As the home of chalk drawings and fledgling two-wheeler spins to and , the is the unequivocal centerpiece of downtown.
Earlier this week, Mill Valley lost the man who came up with the idea to build it. Richard “Dick” Jessup, a former Mill Valley mayor and the designer of the hub that plays host to myriad downtown events, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home on Cornelia Ave. near the . He was 87.
“He was a renaissance man,” said his daughter and local architect Kim Jessup. “He was a great architect, a very talented craftsman, he loved gardening, a good athlete, a gentleman, a visionary, a great husband and father and just a very kind man.”
Jessup had been of ill health for the past five years, Kim Jessup said. But in an indication of both Jessup’s stature in town and of the realization that the end was near, he hosted more than a dozen former mayors at his home two weeks ago. The group included current (and former) mayor Garry Lion and former mayors Dick Spotswood, Dennis Fisco, David Robb, Clifford Waldeck and Kathleen Foote, among others.
While the civic involvement of some of those gathered overlapped with that of Jessup, most didn’t, and Lion said the turnout was a clear sign of Jessup’s – and of the plaza’s - long-term impact on Mill Valley.
“The significance of the plaza has now been recognized,” Lion said.
“It’s probably his crown jewel because it’s such an important part of downtown and it looks like it’s been there forever,” Jessup said. “You almost can’t imagine now what it looked like before.”
What it looked like was a former train station-turned-bus station, with Greyhound and Golden Gate Transit buses turning around in the area where customers now sit outside. The rest of it was a parking lot.
“It was just a huge, gravel, rutty parking lot,” Jessup said. “You really had to be a visionary to see the potential of it to know that this was what the downtown needed to bring it all together.”
Spotswood, who succeeded Jessup on the council, said there was definitely resistance to the idea.
“There were some people that said, 'don’t change it,'” he said. “It was change and Mill Valley people like it the way it is – they’re really afraid you’re going to screw it up.”
“It was amazing how many people fought the idea,” Jessup said.
Summit Ave. resident Dale Luehring, a former general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge, helped the city procure some federal funding for the project since it involved a bus station, Spotswood said. Jessup’s plans were later used by Royston Hanamoto Alley & Abey, which was hired by the city to implement the project.
“Everybody got on board and the minute they voted for it, the opposition went away,” Spotswood said. “Now if you look back and someone says, ‘Let’s demolish the plaza and put in a bus turnaround there,’ folks would go nuts.”
Jessup persevered through the process in his own quiet way, asserting himself only when it was necessary, his daughter said.
“What a lot of people loved about my dad is that he was a man of fairly few words,” Jessup said. “He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He only spoke when he felt that the conversation needed it.”
Orme Memorial Chapel
What most people don’t know about Jessup is that while the Depot Plaza may have been his crown jewel, it pales in comparison to the story behind one of his first projects.
Born in Roslyn, N.Y., Jessup moved to Prescott, Ariz., when he was 10 years old to live with the Ormes, family friends in the central Arizona high country, in an effort to see if the dry air there would help his severe asthma. It did. He returned to New York to finish his schooling, attending Princeton University as an undergraduate and getting his architectural degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City. As a coincidental aside with today's opening of the 2012 Olympics in London, Jessup got into sailing and even went to the 1948 Olympics in London as a member of the U.S. sailing team.
All the while, Jessup considered the Ormes his second family. They ran a cattle ranch and a small school on the property, and in the mid-1950s, the Orme family called Jessup to tell him that his best friend, one of the Orme boys, had died. They asked Jessup, now an architect, if he would design and build a chapel on the site in his honor.
It was during that return visit that Jessup and Orme’s widow, Lyn, fell in love.
“So my mom and dad fell in love and they were the first wedding in the chapel my dad built,” Jessup said.
The Orme Memorial Chapel remains and is part of the larger campus of the Orme School of Arizona, a prominent southwestern boarding school. The Jessup family still owns part of the cattle ranch there and visits several times a year.
“We all grew up going there,” Jessup said.
Dick and Lyn Jessup moved to the Bay Area in 1956, immediately settling into the Cornelia Ave. home where they'd live for the next 56 years.
Jessup’s other local work
While the Depot Plaza is Jessup’s most prominent local project, he also designed a number of well known buildings, including , The Roastery (now ), , the , Longs Drugs and the Miller Plaza center that includes .
He also designed an estimated 100 local homes and remodels, including his own, which has its living room paneled with the redwood timbers from the old Richardson Bay Bridge, Jessup said.
When concert giant Bill Graham decided that the Depot Plaza needed some chess tables in the late 1980s, he turned to Jessup to design them. “He worked with Bill Graham to make those happen,” Jessup said.
Jessup first got involved with the city in 1971 as a planning commissioner. He was elected to the City Council 1976 and served one term. He was also an active board member of the , the and . The latter honored him as a citizen of the year, while the chamber gave him a lifetime community service award in 2009.
Jessup is survived by his wife Lyn Jessup of Mill Valley; daughters Kimberly Jessup of Mill Valley, Katie Jessup of Mount Shasta, Carson Taylor of Iberia, Mo. and Robin Tyler of Reedley.
A memorial is set for August 11.