Mad Mark’s Castle is a glorious achievement, a hand-built faerie castle made of scavenged rebar, concrete and plaster that stands proudly atop the Albany Bulb in San Francisco Bay, offering a fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed in 2000 and adopted ever since as an ever-changing graffiti canvas by the numerous artists haunting the Bulb, it remains a stunning piece of one-man art in itself, and the culmination of ‘Mad’ Mark (Marc)’s life’s work.
Mad Mark’s Castle by Peter Merts.
Mad Mark’s Castle interior (Great Hall) by Peter Merts.
I’ve never been to the Albany Bulb or even to San Francisco- I heard about the Castle from a reader of my book Mr. Ruins, which features a similar kind of castle, built on a similar kind of wasteland from similar waste materials like rebar and concrete, by a similarly mentally-damaged and homeless man (akin to Marc) for purposes both cosmic and un-explainable.
This real-world parallel to the events of my story intrigued me- not only for the parallel but also because I have always loved ruins and follies and crazy constructions. When I discovered the Gankutsu cave in Japan– a complex ‘hotel’ cave carved into solid rock by a single man with a chisel- I was likewise fascinated.
So I asked my reader Pamela Deering for more details, and she really came up with the goods. It turns out she knew Marc well, had spoken with him often in his heyday through the 80s and 90s, and could even shed some light on why he’d built what he’d built. Pamela shared pictures with me and stories, which spurred me on to research Marc and his creation further. There isn’t much on internet about him though. Some photos, some stories, but there the tale ends.
But let’s start at the beginning, in Pamela’s own words:
“Madman Mark […] was a denizen of the Albany Bulb for years, back when there was a fairly well-developed homeless encampment there. (later chased out by the city, of course.) I knew him fairly well at one time, but that was before he built the tower. I don’t know what became of him. He had a fairly sad story: he was young and with a lot of promise, then he was hit by a car and was very badly hurt. He told me he had a steel plate in his head. (another semi-parallel to the book, actually.) He was never, uh, he wasn’t quite right, after that, that was clear. But he still had the remains of a high intelligence that seemed to have lost its way. One of those people that had a lot of crackpot theories — or maybe they weren’t. Hard to tell.”
Some background- the Albany Bulb was constructed as a landfill site on the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay, started in 1939 when the Santa Fe Railroad blew up coastal hills to build the Golden Gate Fields racetrack, and shoveled the debris into the Bay to create parking lots.
Dumping continued sporadically after that, with the bulb forming as a globular landfill hill at the end of a narrow peninsula causeway in 1963, when the City of Albany and Santa Fe signed a contract to dispose of construction waste. Thus the ‘bulb’ is made primarily of demolished concrete and rebar- the twisted ruins of which still jut organically from the upper layer of clay like desiccated bones.
Dumping ended in 1983 when environmental Save the Bay legal efforts forced it to end. From that point forward, the homeless and the artists moved in, and the Albany Bulb became a kind of artistic homeless commune paying host to some 60 souls at its peak (Wikipedia). These Bulb-denizens took joy and pride in developing their own amenities and beautifying their trash-pile island with mural, stencil, graffiti and sculpture art.
One notable feature was the Landfillian Free Library, constructed later in 2006, run by Jimbow the Hobow, a friendly and cheerful librarian. According to Montgomery Rene who met him and toured the library in 2009:
“The Landfillian Free Library could, for all purposes, serve as The Albany Bulb Historical Society. Maintained by a friendly, smiley man, Jimbow the Hobow. You are encouraged to borrow and contribute both books and conversation, knowledge and compassion, and, for a certainty, smiles and beer. Jimbow is a welcoming librarian and poet. You will not be disappointed with his conversation and book collection.” (ArtSlant)
Of course, Jimbow and any others living on the Bulb, most likely along with Marc, are long gone now, ever since Albany City Council voted to evict them in 2013, ultimately offering a $3000 incentive if they would leave their homes. Some of them had lived there for up to 20 years.
But back to Pamela, and back to Marc:
“To get to the castle, you have to get to a parking lot that is behind the racetrack. This lot is at the bottom of Marin Street in Albany, but it is very confusing trying to get there because of a lot of freeway cloverleaf stuff. If you don’t know, Albany is the city immediately north of Berkeley, California. Next exit on the freeway. I went to google maps to try and get you a clear route, and discovered to my amazement that “Mad Mark’s Castle” is actually on the map! Amazing! That makes me happy — poor guy always felt like his life and potential was so suddenly and unfairly interrupted by a disaster that was not his fault. And now he has achieved something, uh, concrete. No pun intended. .. okay, yes it was.”
