03/02/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

Bay Model Reopens After Lengthy Renovation (PHOTOS)

For millions of Bay Area school children, visits to the Bay Model were as an indelible a part of growing up as trips to Marine World or spending a blustery afternoon strolling across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since the 1950s, the Sausalito institution has given both kids and grown-ups the rare opportunity to see the inner workings of the San Francisco Bay firsthand, with a one-of-a-kind scale model complete with functioning tidal flows and attendant exhibits revealing the science behind virtually every aspect of the Bay itself--from marine life to the effects that humans have had on one of the world's most famous natural landmarks.


For the first time since its inception, the Bay Model is getting a major face-lift. Taking advantage of $15.5 million in stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the facility underwent a nearly two year construction process that finally concluded with a grand reopening party last weekend.

"We've done various improvements here and there over the years," Bay Model Park Manager Chris Gallagher told The Huffington Post, "but we took the opportunity afforded by the stimulus money to do a major overhaul."

Since construction began in early 2010, the model has been either entirely or partially closed to visitors.

The new and improved Bay Model boasts a brand new roof, a stone deck, fresh carpeting, fish tanks filled with starfish and rainbow trout, an improved audio system providing guided tours in multiple languages, a seismic retrofit, interior and exterior painting and an impressive array of 2,500 solar panels.

"It’s not like walking into a newly renovated house with all new furniture," Gallagher told Bay Nature. "A lot of the work is underneath the model. We got a lot of major renovations done that we probably won't be able to do again for a long time, because our budget just gets cut and cut and cut."

The Bay Model was initially constructed in 1958 to study a plan proposed by former theater producer John Reber to build two dams in the Bay, the first spanning from Marin County to Richmond and the second between San Francisco's Candlestick Point and Oakland. The idea was to create a pair of large, freshwater lakes that would quench Northern California's rapidly growing thirst.

To examine the feasibility of Reber's ambitious proposal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed an over 1.5 acre scale model of the San Francisco Bay looking at, amongst other things, tidal flow patterns, currents within the Bay, the mixing of fresh and salt water and the movement of sediment. To do this, the model fills with 180,000 gallons of water and 250,000 small, copper tabs tracks are used to track its flow.

Thanks to the data generated by the model, a number of holes were quickly punched into Reber's dam idea. The main issue proved to be that the Bay was far too shallow to function as a reservoir, in places only a dozen feet deep, and the water in the lakes would likely evaporate faster than it could be collected.

Instead of closing the project down following the completion of its original mission, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to keep the Bay Model active as a research facility and take the unprecedented step of also opening it up to the public for free, going as far as constructing a visitors center in the 1980s.

In 2000, the Army decided it could better investigate aspects of the Bay, such as what would happen in the event of an oil spill, using computers and the model's purpose became exclusively educational.

Approximately 150,000 people visit the Bay Model annually--about 60 percent of those visitors are children.

"It's an incredible community resource," Paul Anderson, who heads the group Friends of the Bay Model, told the Marin Independent Journal. "It's a great educational tool. You have these kids come through who learn about the watershed and what it means. You have a gallery space and a place for the community to meet. It's a fabulous facility."

Check out these photos of the Bay Model's construction: