irma.
The Guest Window?
In her biography, Ragak writes about a "large window cantilevered over the water" where "people would row right up to that window, and step into the boat to come in and have coffee with him. When they were ready to leave, they’d crawl out the window, get back into their rowboat, and paddle away."
Maybe this is the window she’s referring to?
The Master Bedroom
The master bedroom now serves a dual purpose: It’s also the laundry room.
Silverstein maybe would have loved to have that option, or maybe he would have thought it ruined the bohemian vibe. It’s very possible that the boat didn’t even have running water when Silverstein lived there.
Above, the hole that used to be open from above, now serves as a kind of skylight.
The bedroom has been artfully decorated and now features a large bed. It didn’t used to. Silverstein’s bed was in a different portion of the house.
According to Rogak, Silverstein’s houseboat included "a large bedroom with the bed built on a platform that cantilevered out over the water."
The bedroom is described as an extension, which means that originally, the bedroom may have been in what is now the kitchen area, which hangs over the water.
A Cozy Place
"Large windows wrapped around the bed so he could lay in bed, pull the curtains aside, and watch the moonlight dancing on the water," one of Silverstein’s friends told Rogak.
While these weren’t those windows, they are pretty dang cool.
The bathroom is cramped, but hey, you’re on a boat. What did you expect?
While small, the bathroom does include some nice equipment, like a large porcelain tub and subway tile backsplash.
The stained-glass windows, which look original, give the room a pop of color.
The Kid’s Bedroom
The second bedroom, located at what appears to be below the helm of the boat, has been fashioned into a kid’s room with an elevated children’s bed.
The decorators touched this room up with some superhero swag, which is a cool idea. A child would definitely feel like Spider-Man climbing into that thing.
A Boy Named Sue
Silverstein had two children (only one remains after his daughter, Soshanna, died at age 11) but never married. That may be because he liked the bachelor lifestyle.
According to Rogak, Silverstein bedded "hundreds, perhaps thousands of women" during his 68-year tenure on Earth.
The bed has been placed between two rectangular portholes, giving a view of the quirky community outside. It’s not entirely like it used to be.
As the years went on, more and more normal houseboats moved in, docks were built and yachts took to the slips.
Even still, you need a certain mindset to buy a home like this, so it’s likely that your neighbors aren’t calling the cops when the party gets too loud.
Before the Renovation: The Galley
A photo of the galley before the renovation took place. This end of the boat was unfinished and unlivable.
But that was fine, especially in the early days of Richardson Bay, when the earliest residents were just looking for something to get away from the realities of the world.
Houseboats for One and All
After the World War II shipping factory shut down, a former shipyard worker, Don Arques, bought the land and leftover shipping materials.
He offered those materials "to returning soldiers and free-spirited artists who were looking for cheap housing," according to KQED.
They built houses on the leftover hulls, and he let them stay there, on the land, for free.
'Functioning Utopian Anarchy'
In the early days, there was absolutely no oversight of any kind. Arques just let people move in and watched.
It was "the closest thing to a functioning utopian anarchy the country has ever seen," writes Jeff Costello for the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
Silverstein wasn’t the most famous face in Waldo Point. Other celebrities who set up shack here or just came to party were Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.
They would play in a large, defunct 1916 ferry called the Charles Van Damme.
For a while, it was the hub of this houseboat community.
Here Comes the Man
By the 1970s, developers and the city of Sausalito had their eyes on getting these residents out of the area.
They were occupying valuable land, and to some, these ramshackle houseboats were an eyesore.
Plus, they weren’t paying taxes.
The Houseboat Wars
What followed was a decade-long heated struggle between the city, police and the residents of Waldo Point.
While some residents had money and used these houseboats as a vacation home, many residents did not.
The city sent out abatement notices in the early 1970s, applying building codes to houseboats.
People ignored the initial wave of notices, but then the police got involved.
Fighting the Police
According to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the first boat the police attempted to tow out of the bay was called Joe’s Camel, "a solid mass of wood held together by huge iron bolts, at least six feet deep and with enough surface area to construct a tidy one-room dwelling."
But the cops were met with resistance. Residents took to skippers and rowboats to block their way.
Eventually, the police retreated, but it was just the first salvo in a long war.
During the next skirmish, police went to haul another houseboat off the water to destroy.
The home’s owner, Russell Grisham, went to slice the towlines with a knife. Seeing the knife, police drew their guns and pointed them at Grisham.
The incident appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
There were a lot of skirmishes and outright fights between the houseboat residents and the police, and much of it was covered in televised news reports.
Residents smacked cops with paddles, and cops tipped over rowboats, dumping their occupants in the water.
According to the Advertiser, a developer contract had ties to a New Jersey mob.
The publication says that this resulted in the death of Rocky Graham, "an activist who 'knew too much' and was doing something about it." He was shot in the gut with a shotgun right outside the community’s grocery store while "the sheriff's deputies let him bleed to death." The murderer reportedly received just five years in prison.
We couldn't find any additional information about this case online. The only mention of it is in the Advertiser.
Dropping Anchor at Sea
Some residents didn’t stick around for sewage lines. They cut their towlines and headed out to sea, where they dropped anchor and lived unperturbed.
To this day, there are around 235 "anchor-outs" in Richardson Bay, according to KQED, but their future is uncertain as the city sees them as an environmental hazard.
The Community Today
Today, every docked houseboat has sewage and water hookups. New docks were built, allowing for more houseboats to be built and leased out.
Members of the original community, most of whom are now in their 70s, still live there on the houseboats they built. They now command a huge price.
A Place for the Rich
For those who didn’t set their roots down early, it’s not easy to move in without some cash.
These houseboats can command million-dollar price tags. Some were built by legitimate architects.
This house, "The Train Wreck," is built around a 1900 Pullman car.
Naturally, some new owners see these properties as a rental investment. One houseboat is on AirBnB for $800 a night.
The salvaged steamboat ferry pictured here is available for $300 a night.
So goes the march of progress.