Mad Mark’s Castle even marked on Google Maps.
You can clearly see the Golden Gate Fields racecourse here- clearing which began construction of the Bulb via landfill.
Mad Mark’s Castle and Forecourt by Peter Merts.
Mad Mark’s Castle and Viewing Platform by Peter Merts.
Mad Mark’s Castle and Entrance Hall by Peter Merts.
Mad Mark’s Castle with Occupants, and possible Marc himself in front (source unknown)
Continuing with Pamela:
“I have a strong suspicion that the bearded guy in the foreground of the pic [above] is Mad Mark himself, especially as he is holding a sort of introductory hand out towards the castle. To explain how I met him, I must first tell you that although I came from a suburban California family and did very well in school, I came of age in the 1980s, and was more interested in music and art than in a stifling career in an office somewhere being someone I am not. So I spent much of my youth having a band, falling in love (mostly disastrously), and moving house a lot. […]
I had a large circle of friends who lived at the [Albany Bulb] encampment which was literally on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, and one of them was Mad Marc. (research informs me that he spelled it with a “c.” Never knew that.) I will tell you about the most interesting of his theories, one of the most lucid and internally consistent: he believed that many physical disorders or even disease could be treated by shining light of various colors into the retina of the eye. This was in the mid 1990s.”
To interrupt Pamela here, my research pointed up a few other unusual beliefs Marc held, one in particular being that Marc built the ‘Fairy Castle’ entirely by night. He held conspiracy theories on the subject, and perhaps believed he was being watched, though he may have been trying to sidestep the local authorities, who had cracked down hard on the ‘homeless’ population there in 1999.
In that earlier attempt to sweep the Bulb of its inhabitants, Marc’s castle had survived demolition (along with all other constructions) only because he petitioned it be considered a piece of art rather than a dwelling. It seems he alone was successful.
“What made Marc’s situation so tragic is that you could clearly see that he was trying to be the person he was, and his brain was trying to work in its accustomed way, but was sabotaged by the physical damage which left him with serious impediments to maintaining a linear train of thought. A good idea would be derailed by countless detours and cognitive cul-de-sacs, and unfortunately the end result was that he sounded crazy; but really he wasn’t, not entirely.
“He would have a notebook full of clippings and notes and xeroxed pages, everything related, but his power to collate it all into a coherent conclusion had gone. Hard to watch, because the process of collecting salient data, hooking it up through experience and intuitive leaps, and then pulling out that brilliant idea, is difficult for the best of us, and we are subject to the same danger of being swamped by too much information. Without a steel plate in our heads.”
? Mad Mark’s Castle Servant’s Entrance by Peter Merts.
Mad Mark’s Castle Turret Steps by Peter Merts.
Another tale of Marc’s adventures on Albany Bulb comes from Persis M. Karim, as written about in Bay Nature magazine in 2002:
“After making your way around the westernmost point of the Bulb (either by circling the lagoon or by way of the hillside), you reach a small cove where two shipwrecked, lopsided boats lie hauntingly broken and decaying in the shallow, muddy water. Mark says he lived in one of these boats until an ‘authority’ shot a hole in it and sank it.”
It makes me think of something from the book Swallows and Amazons. Or perhaps even the Lord of the Flies, but not so negative. From all that I’ve read the Albany Bulb in the 80s and 90s sounds like a very genteel and kind commune/camp, stocked with out-sized characters very happy to give you a tour, give you a free book, or stand around chatting about the art.
I don’t know Marc and am sure that I never will, but hearing the real life recollections from Pamela, and reading up on the place, it gives me some of the feeling I used to get when walking through ruins in Japan, taking photos, experiencing some leftover fragment of the life remaining in the place, now left behind. Every thing we build leaves a trace of us behind. Though Marc’s castle is now bedecked with an ever-changing facade of graffiti art, it is still his.
He is in there, along with all the disjointed thoughts he was thinking as he wove rebar together and filled it in with pounded and damp concrete, under the light of the moon with the San Francisco Bay waters lapping off the pier nearby. In its final shape there is something of the struggle he faced as he fought for control over the disparate, broken parts of his mind.
I find something oddly comforting in that, and I always have. There’s something comforting that, as of December 2016, Mad Mark’s Castle still stands.
Mad Mark’s Castle in Fresh Regalia (photo credit)
Mad Mark’s Castle when the Squid Came (photo credit)
Mad Mark’s Castle as Seen by Drone in 2014 (video credit)