by Chuck Bush
The lumber business here ended when the mill was closed for good in 1938, and Mendocino became a dead mill town. This article is about the renaissance of our town, and it goes something like this. A Texas boy named Bill Zacha goes to UC Berkeley to become an architect, but WWII comes along and he spends 4 years in the USN entertaining troops – acting, writing, etc. After the way he tries priesthood but too intense, tries drama at SMU, but dying aunt tells him future is in California and convinces him to continue architecture. So he goes back to UC Berkeley. With Dad’s help he buys a little house on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, finds a job as cable car conductor – usually singing up and down the streets of SF. While helping friends, falls off ladder ruining right hand, and feels architecture is therefore out. Now he’s very depressed. Brother in Washington DC invites him there to recuperate, and takes him to art school of the Corcoran Gallery. Bill decides he can learn to paint with left hand, becomes his normal exuberant self again, and gets his arts degree there. Then, after 15 months in Italy learning to paint, back to visit family in Texas in 1953, and have show in Houston of his European work. While in Texas meets Jennie, an Illinois girl who went to SMU to study costume design, and falls in love.
Back to SF area begins rebuilding Mt. Tam house, gets job as mail carrier in Corte Madera and starts working on teaching certificate at SF State. August 28, 1954, he and Jennie are married. Completes work as SFS, gets job running Arts and Crafts Club at SF Presidio, and starts teaching art to kids in small studio in their newly-rebuilt, small house. In August 1957, during a holiday trip to Mendocino both Bill and Jennie awed by the place, even though much of the town is boarded up. They decide to move here. Moves into the Albert Brown house on Little Lake Street, and gets only open school job, teaching evening arts and crafts class.
Bill has already tried three times to start an art center, so when he discovers the ruins of the beautiful “Preston Mansion,” most of which burned up in the early 1950’s, he borrows money, buys the property, and gets friends to help rebuild. On May 29, 1959, the Mendocino Art Center Articles of Incorporation are filed with the State of California. There is a very successful art fair that very summer, where renowned printmaker Emmy Lou Packard sells the first art sale item out of the new Art Center. Bill retires from teaching high school and devotes full time to the Mendocino Art Center.
After a great deal more local support, old buildings are fixed up and new buildings are constructed. By 1961 MAC is finely established; Helen Schoeni Theater opens in 1971. Artists, musicians, writers, actors, etc. are attracted and many stay. Pam Hudson, who moves here because of the Art Center, starts the Gloriana Opera Company. Sue Erlenkotter, one of the members of the first board of directors, starts a seminar for the recorder, which progresses to a weekly concert; before long concert musicians for the Symphony of the Redwoods, and from that group arises our yearly Music Festival. In 1972, after Bill has had a number of painting trips to Japan, friend and world famous wood block printer Yoshida asks if he could teach here; he does for two years and then goes back and starts an art center like Bill’s back in Miasa, Japan. Subsequently groups from each center visit the other, and so the two towns become sister cities.
Interested in more Art Center history? Now on sale at the Kelley House, “Mendocino Art Center: A 50 Year Retrospective.” Compiled and edited by Bruce Levene, it is filled with stories and photographs of this unique local treasure.