Meet Your Hosts

Karen Gray

Photo by Hal Lauritzen

Photo by Hal Lauritzen

It is thirty years since Karen Gray put down roots in Point Reyes Station on land that would become the Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound. She comes from three generations of Californians settled in California’s great San Joaquin Valley where most of her extended family still lives and some still farm. Growing up at the foot 0f the Sierra Nevada with the orchards of almonds, walnuts, peaches and vineyards of her grandfather’s ranch, she had the freedom to ride her bike for miles on the dusty ranch roads and river banks alongside the wildlife and plants that became her daily companions. Her family on both sides were gardeners and her maternal grandfather a nurseryman. That familiar overlay of agriculture and native landscape is what drew her to Marin County forty years ago.

Karen began her formal education in a brick schoolhouse where her grandmother went to school. Her second grade teacher taught her mother. The family lived in a home built by her great grandparents with a garden that included an apricot, almond and peach tree, quince, rhubarb, pomegranate, a grape arbor, and a walnut tree so majestic that it could be seen from miles away. There was a canning shed in the side yard. Her bedroom windows opened onto the creamery next door that took deliveries of large steel milk cans rattling over a metal conveyor belt at four in the morning. It’s no wonder that she felt right at home in the diary ranching landscape of west Marin.

Moving to San Francisco to study Philosophy and Religion at college Karen worked full time with the Quaker Society of Friends during the Vietnam War era. After years of urban work for international peace she left the city for the peace and quiet of Mill Valley at the foot of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Karen learned fabric design, joined the Bolinas Craftsman’s Guild, and lived the life of a villager dedicated to fine craft. It was a perfect place to be in the 1970’s.

Fine craft, however, did not pay the bills. Figuring that the cooking skills she had from her upbringing would support her, she answered a modest add in the local paper for a part time cook for a group of fourteen. The Sister Superior hired her to cook for the Convent of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary on the campus of Marin Catholic High School where she stayed for seven years, managing the kitchen and making breakfast and dinner for the order of teaching nuns six days a week. During the mid-day she worked at her fabric hangings which were shown in galleries all over the country. In 1977 Karen and her partner bought the ramshackle Point Reyes Schoolhouse (built in 1879) having scraped together a tiny down payment borrowed from her parents. They gutted the house and moved into the place. There was virtually no work available in Point Reyes then – pretty ramshackle itself – so her partner commuted long hours for carpentry work and Karen did her fine craft in any clear corner of the place. They worked full time during the week using evenings and weekends to restore The Schoolhouse™. The windows, doors, and cabinets were built in the workshops of Bolinas Craftsman’s Guild members in their off hours. It took them twelve years to finish the place.

In that time Karen grew restless with the isolation of studio work and began to do landscape design and installation, drawing on her family background in horticulture. She enrolled in the U.C. Berkeley Landscape Architecture program for working professionals commuting from Point Reyes to the U.C. campus three week nights and all day Saturdays for four years to graduate. She put the lessons she learned in land use planning and ecology to work at home, growing first Jasmine Cottage, then designing the site plan and building for Gray’s Retreat, then finally the gardens. Karen’s professional experience in the field and decades of living in Marin gave her a solid background for her years of community service in west Marin: teaching “West Marin Day” for the Marin Environmental Forum; acting as a guide for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust; serving as president of the board of the Environmental Action Committee; and acting as President of the Point Reyes Village Association. She wrote and illustrated “The Family Guide to Point Reyes.”

Karen raised a family in The Schoolhouse™. They, in turn, raised quail and award-winning chickens with the Point Reyes 4-H. Today, the Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound has become a fulfilling venture for Karen. It serves as a gracious home base for guests who share her love of the rolling hills and farmlands, ocean beaches, forests and wildlife of Marin County. “If we are to hope that the present and future citizens of America will dedicate the necessary money and governmental oversight to protect these precious lands,” she says, “then we who are blessed to live here must be willing to share with others what it is that they are asked to preserve. I see my work on the Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound as a daily opportunity to do just that.” For her, it is the perfect blend of farmland roots, shared love of wilderness, and professional satisfaction.

When we bought the Point Reyes Schoolhouse in 1977, it was a ramshackle mess: five layers of sagging roofs, frightening electrical wiring, bowed floors, rotten windows, no heat, no foundation, (the four boulders were still there, one under each corner). But, it was an historic building and we fell for it, as well as its prospect at the top of the hill looking down on the little town and over to the beautiful Inverness Ridge of the Point Reyes Seashore. We loved being up in the sunshine just a short walk from town.

After ten years of hard work at night and on weekends, with not much more than our carpentry skills and determination, we had a home. We raised children, chickens, vegetables, fruit trees and honey bees here, making blackberry jam every summer. We built the wood-fired oven in the garden, a pond, Jasmine Cottage and Gray’s Retreat. I was a professional artist for many years, then commuted from The Schoolhouse™ to U.C. Berkeley to become a landscape architect.