By Barbara Kohn
Wind Bell, fall/winter 1998Tassajara project page
Vol. XXXII no. 2

In May of this year, Ed Brown officiated at the opening of the new dining room/dormitory at Tassajara. As contractor Gene DeSmidt and architect Helen Degenhart led people on the tour of the new building, my mind wandered back over the years since the planning for this reconstruction began. I was filled with gratitude for Gene and Helen and their relationship with Tassajara and San Francisco Zen Center.

The planning began in 1991, with the development department of Zen Center, headed by Robert Lytle, was about to begin a fund-raising drive for rebuilding the dining room/dormitory to meet earthquake safety standards. A number of Tassajara residents and associates, myself included, questioned the proposed plans, and the process came to halt. At the center of the controversy was the feeling of some residents that they hadn't been fully included in the planning. So a committee was formed which included representatives of the residential community at Tassajara as well as members of the administration. By August 1993, the original plans were reaffirmed. As the committee emerged from a meeting at Tassajara, two engineers who had come with Helen met them with a disastrous report. The steam rooms were scheduled to be rebuilt during the September work period and the engineers were testing the stability of the hillside behind the "steams" for its ability to withstand the stresses of deconstruction and construction. Gene DeSmidt had rebuilt the previous bathhouse only seven years before, and a steam room renovation, the final aspect of the project, was to be completed before the dining room/dormitory reconstruction began.

The engineers' report indicated a more serious geological problem behind the bathhouse itself. And so, one week before the end of the 1993 guest season, we were forced to close the baths. Temporary showers were built to accommodate the residents, and the dining room/dormitory design committee became the new committee to plan a rebuilding of the bathhouse. I went from acting as project manager for the relatively small steam room renovation to being project manager for the rebuilding of the bathhouse. Amazingly, the new bathhouse was designed and built within the next nine months.

Three years later, in the summer of 1986, plans for rebuilding of the dining room/dormitory were reactivated. Lo and behold! The residential community had changed over those three years and the residents of Tassajara felt that they, now, should be consulted about the plans. Leslie James, the director to Tassajara, Mel Weitsman, Helen Deganhart and I formed the new dining room/dormitory design committee. The Officers and Directors asked us to give serious consideration to the ideas coming from the community. Helen, with great patience, explained the reasoning behind the 1993 plans and its costs, and explored with the committee various ideas and suggestions. After careful consideration, the committee again reaffirmed the earlier plans and the finalizing process was set in motion. Fund-raising went into full gear and the generous response of our constituency made it possible to begin building in the fall 1997.

On the first day of the work period that September the work crews arrived, heavy equipment rolled in and the students moved out of the rooms in the dormitory. With a hammer in my hand and in the midst of a lot of hoopla, I had the honor of smashing the first blow toward the deconstruction of the old building. Large trucks arrived carrying wood, sand, mortar and moment beams (steel crossbeams weighing over a ton each). For five years new beams for the dining room ceiling had been curing under a tin-roofed shelter at the flats on the far end of Tassajara. At last, the time to come to use them.

Our friend Bill Steele and his deconstruction crew began removing the roof and top floor while Gene's carpenters built temporary shelters for staging areas. After the dormitory had been removed, the dining room porch suddenly crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust. It had been attached to the main structure with something like chewing gum and a few nails. Then, when the crew removed the interior walls of the first floor, much of the exterior stone wall structure tumbled down. Apparently the mortar had rotted and the interior walls had been all that kept the stonework in place. Luckily, Artemio, a master stonemason on Bill Steele's crew, rebuilt the walls, and later matched their style when he built pilasters for the courtyard fence along the creek side.

Former abbott Mel Weitsman was asked by Gene to build the dormitory altar and he joined the workforce to do so. Through donations from various building companies and using remilled boards from the old dining room floor, enough wood was available for hardwood floors for the dormitory.

Dave Barrett, a cabinetmaker in Berkeley who had donated his talents to construct the cabinetry of the bathhouse, built counters for the new dining room. As many of you will remember, the ceiling of the dining room had had a dark green "crackle" paint surface. Many of us wanted to use that wood in the reconstruction project, and Dave was able to incorporate it in the cabinet doors. The cabinet tops were made from a large maple tree branch that had been removed for safety reasons.

Finally, Tassajara plant manager David Basil, former plant manager Steve Malawsky and our systems engineer friend Bob McGinnis brought thermal heating to the building. This use of Tassajara's hot springs water is a part of a continuing series of heating projects.

On the opening day of guest season, the Tassajara residents, Gene's work crews, and work period volunteers rushed to finish bits of magic. I arrived about noon on May 8 with my seven-year-old grandson. I was thrilled as I entered the completed building. With great excitement, I encountered the details that gave evidence to the care and attention of the builder and architect. The combination of old and new appealed to my nostalgia for a familiar place while it also offered the pleasure of something fresh and more carefully designed. My Grandson was so taken with the atmosphere, combined with the skill and charm of the servers at meals that he said he wanted to keep eating in that place were they treat you like a king!

I offer deep gasshos (bows) to everyone who made possible this aesthetically beautiful "palace" for us to eat, study, and live in. It is truly a building for the next hundred years.

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