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‘Paradise at the end of the world’: An oral history of the Sea Ranch

A two-part oral history mining the origins and controversies surrounding California’s most bucolic planned community—and forecasting its future

The Sea Ranch is a residential development along the northern coast of California, situated about halfway between Bodega Bay and Mendocino—officially in Sonoma County, and basically in the middle of nowhere. Its ten miles of prime coastline were scouted and bought from a sheep rancher by a Hawaii-based developer called Oceanic Properties in 1963. That developer, led by a former architect named Al Boeke, then hired a team of design professionals (first, the already-renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, plus architects, a graphic designer, and a contractor) to plan the site and build its first structures—the land and the buildings being the best advertisement for potential buyers.

The architects originally tapped to design the Sea Ranch—the four partners of Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker, plus Joseph Esherick—are responsible for the best-known and most-recognizable buildings there, but a relative few of the now roughly 1,800 total homes. Construction was, in fact, stopped altogether at the Sea Ranch during a fraught decade, from 1976 to 1984, while a bitter fight with the California Coastal Commission ensued. It resulted in landmark public access laws in the state of California, as well as an entrenched attitude on the homeowners’ behalf to guard the Sea Ranch’s remaining rights and bylaws. Today, strict adherence to the development’s design covenants—coupled with equally strict zoning laws in Sonoma County—mean that visiting the Sea Ranch feels much as at it might have three decades ago, but makes it difficult to imagine experimenting with density, affordability, or inclusivity.

There’s also an inevitability to the kind of developer-designer relationship that was pioneered in places like the Sea Ranch: The good vibes can only last so long. As historian Alison Isenberg points out in her peerless history of Bay Area design culture, architect Charles Moore—the elder statesman of MLTW—argued that one could only use “environmental planning and architecture to create a meaningful public realm… within the methods of large-scale private development.” But private development, specifically its emphasis on turning a profit, ended up turning the endeavor from an idealistic community retreat into a sprawling neighborhood of second homes (particularly on the northern end, which invokes nearly uniform criticism from Sea Ranch purists).

Finally, there is the design legacy. Vernacular modernism that incorporates the materials of area barns, and the rooflines of the humble shed, while breaking up the interiors into a series of levels and vantage points. Wooden structures where columns meet windows, where open-air sleeping lofts look down on equally open living rooms. Graphic interiors where primary colors and assertive lines painted on walls inform a human how to move through space. Kilims hanging over balcony rails, displayed as art. These maneuvers are so recognizable, 50 years later, that it’s hard to imagine tracing them back directly to the Sea Ranch, but trace you can.

The fact is, you may know something of the Sea Ranch without knowing much about the Sea Ranch at all.

Oral history is a seductive medium; for one, it spurs interviewees to be candid—because chances are, the interviewer will hear another version of the same story from someone else. Two, it creates space for multidimensional storytelling. Textbooks tend to present a mono-history: the complete, officially-decided-upon, cleaned-up version of events. As UC Berkeley’s oral history center—to which I am heavily indebted—describes it, oral history “reflects personal opinion offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable.” The careful reader will identify concurrent threads of memory, and recognize points of disagreement, and it’s exactly this ambiguity that helps define an especially complex place or era.

The role of an interviewer in a project is to listen, and let speakers fill spaces in conversation with more recollections, but you also have to know what questions to ask, questions that (hopefully!) get people to recount their memories or opinions in a new way. You must be insatiably curious, a friend of the research rabbit hole, comfortable with gaps in the narrative, and frankly, a bit obsessed. In this case, what started out as my aesthetic interest in architect Charles Moore’s built work morphed into a ravenous hunger for all things Sea Ranch—itself a difficult-to-describe, likely one-of-a-kind designed community that expressed a radical take on modernist design to some, an example of the arrogance of real estate development to others, and the tension between public and private land stewardship to yet others.

Many of the original creators of the Sea Ranch are no longer accessible to a contemporary interviewer, so we delved into a wealth of archival material—all cited—including personal and professional archives (our intrepid researcher, Jessica Dailey, trekked to the University of Pennsylvania to peruse Lawrence Halprin’s, for example), previously recorded oral histories and lectures, and published books. A special thanks, as well, to Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, who co-curated SFMOMA’s current exhibition on the Sea Ranch (on view through the end of April!) and spoke to me very early on in the reporting process. Mainly, I need to thank Donlyn Lyndon, a founding partner in MLTW and current-day guardian of the Sea Ranch flame, for being so generous with his time, memories, and Rolodex. Finally, stay tuned for Part 2, which will publish here on Curbed tomorrow. —Kelsey Keith

The beginning

In which a pioneering landscape architect and a handful of American architects are tapped to build a new kind of artistic, design-forward community on a remote and gorgeous stretch of Northern California coastline.

Al Boeke¹, developer of the Sea Ranch, and a trained architect: [The land] was an extraordinarily flat, extraordinarily beautiful piece of property leading to a narrow highway, and then a soft slope going up the hill to a ridge and then dropping down to the Gualala River and turning out to the ocean. Here was this piece of property with identity. And identity is one of the key words in trying to build a quality New Town, or new anything, because you can see it, you can feel it, you can taste it, it isn’t corrupted by the mistakes of others.

Mary Griffin², architect, partner at Turnbull Griffin Haesloop, and William Turnbull Jr.’s widow: Bill loved the fact that the Sea Ranch property was not a Sierra Club wilderness site. It was land that had been in agriculture; it had been logged; it had traces of history, both of the indigenous peoples and of the people who had worked it.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon³, graphic designer: It was three hours north of San Francisco, two by Porsche. It was like finding paradise at the end of the world.

