The story behind the old Birkenstock building off Highway 101

It’s impossible to ignore the gleaming white triangular peaks of the sprawling rooftop from Highway 101. If you’ve driven the stretch near Novato in Marin County, you’ve undoubtedly noticed it, a stunning example of mid-century design embodied in a now long-neglected warehouse.

The iconic Bay Area landmark, colloquially known as the Birkenstock building, has been vacant for years, empty since the famed German shoe company moved out in 2020. The building is actually part of a larger 80-acre office campus, which includes the well-known warehouse building in addition to office buildings. Its location is especially tranquil as it’s surrounded by rolling green hills, despite the roaring freeway on one side.

Prominent modernist architect John Savage Bolles designed the campus at 8171 Redwood Blvd. in the early 1960s for publishing giant McGraw-Hill. The larger warehouse acted as a distribution center for the company’s textbook operation, while the offices housed workers.

Bolles designed a number of prominent Bay Area spaces, including Candlestick Park and the IBM campus in San Jose. While his work is largely praised, a few projects, like Candlestick Park and Embarcadero Plaza, weren’t well received, perhaps dampening the reception of his other works. His father Edward Grosvenor Bolles was also an architect, arriving in San Francisco in ​​1893, and residing in Berkeley when Bolles was born in 1905.

Bolles helped his father in the design of many buildings at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939, before going out on his own and contributing to Bay Area mid-century architecture through the 1970s.

McGraw-Hill exited the buildings in 1991, and Birkenstock moved in just a year later. The campus was a fitting location for the rising shoe corporation, which had been expanding rapidly since Marin resident Margot Fraser began importing the shoes in the 1960s and chose Marin County as the U.S. headquarters. The brand was founded in 1774, but grew in popularity first in Europe before becoming synonymous with the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s, even being sold in health stores in California.

Birkenstock used the distribution center through 2007, when the shoemaker relocated its distribution center to Kentucky to reduce shipping times and downsize its real estate holdings. The company moved its offices to another building in Novato, and the iconic building sat empty until 2012, when Birkenstock returned.

The office campus was vibrant, according to a blogger who got a tour in 2016. Employees apparently enjoyed a garden, towering oak trees, a hand-painted mural by local high schoolers, a manmade creek, wildlife that included ​​deer, rabbits, turkeys, lizards and snakes, and even an on-site bee colony complete with a resident beekeeper.

When Birkenstock announced its return to the campus in 2012, it did so partly reportedly because it needed more space. Shelly Glasgow, director of product development and merchandising for Birkenstock, told the Marin Independent Journal at the time, “When we announced it, the whole office broke into applause. People were saying, ‘Oh, am I going to have a view of the mountains again? I remember when rabbits used to walk up to the windows.’ For us, it’s a homecoming.”

Those employees moved back into the office building, but the warehouse remained empty. The company reportedly moved out again in 2020 to 100 Wood Hollow Drive in Novato. Birkenstock could not be reached for comment for this story.

The iconic building has apparently struggled to find a tenant since Birkenstock permanently vacated. Commercial real estate broker James Manley told Pacific Sun in 2019 that “there is a great idea for the property which I am not at liberty to talk about” and that the space was under contract. The alternative weekly reported that the building has “regularly been in and out of escrow since it’s been on the market … interest has sprung up from Fortune 500 companies to artist colonies, to proposals for a residential development.”

Manley even said some locals proposed it as an indoor cannabis grow or an Amazon warehouse.

None of those ideas have panned out, and the odd-roofed building is no longer actively being marketed for lease. It may not be entirely empty though — outside of the rabbits and deer, it’s rumored that bikers and skateboarders sometimes climb up to the roof to use the angles as a truly unique skate ramp.

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