Living Lightly on the Land
an architectureforsale Quarterly essay
Written by Mark Morrison
Download or view a PDF of the article here.
“I’ll sleep there sometimes,” says Shev Rush, referring to the living room window seat of his multi-story Sonoma Coast home. It’s a cozy corner set between soaring glass windows that offers seamless views of Bishop pine trees and the sprawling Pacific beyond. “I’ve had nights there where I’ve woken up and thought someone was shining a flashlight in my face. But’s it’s just the moonlight. You definitely get a major sense of the outdoors while you’re inside this house. From that window seat you feel like you’re in the forest.”
Which is exactly what Bay Area architect William Turnbull Jr.—along with fellow Princeton alum and business partners, Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, and Richard Whitaker—intended when designing most of the early homes at The Sea Ranch, the Utopian community born of sixties idealism along this rugged stretch of northern California coastline. It’s a late spring day and Rush is enjoying the view from the book-lined study of Turnbull’s Hines House, which sits on a knoll overlooking meadow, forest and ocean. Across the way, a huge rhododendron is in full bloom. Sitting at a built-in desk, the L.A.-based public relations executive tries to focus on his work. But the outdoors, with its alluring sense of a world in balance, beckons.
“The landscape here is so epic, it gives you some perspective that you might not have otherwise,” he says. “You’re in nature—on any given day, we may have a flock of turkeys come through, a fox, a bobcat, deer everywhere. We care about the environment, but it certainly deepens your commitment to it.”
At The Sea Ranch, this commitment is defined by a shared concept—a covenant enforced through an owner’s association that promotes the idea that residents here are stewards of the natural landscape. Any structure built on this raw 10-mile stretch of land adjacent to the Pacific Ocean would use building materials that are equally rough and simple, however refined. Homes would respect natural forms and scale of the land and not be designed to make a statement. With these properties, it is the landscape that comes first, not the buildings.
This idea of “living lightly on the land” was inspired by the Pomo Indians, early visitors of The Sea Ranch who made seasonal trips to gather kelp and shell fish. By 1846, the property became the last Mexican land grant, stretching from the Gualala River to Ocean Cove and named Rancho de Hermann. Cattle grazed, fruit trees were planted. The property situated 27 miles north of Jenner and 10 miles south of Gualala—100 miles north of San Francisco—changed hands several times. In the early 1880s, the landmark Sea Ranch barn was built that is now in the National Register of Historical Buildings, and in the early 1900s, the Del Mar School was built along the existing county road, and still stands at the south corner of Leeward and Deer Trail. Ranching continued though cattle were replaced by sheep; the property became known as Del Mar Ranch, and starting in 1916, the hedgerows were planted as windbreaks.
The ranch fell into hard times in the late 1930s and was auctioned off in 1941 for back taxes. Margaret Ohlson and her four sons purchased it (and the sheep) for $125,000 and kept it in the family for 23 years. The Ed Ohlson House, now part of the Del Mar Community Center, and the still-standing home of his brother, Elmer, were built during the 1950s.
Then in 1963, architect and land planner Al Boeke of Oceanic California, Inc., a division of Castle & Cooke, saw the barren ranch and was so struck by its unembellished grandeur that he recommended the real-estate company buy the whole spread. The setting was austere but inspiring, and he hoped its natural beauty would attract conservation-savvy residents who would help to restore its mangled forests, grass-stripped terraces, wind-burned cypress hedgerow and crumbling cliffs.
OCI purchased the 10-mile stretch of Sonoma Coast—all 5,200 acres of Del Mar Ranch—from the Ohlson family for $2.3 million and translated the name to The Sea Ranch. To offer some idea of its promise and his new vision of residential/recreational land development, Boeke rounded up a talented circle of architects and designers, including landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, known for the way he meshed ecological understanding with aesthetics, as seen in projects like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco.