Lawrence Halprin, renowned Bay Area landscape architect: The Sea Ranch coastline had many of the same qualities when I first saw it. Great sandstone cliffs stood against the battering surf, and diving cormorants nested in the crevices. Harbor seal colonies inhabited the rock outcrops; in the spring, gray whales migrated north from the birthing grounds in Baja California’s Scammon’s Lagoon. The constant presence of the Pacific was dominant. The waves crashing against the cliffs formed a low but constant sound of thunder which underlaid all our activities.

Anna Halprin, dancer and choreographer, widow of Lawrence “Larry” Halprin: When we were first trying to decide where to live at the Sea Ranch, we camped out as a family. We’d go to a different spot and camp out every time we came up here. And when we hit this spot, we all said, “This is it. This is where we want to be.”

Lawrence and Anna Halprin’s house at the Sea Ranch, designed by William Turnbull in 1965.

Richard Peters, architectural lighting designer and longtime associate of Charles Moore: The people who lived in Gualala and up in that area didn’t really want Sea Ranch to be there. Most of those people were people who lived in the country, and they just didn’t want the city folk there.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Bill, serious, sincere, the eternal East Coast preppy, drove us in his gray Porsche. Charles, brilliant, sat in the passenger seat, looking more like a very tall balding blond frog happily sipping a martini on the Concorde than a guy comfortable on a dusty back road.

Obie Bowman, architect who designed the Walk-In Cabins: Moore was just… physically... kind of shaped like a pear. Rather intellectual and not an outdoorsy type at all.

Richard Peters: I’m sure you’ve been told this a hundred times, [Charles Moore’s] insatiable appetite would get him into more trouble than you can imagine. In the beginning of the Sea Ranch, the hotel in Gualala was about the only place you could get food. If you really wanted to know if he liked pasta, he sure as hell did.

Dung Ngo, co-editor of William Turnbull, Jr.: Buildings in the Landscape, publisher of August Journal: It was at Princeton that Turnbull met Donlyn Lyndon, a student in the class below Turnbull’s, and Charles Moore, who was completing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton and taught Turnbull and Lyndon in undergraduate seminars.

Kevin Keim, designer, author, and founding director of the Charles Moore Foundation: Dick [Richard Peters] was forever Charles’s lighting designer. He was at Princeton with the whole crowd.

Dung Ngo: MLTW became a firm of equal partners who worked closely with each other on all projects in the office, a model vastly different from the offices of the “master builders” such as [Louis] Kahn.

William Turnbull¹⁰, architect, partner at MLTW: You could literally hold the pencil until somebody, filled with energy and insight, felt you weren’t keeping pace. Then you would lose the pencil. It was a very freewheeling collaboration.

Kevin Keim: MLTW was an office that was like the Beatles, which is to say they were all kind of doing their own thing, but coming together.

Donlyn Lyndon¹¹, architect, partner at MLTW, chair of the Commons Landscape Committee at the Sea Ranch: We each had things we were especially interested in. We always deferred to Bill about landscape issues. [And he] was the most precise draftsman. Dick was always very careful about working stuff through. He is good at storytelling, and loves dealing with people. My father was an architect and I had grown up as a determined modernist; I was probably the one who was most often trying to be clear that everything was justified. Charles was the oldest and most imaginative—and brilliant—and we all acknowledged that, but we also all saw ourselves as equals on some other level.

Kevin Keim: It was quite contrary to the notion of what an architecture practice was. When they were coming out of school, it was straight-laced. People were showing up in their neckties. It was as much about creating a new image of what the architect can be, in a kind of romantic sense. San Francisco was not the most corporate of places, certainly not like Chicago or New York—it was a lot looser and freer.

William Turnbull¹²: Who was this man, tall and private with a seemingly insatiable curiosity for life, ideas and design? Joe [Esherick was] really the Dean of the Bay Area architects.

Mary Griffin: I first saw the Sea Ranch in the last semester of modern architectural history class at Brown University, the last slide in the last lecture of the semester. Later that summer, I happened to be driving from San Francisco up to Oregon on a trip, and drove past Sea Ranch. Little did I know how much the Sea Ranch would come to play in my life—that was before I ended up going to architectural school. [Later] Donlyn was my mentor at MIT and I met Bill Turnbull through Donlyn.

Obie Bowman: I was at Cal for a while and Charles Moore was teaching there. I had him as a professor. I liked the work a lot. I didn’t like him at all. His style with teaching was, I suppose, to help you find your own way, but I found it very unhelpful. I’d ask him what he’d think about something, and he’d give me some obscure, obtuse answer.

Donlyn Lyndon: There was a kind of quality in him… supreme confidence. He kept his dominance by being witty.

Kevin Keim: I got a job working with Charles Moore before I even graduated from architecture school. As a preface to that, when I was in school, we all had the basic American architecture surveys, and the period at Sea Ranch [was] left to the very last few minutes of the last class of the semester. They flashed a plan of Sea Ranch on the screen, and maybe a picture of Charles or something, and that was sort of it.

Shev Rush¹³, co-owner of Placewares and resident of the Turnbull-designed Hines House: When I was growing up, I remember going with my family to look at a house outside of Myrtle Beach and it was a totally Sea Ranch-inspired vision: it was shingle, it involved the same volumes, and it was in a pine forest. When I [eventually] got to the Sea Ranch I was like, Oh my god, this is it.

The developer-designer relationship

Oceanic Properties entrusted its Sea Ranch point person, developer Al Boeke, with hiring the designers for the project.

