Headlands Center for the Arts

The Mess Hall


In 1989, the Headlands Board of Directors commissioned artist Ann Hamilton to restore the kitchen and Mess Hall in building 944—originally designed to prepare meals for the 120 soldiers who resided here. Led by an intimate connection with Headlands Center for the Arts and the site, Ann magically transformed the formerly dim, damp, low-ceilinged dining room and cluttered kitchen into the main gathering place, where sumptuous meals are shared, culture gaps are bridged, collaborations are inspired, and creative revelations arise.

Ann moved to the Headlands for a one-year residency, which was crucial to the development of her vision. During her stay, Ann took walks, explored the natural landscape, observed, and researched. Through conversations with staff and other visiting artists, she contemplated the use of the rooms, and at the same time, thought about the historical function of the Mess Hall as a place for relaxation, community, and nourishment. Ann was committed to creating a space that would convey warmth and one that felt comfortable and inviting.

Because of its dilapidated condition, Ann faced structural as well as aesthetic challenges as she approached the heating, lighting, seating, surface treatments, and the layout of the new cooking facility. With help from a team of volunteers, layers of paint were removed from the walls and ceilings and a second exit was cut into the northeast corner of the room. The northern walls were then covered with images Ann copied from books of plants and animals that she found in a library at UC Berkeley. A thin coat of plaster was floated over the images to provide a subtle link between the Mess Hall and the natural world on the other side of its walls.

Volunteers assisted with the construction of the Mess Hall’s brick oven, a central feature of the kitchen as well as to Ann’s vision of the space. While researching commercial and industrial kitchen equipment, Ann met Alan Scott, a bread-oven builder and baker from west Marin. Ann was touched by Scott’s passion for bread making and asked him to design an oven for Headlands. The second hearth was imported from northern Europe and reconstructed by Duncan MacKinnon, a specialist in masonry heating stoves. Ann designed the dining tables with the assistance of Doug Hollis and built them with Doug and Todd Trigstead.

The hodgepodge of plates, glasses, utensils, and chairs characteristic of the Headlands’ Mess Hall were donated by artists and friends at a “kitchen shower” held to celebrate the completion of the project. Much more than a utilitarian renovation, Ann created a comfortable, welcoming environment that encourages interaction among all those who come to Headlands. From the mismatched chairs to the hearths to the roomy open space for preparation of food, the Mess Hall embodies the sense of community so integral to the Headlands’ mission.