The architectural firm of Moore, Lyndon, Turbull and Whitaker (MLTW) was hired to create a master plan for this dramatic site that would retain the beauty of the landscape. For the first building, they designed Condominium 1, a cluster of 10 units with wind-deflecting shed roofs, skylights, enclosed private gardens or greenhouses, all facing the ocean panorama or bay. Architect Joseph Sherick was also hired to design a cluster of houses nestled in the hedgerow.
The idea was that The Sea Ranch should have a sense of place and a feeling of a community where the whole was more important than its parts. It would not be a collection of showy houses as much as a series of structures linked by the land into an organized whole. An early brochure describes the commitment to the community this way: “Your ownership of property at The Sea Ranch indicates a strong awareness of the special qualities of the place. After all, you didn’t have to come; you chose to come. For each owner this is a challenge and an opportunity.”
The Hines House was one of the first houses built by MLTW/Moore-Turnbull at Sea Ranch. It was designed in 1968 for Ann and Don Carlos Hines, Bay Area residents who wanted a rural getaway for family and friends. Set at the end of a cul du sac, it is composed of a “big house” containing the living room, kitchen (and pantry), dining room, master bedroom and guest room. And there is a separate kid-friendly “bunk house” with built-in day beds, a sleeping loft (reached by a ladder), and a bunk room. Combined, there is 2,382 square feet of living space.
The Hines family sold the house in 1972 to another Bay Area resident who already owned a unit in Condominium 1. In 1983, this owner brought Turnbull in to make a few additions—he pushed out an exterior wall to expand the kitchen, and he added a study and view deck off the master bedroom. Again, the study follows the level of the land, so a short flight of steps connects it to the master. And Turnbull placed a window among its tall bookshelves specifically to frame an old-growth Madrone tree outside the room and create a sight line from the study.
This constant interaction with nature appealed to Rush, who moved to San Francisco from South Carolina when he was 23. He’d never heard of Sea Ranch when a friend brought him there the first time, but he felt instantly at home. “I grew up along the Atlantic and had a real connection to the ocean, the woods, trails, fresh air. I love being in the city, but I love getting away from the city. And in the summer, it’s often much warmer here than in the city.”
Rush brought his partner, advertising executive Kevin Lane, to The Sea Ranch for the first trip they took together, nearly 20 years ago. And in 2010, they bought a house there—a 1,300-square-foot home designed by architect Obie G. Bowman, a Healdsburg-based architect who was part of the second wave to build there. But over the years, they were so inundated with visiting family and friends that that house started feeling too small. “The majority of beds were built-in bunk beds. It was kind of like camp. We realized that with the amount of people we were entertaining and the amount of time we were spending up here, we should get a bigger place.”
In 2014, they heard the Hines House was for sale and arranged to see it before it ever hit the market. “Kevin, in particular, had always loved that house, so we came to look at it and we couldn’t say no,” says Rush.
The previous owner also had Turnbull design a new driveway that meanders through trees to the top of the hill where a garage is built into the big house. Though this means approaching the property from the rear, it’s the best way to appreciate how the Hines House sits upon the hillside, as it slopes down to terraced front steps which connect the two structures. It also creates horizontal lines which balance the two vertical columns and offers an expansive courtyard, or terrace as Rush and Lane call it, with built-in benches that face strong coastal vistas.
In keeping with the covenant of The Sea Ranch, Trumbull took great care not to interfere with the site. No mounds were leveled or slopes excavated. His design was dictated by the land, not the land by the house. “Everything is situated based on what the hill is doing,” says Rush. Changes of level inside the house follow the natural slope of the property. Rooms step up or down accordingly. And windows of varying size—both exterior and interior—not only catch the light, but unite the the Escher-like flow of spaces.
For instance, from the guest room in the big house, you can see through an interior opening above the master bedroom door to an exterior window and the trees beyond. You can also stand at the lowest point of the house by the living room fireplace and see through the house, through the master bedroom, through the garage, to the woods behind the garage. Or you can exit the guest room to an exterior deck that offers a built-in seat at one end and a wall of square windows that bring light into the high-ceilinged side of the living room below. Meanwhile, the floor of the deck also provides a lower, flat ceiling for the one-story portion of the living room beneath it.
“I think we lived here for three months before I realized that the beamed ceiling between the light wells in the living room was the underside of the deck upstairs,” says Rush. “All the cut-outs throughout the house are in different places for different reasons. I thought of them as decorative for a long time, not realizing they were really serving a purpose. In the living room, there’s a time of day when the sun comes directly through those big openings on the deck above, then through those smaller windows and down to the floor at a 45-degree angle which is really spectacular. But it only does that for 30 minutes.”
With its walls of old-growth Douglas fir, red oak floors and pine ceilings, the Hines House—like all the buildings at The Sea Ranch—blends with the simplicity of its setting. The gray front door to the big house is so nondescript that sometimes visitors pass it by, thinking the adjacent sliding glass doors are the main entrance. But the inconspicuous door makes sense in the context of the community. It doesn’t advertise its presence and, yet, when you pass through it you find yourself in a voluminous entry of warm wood tones with a faceted pitched skylight above. (This was another change that Turnbull made in the eighties when the previous owner complained that moisture formed on the formerly flat, original skylights and dripped below. The architect repeated this design in later houses in the eighties and nineties.)
Of this cathedral-like effect, Rush says, “Charles Moore talked about these houses being like geodes—weathered and gray on the outside and then you come inside and they’re filled with light.”
In 2015, Rush and Lane, who had been living in a Los Angeles apartment while routinely escaping to The Sea Ranch, wound up buying the Kelsey Residence in Pasadena—the sleek, modern 1962 home of architect John Kelsey of Ladd & Kelsey (covered in AFSQ, Spring 2015). Set on a big, woodsy lot, their new home provided a serene, restful getaway within the city, so they no longer felt as much need to get away. As a result, they decided to sell the Hines House and an adjacent lot, keeping a third lot for themselves.
“It’s going to really be jarring to leave here,” says Rush. And he’s not just referring to the house or the land, but to the diversity of activities that life in The Sea Ranch encourages. “We try not to get too focused on work when we’re here and try and spend parts of every day outside. The biggest gift of this place is that you can have that experience every day.”
For one thing, there is access to a variety of beaches—from white sand to pebbles. “It’s about a 15-minute walk or a three-minute drive from the house,” says Rush. “And it’s not unusual to have a beach to yourself here, which is an amazing experience.” There are also three recreation centers which offer a choice of swimming pools, sauna, golf, tennis, basketball, volleyball, bocce ball, horseshoes, yoga classes, library, music room, meeting rooms for clubs, playgrounds. Access to the Gualala River offers the opportunity for swimming, fishing, picnicking, grilling, and scenic spots for potluck suppers.
Harbor seals make their homes on Tidepool Beach and Green Cove and can be sighted year-round. And there are Sea Ranch docents on hand to provide information about the seals and make sure these fin-footed marine animals are not disturbed, especially during late March and June when young seal pups are born and nursed. Another Sea Ranch ritual is the sighting of migrating whales twice a year. That, and 50 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding (there are stables at The Sea Ranch), provide residents with plenty to do. There is also the 19-room Sea Ranch Lodge with its popular Black Point Grill; for added diversion, the popular artist colony of Mendocino is 55 miles to the north on Coast Highway 1, and there’s plenty of wine tasting in the nearby Anderson Valley.
And while life at The Sea Ranch may slow during the winter, when the rains hit and temperatures plummet, Rush says, “It’s kind of amazing to be here too when the weather is stormy. Because you can build a fire, curl up with a book and watch the storms roll in.” It also gives you a sense of what Turnbull must have wanted residents to experience when he designed the Hines House for this site in the first place. “I love to be here during the storms,” the homeowner adds. “The trees get moving to the point you imagine they’re all going to snap, and they don’t. It’s amazing to be in the kitchen watching the whole forest just moving. There are nights when you’re woken up by some of the waves crashing—if you’re going to be woken up in the middle of the night, that’s the way I want to be woken up.”