Reverdy Johnson¹⁴, attorney for Oceanic Properties who wrote the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) for the Sea Ranch: The task of taking a 5,200-acre sheep ranch and converting it into a real estate development for all of us here was a daunting task for sure. There was one person who had the vision to pull it off, and that was Al Boeke. He was an extraordinary individual, because he had the capacity to assemble a bunch of people who had the talent that he was looking for, and then largely step back and let them take their own lead, and provide guidance as necessary only to accomplish the goal that he saw.

Al Boeke: [Reverdy Johnson] was one of the most effective and busy and serious and emotionally involved members of the group. He was absolutely terrific! ... If you had to get rid of everybody for some reason, he’d be the last one you’d want to lose.

Diane Boeke¹⁵, former wife of Al Boeke: I was an observer, and in a supporting way, a participator in some of the events leading to how a Hawaiian Big Five company with major sugar and shipping acquired and subsequently developed a sizeable Northern California property.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher¹⁶, Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design at SFMOMA: It really moved the needle, in terms of what a development can be and what the relationship is between developer and architect, and then architecture and the environment.

Diane Boeke: Frederick Simpich, who was a vice president of Castle & Cooke at the time, responsible for research and development of new projects. Then following the early ’60s merger of Dole Corporation into Castle & Cooke, and its later creation of the land development subsidiary, Oceanic Properties, of which Mr. Simpich became president. I followed him as his secretary and eventually was Oceanic’s assistant corporate secretary.

Reverdy Johnson: Simpich was [Al’s] boss, president of Oceanic. He supported him all the way down the line. Whenever we had hiccups in this project, it only occurred because we had a loss of continuity in that support in Honolulu. But by and large, Oceanic stood behind this project and made it work, and without their ongoing support, it simply wouldn’t have happened.

Al Boeke: I was never “we.” I had to say “I” always, and I became sensitive about that. People misunderstanding that it was always “I”. There weren’t two of us.

Joe Bodovitz¹⁷, founding director, California Coastal Commission 1972-1979: The developers hired super architects Lawrence Halprin and Joe Esherick and I don’t know who else and they designed these great wood houses, totally open, and the idea was you didn’t need a lot of policing because there wouldn’t be public access. And so you could have these open-design houses. And for the people who were going to live there it was, and I’m sure is, wonderful. I know people who live up there and just think it’s wonderful.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: They spent a whole year with Lawrence Halprin studying, how are we going to get water? How many units can we really supply enough water to? What are we going to do with the trees, what’s happening? How can we plan the landscape in a way that’s very conscientious and should that be our idealism? They both [architect and developer] aligned with what the goal is and it’s not just the bottom line.

Anna Halprin: Larry was always interested in the sense of community here. He wanted to emphasize community, and I think he was very successful at getting that going. I think he was personally influenced by his experience forming a kibbutz in Israel.

Al Boeke¹⁸: With [15] consultants on board, we began close to one year of feasibility, viability, ecological, and design studies that considered everything. Design, engineering, utilities, incremental construction schedule, cash flow, marketing, community association, public relations, advertising, staffing, landscape, architecture, and government approvals.

Joseph Becker¹⁹, associate curator of architecture and design, SFMOMA: Of interest to Halprin and Boeke was MLTW’s youthful nature—they were emerging architects affiliated with UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. Boeke saw MLTW as eager to try something new, and fresh enough to dedicate the necessary resources of time and energy. Also, they had explored the concept of condominium housing, which at the time was a new housing typology, in an unbuilt prior project for Coronado, California.

Joseph Esherick²⁰, architect of the Hedgerow Houses, partner at Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis: At the beginning the general planning was very loose. Since Boeke saw himself as a planner, he did big, general land-use maps. He and Larry worked together on land use, locating the airport and identifying different places around that were going to have different meanings or uses.

Al Boeke: It became a very, very close, friendly professional love affair.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher²¹: Boeke saw financial opportunity in building a high-quality New Town at the Sea Ranch; Halprin envisioned its novel social and environmental possibilities.

The interior of the Halprin residence, featuring a built in sofa that capitalizes on coastal views. Lawrence Halprin joined Charles Moore and Joseph Esherick in purchasing lots at the new development.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: My job, in addition to sitting in silent admiration during meetings, was to get Larry’s sketches and master plans reduced in size and camera-ready, to have the sales pitch and Larry’s design criteria set in Helvetica, and to paste up page after page of type and pretty pictures. Good Design meant Good Business.

Alison Isenberg²², author of Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, professor of history at Princeton University: These professional designers bought into the “unusual” real estate concepts behind the Sea Ranch, literally. Moore bought one of the condominium units he had designed. Halprin bought an isolated cliffside lot at the southern edge of the property. Esherick purchased one of his own model homes. These sales were promising, but because Oceanic Properties was not building an architects’ colony, it needed others to understand the lure as well.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: Boeke and Halprin understood that the development’s financial and social success would not be immediate but rather in the future, and sought like-minded pioneers as initial homeowners, people who understood that the benefits would increase with time. A booklet created for all prospective owners underlined the challenges of the environment—“The terrain is rugged, the surf treacherous, the ocean cold”—noting that these conditions contributed to its “dramatic beauty” and ensuring that only the hardy and committed would join the founding community of property owners.

Al Boeke: Aim advertising and sales at the schoolteacher, artist, author, builder, and other just plain folks who perceive the wonder of the site and understand the opportunity for local voluntary stewardship and control.

Lisa Dundee²³, architect, executive director of the Department of Design, Compliance, and Environmental Management, the Sea Ranch Association: I’m sure you’ve heard from others that in the ’60s the idea was to be a very multi-class, bohemian population—artistic, intellectual, all sorts of people. And in the beginning, there were to be many more condominium units than currently exist. The unfortunate thing for the Sea Ranch is, it became a victim of California real estate trends. So as they were trying to sell the condominium units, the developer of course found that it was much more profitable to sell a single-family home.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon²: The idealism just fell out at a certain point. The salesman took over and things got not quite as idealistic as we intended in the beginning.

Obie Bowman: The way the Sea Ranch was developed, they started at the south end and would develop, oh, maybe like a half mile section at a time, and fill it, and they would go on and develop the roads and infrastructure for the next section.

Kevin Keim: I think that what went wrong mostly had to do with a reversion to just standard suburban planning on the northern section of the Sea Ranch.

Obie Bowman: The developer came up with the idea that they have not such a chaotic mismatch of shapes and forms out in the meadow. Well, a lot of the existing houses, the roofs were already not facing in the environmentally ideal direction. So they developed a thing called the dominant roof slope for different groups of buildings… The superficiality of that, to do it just for the look, is kind of offensive to me.

Joseph Esherick: The early sales at the Sea Ranch emphasized telephone sales. Most real estate folks have great difficulty understanding something even when they’re standing on it. The whole idea of the cluster was banned because it was too difficult to sell.

Obie Bowman: Everything was clustered around the trees and—tongue-in-cheek here, you can imagine how effective that was with the sales staff at Sea Ranch. Not the most lucrative way to sell lots.

Joseph Esherick: I can understand their point of view, but it’s too bad because I think those upper reaches of the Sea Ranch would have been much more attractive if the cluster idea existed a little more strongly.

Al Boeke: The north end has a sameness. People living on the south end of the Sea Ranch that have discretionary monies built houses on the north end for spec and sold them. No one has broken out, hardly, and tried to unify the Sea Ranch. There is a distinctive social-economic-taste culture. And whose fault is it? It’s the fault of the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission stabbed us in the heart.

Halprin’s landscape

The visionary architect’s dream of a West Coast kibbutz respected the existing habitat, spurring development that was at once light on the land and deeply embedded in it.

Lawrence Halprin: The ambiance of this place mesmerized me! In many ways it had changed little for the 100 years since the early settlers arrived. The barns and sheep sheds had strength of character and inhabited the landscape like rocks and landforms. I focused on how to inhabit this land and protect the awesome character without softening it or altering it.

Early land use map designed by Lawrence Halprin.
Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Al Boeke: Larry doesn’t like details. He avoids details. He likes to think generally and broadly and those are the commitments he, in my experience, wishes to make.

Donlyn Lyndon²⁵: The richly varied surfaces, edges, and patterns of natural growth were interwoven with the bold, linear geometries of human intervention, already expressed here in hedgerows, fences, and roads. Halprin’s plan set out to take advantage of both of these characteristics, using arrangements that matched the ecology and the scope and the scale of the landscape better than the conventional patterns of incremental, parcelized development would.

Lawrence Halprin: Our various studies made us particularly aware of the overwhelming force of the prevailing winds from the northwest. This was especially strong when we stood out in the meadows where there were no trees to impede the force. We understood that we were confronting an austere windswept and often foggy landscape of great power and presence whose character would demand very special and unique solutions to make it viable for human occupation. As these ecological studies dealt with existing conditions on the ranch, they also suggested methods of mitigation for human habitation. On the windswept coastal meadows early ranchers had planted dense hedgerows of Monterey cypress as windbreaks.

Donlyn Lyndon: The hedgerows space out across the whole ten miles—those were put in about 100 years ago by ranchers. We always thought the reason they did it was for wind protection, but Susan Clark—who’s a local historian—dug up somewhere that they were actually thinking about subdividing the land. Which is then how we used them, but we didn’t know that.

Obie Bowman: They had planted these rows of Monterey cypress trees, perpendicular to the ocean to block the wind, which made all the meadow areas a little more palatable to be in. Halprin’s thoughts were to keep housing there up against the trees, and leave the meadow open, not to have any lots or houses along the bluff out in the middle.

Lawrence Halprin: I became convinced that Sea Ranch could become a place where wild nature and human habitation could interact in the kind of intense symbiosis where ecology could allow people to become part of the ecosystem.

Al Boeke: The basic notion is that we would respect the land. We would put people on the land in a way that they were inconspicuous. We would build architecture that was not architectonic, that seemed natural in this place.

Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon²⁶: What we and Esherick thought was needed was a limited partnership—not a marriage—between the buildings and the land. Any landscaped outdoors was walled into inclusion as part of the ‘inside.’ So as not to impinge on the wild landscape (in a partnership one must be careful of what is whose).

All hail the CC&Rs

Extensive design guidelines were created at the very beginning to ensure responsible land use, respect for one’s neighbors, and adherence to a consistent material language.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: The design stipulations were formally instituted in 1965 in the Sea Ranch’s covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), written by the young lawyer Reverdy Johnson, who worked with Boeke for the development company Castle & Cooke.

Lisa Dundee: The original CC&Rs and the design guidelines were both written in such a way that there is a combination of both prescriptive and performance requirements. I’ll give you a design example: There is a very specific restriction that says any hot tub needs to have a solid surround that is six inches taller than the top of the tub cover. That is a very prescriptive restriction.

Al Boeke: Limit landscape visible from neighboring property to indigenous species with six-foot fenced enclosures allowed for vegetable, entry, or sunny limited gardens.

Lisa Dundee: Conversely, the general guidelines are very much performance-based. They’re giving you a philosophical standard, and it’s up to the applicant to prove that what they’re doing is appropriate for the Sea Ranch.

Al Boeke: Houses would not have any minimum size or cost. They would only have something of an architectural quality that would recede into the landscape. 50% of the land would be left open as common. We had plans for the forest, the grasslands, the existing swales, the eroding bluff edge, the sand dunes.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: I didn’t write the rules but I did set it into type; I was the graphic designer. Millions of rules on what you can’t do.

Obie Bowman: When you experiment with something, it takes a lot of trial and error before [you] really get it right. You probably don’t want that in your community—people trying and failing.

Al Boeke: Create CC&Rs as protections for and from each other, avoiding negative dos and don’ts. In fact, one might say a community constitution.

Obie Bowman: There’s just so many conflicting aspects to a whole community look. If you’re trying to do things that have a similarity or continuity, well, how do you deal with change? Anyway, that kind of bugs me about the design committee, about the Sea Ranch.

Lawrence Halprin: As with any group of people who feel strongly about their community, self governance at Sea Ranch has at times been difficult. It is fair to say it has even been rancorous, shrill, and sometimes based on special interests.

Obie Bowman: Nevertheless, it’s a significant and noble undertaking, I think.

Condominium One

MLTW’s multifamily housing, essentially ten units arranged under one roofline, put the Sea Ranch on the map, winning multiple awards, establishing the reputation of its creators, and cementing it in architectural history surveys for decades to come.

Al Boeke: A broad variety of people—that’s what we were hoping to get. So the first step in that direction was to build single-family lots or allow owners, with our approval, to build specific houses on lots in that Unit 163 lot development, and we wanted smaller than that. So how do you have smaller than that? You build a condominium.

“It’s very important that it’s one big roof slope. I see that as a political statement. There’s some unity [among the ten units], but that unity does not mean that everybody is uniform.” —MLTW partner Donlyn Lyndon on Condominium One, completed in 1965.

Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon: Our designs and Esherick’s were not at all coordinated. We were eager, in fact, to keep our responses to the accumulating environmental data as independent as we could, to avoid a contrived ‘style.’

Joseph Esherick: That’s a fact. There was no conscious effort to establish a Sea Ranch style, anything like that.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Architects Charles Moore and William Turnbull had a harder job than Esherick’s. Al commissioned them to design a ten-unit condominium at the edge of Black Point Cliff, a barren rock outcropping high above the ocean. The condominium would be big and exposed, and if it didn’t look wonderful, it would look terrible.

Richard Peters: When the Sea Ranch condominium was designed it was a good effort by a lot of people, but mostly it was Charles [Moore], Billy [William Turnbull], and Don [Donlyn Lyndon]. Well, Don to a degree—it was really Charles. If you look at the really early sketches of Charles and some of Bill’s, you see the condominium emerge as a design idea. It was the very first thing built after Joe’s [Joseph Esherick] little entrance pavilion, what was called the post office in those days.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: What the architects saw is an opportunity. The idea of a condo in this landscape. Really, what was a condo? At this time, there were skyscrapers in big cities but condos in suburbs, outlying areas, was unheard of. Could that be designed in a way? If you look at Condominium One, I don’t think you would find another condominium that looks like this in this time period, and call it a condominium.

Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon: At once castle, compound, and promontory, it is a concentration of dwellings bunched together in the teeth of the wind.

Mitchell Schwarzer²⁷, architectural historian, professor at the department of visual studies at California College of the Arts: Its form is both revolutionary and evolutionary. In one sense, the building is the shipwreck of Modernism, a convulsion of wind-washed boards and glass shards cast into a meadow beyond the churning ocean.

Joseph Esherick: From a distance, it’s remarkable how it looks like part of the landscape. In fact, as you come up the coast, there’s a pile of rocks with some trees and everything else, and if you’re not really being attentive, and you just catch a glimpse of it as you go around the corner, you think that you’ve already arrived.

Lawrence Halprin: This building has become a symbol of the Sea Ranch, and from this point of view has inestimable value, and it should not have to compete with another building group.

As Donlyn Lyndon writes in his 2004 book on the Sea Ranch: “Important to the conception of these interiors was the notion of a ‘four-poster,’ a small square structure of four round posts and a box of space that would stand independently in the larger room, holding the bed area aloft in the high volume.”

Donlyn Lyndon: It’s very important that it’s one big roof slope. I see that as an important political statement. There’s some unity [among the ten units], but that unity does not mean that everybody is uniform.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: My friend Marion Conrad came by for cocktails. ‘Shit,’ she said. ‘There’s no doors in this place. How can anyone with kids fuck in here?’

Donlyn Lyndon: See how the beams are going across? What is really important in the condominium is, there are places where we needed a window but also 10-by-10 [inch] columns. The first impulse of most architects would be to figure out how you don’t put the column in front of the window. Ours was: Your column is where it wants to be and the window is where it wants to be. And if the window casts light on the column, that’s a good idea.

Richard Peters: Charles took condo unit 9, which is famous. That was his so-called fee. I’m not quite sure about that, but that’s how I remember it, anyway. I was the manager of the unit. Charles said, “Wouldn’t you take care of it? It’s going to be my second home.” You realize that when you did this you were subjecting yourself to being very much involved in Charles’s life because you had to know where he was, and when he wanted to come to the Sea Ranch.

Kevin Keim: [My first time at the Sea Ranch], we drove up in just sheeting rain, dark at night, which you can imagine [...] I’ll never forget it, when we stepped into the condo out of that rain, there was such a feeling of shelter. Not to sound hokey, but in a primal sense you just suddenly realized the importance of this piece of architecture. I slept on the window seat—then the next morning, you wake up, you’re just on that bench, floating above the Pacific.

Donlyn Lyndon: I feel very sad that the condominiums never got extended, for those 80 units. It was quite powerful, the way they related to the landscape and required some level of working together.

Kevin Keim: My architecture education really began with Charles Moore. That building, it just leaves you with an impression.

The advent of supergraphics

Barbara “Bobbie” Stauffacher Solomon breathed new life into the rigorous graphic design she had learned in Switzerland—by taking paintbrush to wall and creating a new mode of wayfinding.

Interior of the Sea Ranch Athletic Club, with architecture by MLTW. Barbara “Bobbie” Stauffacher Solomon recalls that “all they could afford was plywood” so she was asked to design painted graphics for the white walls. Her work on the project ushered in the era of 1960s supergraphics.
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon at her home in San Francisco, 2019.

Al Boeke: While I was selecting consultants, I went to the Museum of Modern Art—or whatever it was then called—in San Francisco and I saw an exhibit of graphics there. And was so taken with it that I went out and started chasing this person whose name was Barbara Stauffacher.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: I combined the super-sized enthusiasm of California Abstract Expressionism with hard-edge Swiss graphics, and ended up with, however superfluous and superficial, supergraphics.

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: Bobbie Stauffacher’s graphic layer has this beautiful tension, very modern Helvetica, between the rustic and the modern that was necessary. Certainly it was different in the Bay Area, the squiggles and wiggles. It definitely stands out as being a little colder—not having emotion in it, as she was attracted to it for its truth.

Al Boeke: She did everything that communicates in writing for Oceanic Properties at the Sea Ranch. Not a single thing was done other than Bobbie. I approved and rarely disapproved something as not being a good fit.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: I’d designed a logo for the Sea Ranch; two simplified sea-shells, back-to-back and connected into a ram’s head, in memory of the sheep that used to live on this land. Al wanted the logo painted on the front of the Esherick-designed General Store. It was part of the sixties: Architecture as a sign.

Alison Isenberg: The Sea Ranch’s stated ideals of coastal preservation, environmental stewardship, and “the commons” conditioned Stauffacher’s discomfort with commercializing coastal land in this way and made the development an easy target for skeptics.

Kevin Keim: Her work really deserves to be renewed and restored and extended. [Though] when that Hall of Femmes book came out, they said outright in the book that Charles was always vying to take credit for what Barbara did, and that is absolutely untrue.

Maynard Hale Lyndon²⁸, homeowner at the Sea Ranch, co-founder of Placewares: She was feeling that women were not getting credit for work done, and the men were taking credit.

Kevin Keim: To suggest that Charles was somehow robbing her of credit, and to especially suggest that it was because she was female, it’s just simply not true.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: Charles and I were very good friends. He wrote after the fact that this was the beginning of postmodernism and the destruction of the white wall. That was him being inventive, and brilliant.

Constructing the Sea Ranch

A genius in contractor’s clothing: Builder Matt Sylvia gave structure to all the most visionary designs.

Reverdy Johnson: Matt worked for Richard Neutra, and he was the only contractor, as I understand this, that Neutra ever could find who could build a building where two pieces of glass butted each other, and there was nothing else.

Al Boeke: He could satisfy Richard, the most critical person alive, who had to have everything more than perfect and totally in control. I said to myself, if Matt Sylvia can do that he can do this. And I like his style and like his talk and I don’t care that he had no education and went into the Navy and turned his cigarettes into his tee shirt. I hired him and he was here until he died.

Donlyn Lyndon²⁹: At Sea Ranch he built Condominium 1, the Hedgerow Houses by Joseph Esherick, the Lodge, his own lumberyard, and nearly everything that Bill, Charles, Dick, or I have constructed there since (along with hundreds of other houses).

Al Boeke: He made intelligent, thoughtful, real world suggestions all along the way about everything that we built.

Reverdy Johnson: Matt was a great teacher, and he was the only contractor here. Many of the fellows who became contractors themselves learned their craft under him. Matt never begrudged the fact that he was teaching his future competition. He was so big a man in terms of his spirit that he wanted everybody to be able to share what he had.

The Sea Ranch’s greatest hits

Looking at the Moonraker Rec Center—with pioneering supergraphics by Bobbie Solomon—plus Esherick’s early Hedgerow Houses, the Walk-In Cabins by Obie Bowman, and the Rush, Johnson, and Hines Houses by MLTW.

HEDGEROW HOUSES (1965)

Joseph Esherick: We deliberately took the windiest place. If we could provide a comfortable environment for people in this hostile environment, then I thought we were home free.

Lawrence Halprin: The model homes at the end of the first cypress hedgerow had demonstrated how houses could be clustered around a cul-de-sac connected by fences and tree plantings which melded them together into the landscape.

Joseph Esherick: That shape [the shed roof] was not the original design. The first thing I had designed was just—it turned out to be awful. I had designed pyramidal roofs with the idea that they would smooth the flow of the wind and you wouldn’t get turbulence. Well, it turned out you might not have got turbulence, but you also didn’t get any shelter. We put the things in a wind tunnel at Berkeley and it showed that the buildings almost made the wind conditions worse.

Donlyn Lyndon: [Esherick’s own house] is something like 850 square feet. That front bump has one horizontal window to the ocean and one vertical that lets you see the sky.

Joseph Esherick: My own place, and several of the ones that are at the front line of the cluster at the Sea Ranch, are actually dug in, so that the windowsill looking upwind is only about six inches above the ground outside. Much less of the building is exposed.

Donlyn Lyndon: One of his hobbies, Joe’s, was cabinetry, so he actually did all the interior cabinetry.

Joseph Esherick: I built all the cabinet work at home in the basement and would haul it up there. And did all the interior finish, which was a lot of fun, because I got to try out a lot of [woodworking] ideas that we had never used because they’re too expensive. I was trying to do as spare and simple a thing as I possibly could, all wood. No paint at all.

William Turnbull: His hedgerow houses became exemplary of how to make buildings blend into their environment and each other, but still be comfortably habitable on the cold windy edge of the ocean. Buildings like the man—clear, elegant, and appropriate.

The best-known Sea Ranch supergraphics are in the men’s locker room at Moonraker. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon recalls, “I’d promised Al I’d paint something sexy in the men’s locker room, though I think no one saw anything but circles and strips. I painted a big half circle with a small circle in it, a white breast with a black tit.”

THE SEA RANCH ATHLETIC CLUB I, NOW CALLED MOONRAKER RECREATION CENTER (1965)

Donlyn Lyndon: Officially it was an MLTW project. In fact it was Bill and Charles.

Charles Moore³⁰, architect, partner at MLTW, chair of architecture departments at UC Berkeley, Yale University, UCLA, and UT Austin: The place should, in its own way, exercise the same kind of hold on the memories and imaginations of people as Nepenthe does on visitors to the South Coast. It ought to be the things that private houses or condominia on the Sea Ranch are not; this club demands extensive landscape, and a close connection between the landscape and elements of the building.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: The walls inside, all they could afford was plywood. They didn’t know what to do to make it look nice or decorated or anything. And so I just said, “Paint it white and I’ll do something.”

Donlyn Lyndon: All of [the motifs] are related to the space. She drew inspiration from the architecture.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: I [had gone] to Thomas Swan & Sons, a sign painting shop on Mission Street…. I selected basic bull’s-eye colors from a One-Shot Lettering Enamel color chart, the colors used by Constructivist revolutionaries, the basic “anti-decorative” colors of the De Stijl Neo-Plastic painters and New York comic book artists—black, white, yellow, blue, and red. The shapes were kept simple, geometric, and hard-edged. The colors always pure, straight out of the can.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon: In 2005, my first visit to the Sea Ranch since the grand opening, I found that the Sea Ranch Association had remodeled the space in [the ’70s] and without informing me someone had repainted the walls. My work was gone.

Lu Lyndon³¹, homeowner at the Sea Ranch, co-founder of Placewares: The reason the graphic had got changed was that there was water damage in the building on the women’s side. In 1975 Obie Bowman, who was one of Sea Ranch architects of note, was asked to do something to correct the problem, so they closed off the upstairs.

Donlyn Lyndon: I kept being surprised that she was making such a fuss about it until I had gone in. And you go in there, and it’s got all this stuff that doesn’t make sense.

Lu Lyndon: Someone—no one seems to be willing to ’fess up to this–someone took pieces of Bobbie’s original graphics and sort of stuck them on the walls. It was poorly painted. It was a disaster, and I’m completely in sympathy with Bobbie being furious about that having been done.

Mary Griffin: It’s really important that buildings like Moonraker be protected and honored—it’s really important that Moonraker is one of the few buildings that young architects can visit without renting a house! I’ve been an advocate for the building, to make it possible for Bobbie to do her work, by cleaning up the spaces, particularly on the women’s side.

Lu Lyndon: She was given two awards by the Association and, not exactly sure how this all happened, but finally there was a proposal to put into the budget money for Bobbie to come and do a new design for the women’s side.

WALK-IN CABINS (1972)

Obie Bowman: There was an area there that was very difficult to develop in a normal manner: It was very steep so the roads were difficult, the septic system was difficult. The walk-in cabins are in a redwood forest, and had a really strict budget. If they [had given] the project to Turnbull it probably [would have been] just somebody in the back room working on it. I got the job; the cabins were basically handed to me. I quit my job in LA, got married, and moved up there.

Lawrence Halprin: Some brilliantly designed, small walk-in cabins by Obie Bowman had nestled beautifully and modestly into upland forests where trees had been thinned and the forest floor cleared carefully and ecologically.

Obie Bowman³²: I started thinking of a cube with a sliced-off roof. I felt it would be most appropriate in the forest if there was a vertical aspect, so I had an extension that lifted up, and the top of the cabin is a skylight, so when you look up, it’s all greenery, where the beauty is.

REVERDY JOHNSON HOUSE (1965, EXPANDED 1973)

Donlyn Lyndon: That’s a brilliant house. It has the octagon in the middle where the square within a square has eroded to make little spaces around the octagon. Fantastic. I’m sure it couldn’t have been done without Charles, but I’m pretty sure that Bill was an equal partner on that one.

Mary Griffin: We never had a house there, but we often used the Johnson house because Reverdy Johnson was Bill’s very close friend.

Donlyn Lyndon: It was the first individual house built on the Sea Ranch. And in fact one of the renovations—the CC&Rs wouldn’t go into effect until somebody bought a piece of property. So [Reverdy] bought the house and started the process.

HINES HOUSE (1968)

Shev Rush: We have restored and lived in architectural houses for over 20 years now, and it took me six months to figure that house out. The architecture is so complex and so sublime.

I was looking at the window program on the deck off the upstairs guest bedroom, where there are these different windows that line the deck and look down into the living room. I’d never noticed that the cut-outs in the deck are different sizes—and that all of that was designed [by William Turnbull] to let light in at different times of the day.

I’ve never lived any place like it. And it was so early: In 1967, there were still very few houses [at the Sea Ranch] and it’s so interesting how ahead of its time it was.

The inventive interior of the Rush House, designed by Charles Moore and William Turnbull in 1970.

RUSH HOUSE (1970)

William Turnbull: Tiny house in Sea Ranch, not much money, 25K, I think was the budget. Doctor and his wife and four daughters. We didn’t have enough space to get the girls’ bedroom in there, so we stacked them, Navy style, four bunks high with a fireman’s pole to the top.

Chris and Kate Foss³³, current owners of the Rush House: Like many on the Sea Ranch, its form complements the setting and the materials blend into its surroundings, but as you enter it opens into a new experience: a playground of nooks and ladders like a treehouse.

Mary Griffin: Originally that house was like a little space capsule. At the beginning it was so wind-swept you couldn’t imagine.

William Turnbull: Dr. Rush, very democratic, said, “That’s real interesting but we’ll have to take a vote.” And the 4-year-old walked around, looked at me like I had horns on my head, came back and said, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” That girl later decided to become an architect, she and one of her sisters, because of the impact that house had on her. It’s how you touch people that’s most critical. You may touch a lot of them or you may just touch one of the Rush girls.

Mary Griffin: [The Fosses] wanted outdoor living space, because people have [since] discovered how to live outdoors. We were like, “We cannot ruin this house.” You couldn’t just glob something onto that house; it’s a little geode, you know, an object house. You can’t just add a wing to it.

  1. “Al Boeke, Oceanic Properties, Vice-President: The Sea Ranch, 1959-69.” Interview by Kathryn Smith, 2008. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2010. Retrieved from http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/boeke_al.pdf
  2. Mary Griffin interview with Kelsey Keith, January 7, 2019.
  3. Why? Why Not? by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Fun Fog Press, San Francisco, 2013.
  4. Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
  5. Anna Halprin, quoted in The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, Idealism. Edited by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Joseph Becker. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, DelMonico Books + Prestel, Munich, London, New York, 2018.
  6. Richard Peters interview with Kelsey Keith, January 7, 2019.
  7. Obie Bowman interview with Kelsey Keith, January 8, 2019.
  8. William Turnbull, Jr.: Buildings in the Landscape. Edited by William Stout, Dung Ngo, Lauri Puchall. San Francisco, CA: William Stout Publishers, 2000. Page 7.
  9. Kevin Keim interview with Kelsey Keith, January 5, 2019.
  10. William Turnbull, from “The Nature of Responsible Building,” Architecture California, July/August 1986.
  11. Donlyn Lyndon interview with Kelsey Keith, August 24, 2018.
  12. Introduction to “Joseph Esherick: An Architectural Practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1938-1996.” Interview by Suzanne B. Riess 1994-1996. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1996. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/eshericksfbayare00joserich
  13. Shev Rush interview with Kelsey Keith, February 18, 2019.
  14. Reverdy Johnson. “Before the Sea Ranch” Panel Discussion, 2014, The Sea Ranch Association. Retrieved from https://www.tsra.org/news.php?viewStory=1999
  15. Diane Boeke. “Before the Sea Ranch” panel discussion, 2014, The Sea Ranch Association. Retrieved from https://www.tsra.org/news.php?viewStory=1999
  16. Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher interview with Kelsey Keith, August 23, 2018.
  17. Al Boeke notes quoted by Diane Boeke, “Before the Sea Ranch” panel discussion, 2014.
  18. ”Joe Bodovitz: Founding Director of the Bay Conservation Development Commission and the California Coastal Commission.” Interview by Martin Meeker in 2015. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2015. Retrieved from https://ohc-search.lib.berkeley.edu/catalog/MASTER_1941
  19. Joseph Becker, “Building in Place,” The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, Idealism, pages 129-139.
  20. “Joseph Esherick” oral history, University of California, Berkeley, 1996.
  21. Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, “Architecture for Progressive Living,” The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, Idealism, pages 27-36.
  22. Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay, by Alison Isenberg. Princeton University Press, New York, 2017.
  23. Lisa Dundee interview with Kelsey Keith, January 23, 2019.
  24. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon interview with Kelsey Keith, January 3, 2019.
  25. Donlyn Lyndon and Jim Alinder. The Sea Ranch: Fifty Years of Architecture, Landscape, Place, and Community on the Northern California Coast. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2014 (revised).
  26. Charles Moore, Gerald Allen, Donlyn Lyndon, The Places of Houses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974.
  27. Mitchell Schwarzer, “William Turnbull Jr. and the Unveiling of the Country House,” from William Turnbull, Jr.: Buildings in the Landscape. Page 45.
  28. Maynard Hale Lyndon interview with Kelsey Keith, August 24, 2018.
  29. Donlyn Lyndon, “Building in the Landscape,” from William Turnbull, Jr.: Buildings in the Landscape. Page 10.
  30. Letter from Charles Moore to Al Boeke, “Pitches Concept for Moonraker Athletic Center,” September 8, 1964. Retrieved from http://searanch.ced.berkeley.edu/s/sea-ranch/page/design-principles
  31. Lu Lyndon interview with Kelsey Keith, August 24, 2018.
  32. Obie Bowman quoted in The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, Idealism, page 105.
  33. Chris and Kate Foss, interview with Kelsey Keith, January 9, 2019.

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