Sea Ranch at 50!

Even though I grew up in Northern California, my first trip to Sea Ranch did not happen until after I finished architecture school. That first visit was the culmination of a ten-day cross-country road trip with a fellow classmate that started in muggy Connecticut and ended up on the cool and windy Mendocino coast. That was in 1989, which, as it turns out, was the 25th birthday for Sea Ranch. My traveling companion wisely counseled that we ditch the faithful pick-up truck in San Francisco that brought us safely across the continent, opting instead for a ride in another friend’s 1968 Mustang for the final leg up Highway One to this place called Sea Ranch. It seemed like the proper ride for that trip up the coast.

Originally conceived in the mid-1960’s by a Hawaii-based development company as an environmentally friendly development in harmony with land that had already been clear-cut of timber and trampled by ranch animals, the Sea Ranch project was a radical idea for radical times. Considering all of the political, financial, cultural and social turmoil that the world (and the Bay Area) was experiencing during the nascent stage of this real estate development in the middle of nowhere, it is amazing that it actually went forward.

One can only imagine a group of developers in a boardroom round about 1964, proclaiming something to the effect of “Hey, man—here’s an idea—let’s sink a ton of dough into buying this run-down ranch 120 miles north of San Francisco on this windy, rocky coast, with no beaches, a little bit of sun, AND let’s only build out only half of the land, and sell the lots to weekenders! And while we’re at it, let’s decide to only let folks build these houses with natural materials! Like, redwood, man! And no flat roofs, and no roof overhangs, and you have to screen your parking space so I don’t have to look at your old car, man.”

At that point, I suppose, all eyes turned to the lone banker sitting at the end of the boardroom table, who pulled off his tinted octagonal glasses, and could have only given the reply “groovy baby, let’s do this.” It goes without saying that a lot of not-so-great things happened in the late 1960’s (Vietnam, MLK and RFK assassinations, race riots, campus riots, Soviet invasions in eastern Europe, etc., etc.), but as my friends and I drove up the coast in that convertible 1968 Mustang, arriving hours later at the scenic clusters of faded wood houses, it reminded me that some really good things also came out of those crazy times.

Bill Turnbull and the Barns.
A month after my first trip to Sea Ranch, I found myself working at the architectural office of William Turnbull (known then as William Turnbull Associates) at Pier 1 ½ in San Francisco. The funky office “décor” was literally frozen in time (in 1968, of course) and sported walls of neon green, orange and yellow paint that were the legacy of Charles Moore—the friend of Bill, his former business partner, a frequent collaborator, and a mentor to a whole generation of architects both near and far.

Although the bright colors, the rustic materials, and the bare light bulbs were all hallmarks of the early Sea Ranch projects of Bill and Charles and partners, it was the way these buildings fit into their natural surroundings, and drew inspiration from the vernacular architecture of the former sheep ranches and buildings of the Mendocino Coast that would put Sea Ranch on the architectural map.

Subsequent trips to Sea Ranch with friends included several weekend trips and stays at different Turnbull-designed houses in the hills above the highway and in the meadows, which included the “Binker Barns”, a series of exceedingly simple, rustic and barntastic houses that Bill Turnbull and master builder Matt Sylvia built by themselves on spec. The simple vernacular forms of these houses betrayed Bill’s dairy farm roots, and demonstrated that the form and scale of these structures were equally cozy and familiar for both weekenders and Guernseys alike.

Bill went on to design homes at Sea Ranch spanning three decades and continued to explore spatial relationships with his small rustic houses that fit in to their natural surroundings. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Turnbull designed new horse stables and the Sea Ranch employee housing, which secured for him the architectural hat-trick of building housing for pretty much all of the Sea Ranch residents, except for the deer.

Lawrence Halprin and that Porsche.
Even in 1989, Bill’s office still had models and photos from various Sea Ranch projects still hanging on the walls, including the iconic Condominium #1 and the Moonraker Recreation Center. My favorite Sea Ranch artifact was the large black and white photo (circa 1968?) of the Sea Ranch Lodge Sign on the edge of the highway, standing alone in the wind (no trees growing around it yet), with a lone car parked next to it. The car in the photo was a mid-1960’s bathtub convertible Porsche—something Steve McQueen would have driven up to Sea Ranch. That photograph exuded a northern California vibe of weekends at the beach, hot tubs, coastal pine trees and German cars all wrapped up in one iconic image of cool: delicately balancing the wealth associated with second homes and the casualness of the northern California beach life.

Lawrence Halprin was the landscape architect involved in the master planning of Sea Ranch, and was also a frequent collaborator with Bill Turnbull. I met Mr. Halprin in his San Francisco office in the early 90’s, and although that South of Market office space may have been his second or third location since opening his doors, the walls were still adorned with his beautiful Sea Ranch sketches.

The land that had been looked at for the development had most recently been a sheep ranch, and the prime areas of the tract were comprised of a series of coastal, wind-swept meadows divided at intervals with large hedgerows of trees to help break the wind. Halprin’s landscape and development plan for Sea Ranch flew in the face of traditional suburban development patterns and proposed to site new development in harmony with the existing landscape and topography of the hills and meadows.

Halprin’s big design idea for developing this land, which was probably the most radical part of the whole notion that became Sea Ranch, was to ditch the traditional residential planning ideas and to cluster new development in groups sited relative to the existing hedgerows, treading as lightly as possible on the landscape. These master plan ideas acknowledged what the sheep already knew—it can be windy and cold out in the fully exposed meadow, and if you want to stay warm, you need to point your butt into the wind and huddle together with your friends.

Listening to the stories about the birth of Sea Ranch from the man who first sketched it out on paper was enlightening, to say the least, but before I left Halprin’s office, I summoned my courage to ask him something that only one of the old masters could answer for me: Was it true that his old office on Montgomery Street filled in as Jacqueline Bisset’s office in the iconic San Francisco film “Bullit?”
“Yes, it was,” he confirmed. He reminded me that Ms. Bisset played Steve McQueen’s girlfriend in the film, and that the scene in his office included some back and forth dialogue and some inside jokes about the fountain in Justin Herman Plaza, and also that her car in the film, which Steve McQueen drove, was a mid-1960’s bathtub convertible Porsche.

Charles Moore and the Negronis.
While working at Bill Turnbull’s office, I was also fortunate to be working on a large project that was a design collaboration with Charles Moore. Mr. Moore made frequent visits to Turnbull’s office in those days for design meetings, and sometimes we were catching him on the way up to or returning from a visit to his amazing corner unit at the Condo #1 at Sea Ranch.

My same architecture school classmate who accompanied me on my first visit to Sea Ranch ended up working at an office in Los Angeles that also collaborated with Charles on several projects.Through this connection, I got invited to visit Moore’s condo while he was there with a group of architects and consultants. The location of the key for Moore’s unit (under a flower pot at the time) was one of the worst-kept secrets in the Sea Ranch architectural community, so it was nice to be invited, as opposed to snooping around with fellow architects.

The first time I walked in the door, I was immediately struck by the realization that all of the knick-knacks that appeared in the iconic interior photos of this space from the late 1960’s (the Campari bottles, the Moroccan door, the groovy Marimekko pillows, etc.) were all still there, and not much worse for the wear.

The Campari, as it turned out, was for making Negronis, which is a perfect beach house cocktail for hot and sunny beaches, and even more so for a beach house with strong winds roaring up the seaside cliff and swirling around (and through) those thin, insulation-free walls. It really was built like a barn, but with really nice views. While Joe Esherick’s Hedgerow houses place you firmly in the tranquility of the Sea Ranch meadow, Moore’s condo on the cliff is all about the precarious balance of a house on the Pacific Rim, and the wind, rain and crumbling shoreline that comes with that living arrangement.

Joe Esherick and the Hedgerows.
Halprin’s and the developer’s ambitious vision for Sea Ranch was also shared by Joe Esherick, whose “Hedgerow Houses” belong in the group of buildings from the early golden age of Sea Ranch design and construction. Originally envisioned as demonstration houses, the Hedgerow houses were homes loosely connected like a group of farmyard structures, using the leeward side of the hedgerow as protection from the prevailing winds.

My own experience with these hedgerow houses includes a couple birthday weekends and an office retreat visit. The big appeal of these simple, modest boxes, in my opinion, are the large glass areas in the living rooms that make for an ideal spot to view the critters in the meadow or have a hot cocoa while the wind and rain swirls around the house outside the window.

Cable TV was a late arrival at Sea Ranch (let alone broadband connections), and most days were spent outside. Our classic beach house protocol was to surrender your wristwatch (remember those?) at the door upon arrival. One of the really nice things about Sea Ranch was the remoteness–no TV and no internet forced you to go outside (you could only play so much checkers or Monopoly), and talk to your companions, or read a book or cook a big meal with the group.

If the weather outside was too wet and windy, one could spend the afternoon looking out the big living room window, set below the meadow grasses, which gave you a deer’s-eye view across the meadow. For me, the magic of Joe Esherick’s Hedgerow houses were these front-row seats that Joe designed for me to comfortably watch the field mice and the deer work their way through the meadow, or just a warm place to stare at the clouds rolling by.

My Sea Ranch at 50.
Twenty years after my first visit to Sea Ranch, I started working at Esherick, Homsey, Dodge & Davis. Joe Esherick passed away in 1998, and though I never got to know or work with Joe, his ideas and his stories still ooze from the walls around here. Many of the design lessons to take from the houses that Bill, Charles and especially Joe designed at Sea Ranch still resonate loudly today in our current design work: simple & durable materials, responsiveness to the environment & the local climate, and to remember to have a “thick sweater and a good hat.”

Sea Ranch, like those of us in our 50’s, may be showing a little more grey and may be a little bit larger than it used to be, but it still looks pretty good for 50. While the cliffs will continue to erode and the shoreline (and probably the climate itself) will continue to change at Sea Ranch, I have no doubt that it will continue to inspire architects and designers, as it will inspire you to spend an afternoon reading a book, keep you up late at night soaking in a hot tub, get sand in your ears, and make you park your convertible behind the fence where the neighbors don’t have to see it—for at least another 50 years.

Kevin S. Killen, AIA, LEED® AP
Director of Residential Studio