Architecture, Basketry, and Conservation: The Simple Life of Jorgen Hildebrandt

May 11, 2016
An example of the decorative art that Marion Hildebrandt made with the same materials that Native Americans used when they inhabited the area.

Jorgen Hildebrandt is almost 90 years old but he looks at least 10 or 15 years younger. He has a full head of salt and pepper hair, and his affable, energetic smile immediately puts one at ease. He is trim—befitting a man who successfully played competitive tennis until last year—and has the bearing of a tall man who is used to stooping a little to talk to shorter people.

In 2007, Jorgen and his late wife Marion moved into his current home in a quiet, gated subdivision on the north side San Rafael. The walls are lined with elegantly framed photos and museum quality artwork by his late wife. Jorgen stood near them briefly, smiling, hands behind his back, to allow a photo to be taken of him as daylight streamed in through the window.

He announced his one concern about being interviewed by Bay Nature: “My life is so simple.” But in Jorgen’s case, “simple” does not mean “uninteresting.”

Jorgen attributes his love for the outdoors to his Danish heritage. “Danes are great outdoor people. The moment the weather gets okay, they go out… picnics, beaches, walks.” His favorite place to go is Point Reyes, along with “the rest of Marin.” He would like to explore more of Henry Coe State Park in the South Bay, but “Father Time has caught up with me.”

Asked about the ongoing tension between economic growth and open space conservation in the Bay Area, he says, “We had it right after World War Two. If it weren’t for a few environmentally-minded people living in Marin, we’d have houses on Limantour [at Point Reyes – Ed.].” He’s grateful he’s not alone in caring about sustainable development. “It’s playing out better in the Bay Area, and particularly in Marin. People here are genuinely concerned – more so than in other places.”

The centerpieces of Jorgen’s art collection are several works by his late wife Marion made with local natural materials that line wooden wall shelves in his living room. Marion was a self-taught artist inspired by the basketry of Native Californians. However, there’s an important distinction. “Theirs were utilitarian; hers were decorative,” he explains.

His favorite piece is on the top shelf. It’s a whimsical container about 24” tall, and half as wide. Although woven from natural materials, it is not a “basket” in the traditional sense since it is not made to hold anything: There is more empty space than material in its weave. Marion made it out of the branches of Calycanthus, a deciduous native shrub commonly known as spicebush. Spice bush branches are normally so straight that native people used them for arrow shafts. Jorgen described how, after wetting the branches, Marion painstakingly bent them into a curve, and after they dried, folded them into each other. Another piece he shows us was a collaboration with Berkeley-based artist Kay Sekimachi. Marion fashioned the basket and then Kay covered the overturned object with dark, fibrous material that sits on top of it like a tightly dreadlocked toupee.

Jorgen first met Marion at UC Berkeley where he was studying business administration and she art. They were both living in the same twelve-unit apartment house that had one vacuum cleaner shared by all the residents. So Jorgen waited until he heard Marion using the vacuum cleaner and then used it an excuse to make his move. “Can I borrow the vacuum cleaner?” Recalling the memory, he jokes, “By the way, I’m Mr. Right!”

After college, Jorgen and Marion worked in the grocery business. She eventually became quality control officer for the Berkeley Coop chain of stores, which included the largest grossing grocery store in the country. But when he turned 40, Jorgen says, he concluded that running grocery stores “was a young man’s business” and became an account executive in a stock brokerage firm.

Their success in their careers afforded Marion and Jorgen the chance to fulfill a dream to move to the country and build their own place together. They found a beautiful 40-acre property of oak woodlands and grasslands in the eastern foothills of Napa County and worked with an architect to design and build a small, modernistic home out of natural adobe hand-made bricks. The house caused quite a stir in architectural circles. It was featured in four architectural magazines and the Wall Street Journal. Architects from all over the world came to see the place, among them Maya Lin, the sculptor and landscape artist who later designed the Vietnam War Memorial on the Capitol Mall in Washington DC. But despite the buzz caused by the house itself, their time in Napa was quiet and idyllic. There were very few neighbors other than plentiful deer, coyote, raccoons, and all kinds of birds, with an occasional bear and mountain lion. And this is where Marion collected her artistic materials.

After twenty years, Jorgen and Marion decided to sell the house. Jorgen describes the day the phone rang and “Robert Redford’s lady friend” was on the line. She and Robert came up to see the house and although they loved it, they eventually decided that it was too small. Eventually the property was sold to Peter Mondavi, Jr, the nephew of famous winemaker Robert Mondavi.

Jorgen has been a subscriber to Bay Nature since its founding in 2001, and is a founding member of the Publisher’s Circle, the Bay Nature Institute’s major donor group. He gives to Bay Nature because he’s “in tune with the thinking of the organization.” While he is no longer able to participate in Bay Nature hikes as he used to do, he is a regular guest at the organization’s fundraising dinners.

“I prefer to give to smaller organizations,” he says. “If I gave this much to the American Cancer Society it would have hardly any impact.” He’s also included Bay Nature, along with two other local environmental organizations, in his will.

Join Jorgen in becoming a Friend of Bay Nature with a donation of any amount above the price of a Bay Nature magazine subscription. Bay Nature relies on donations from its Friends to deliver top quality coverage of local nature in print, online, and in the field. 

With a donation of $500 or more, you can join Jorgen in the Publisher’s Circle, our major donor group. You’ll receive invitations to special hikes and outings with expert naturalist guides and other people who want to learn about and explore the natural world of the Bay Area.

For information on including Bay Nature in your will, see our “Other Ways to Support Bay Nature” page here.


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