Nearly 60 years since its inception, The Sea Ranch continues to test the resilience of its founding ethos. Located three hours north of San Francisco along one of the state’s most beautiful coastlines, the famed community rose to prominence by bucking the typical development-driven imperatives and instead focusing on a “light on the land” building approach that would preserve the dramatic landscape. Here, rugged cliffs, prairie bluffs, and windswept cypress abut great stands of redwood trees that climb up and over a ridge toward the slow-moving, ocean-bound Gualala River.
It’s a difficult balancing act, and the environmental vision undergirding the Sea Ranch community has been repeatedly threatened over the decades. With a major restoration currently underway, the complex looks to be returning to its roots. But how deep will stakeholders be willing to go?
Key to that question is in an understanding of the radical attitudes that brought the project to fruition. In 1962, Al Boeke, an architect–turned–vice president of new town developments at Oceanic Properties, a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke (the owner of Dole Food Company), bought the 5,200-acre site, which had previously served as a sheep farm, cattle ranch, and logging site. (For millennia, the land had been stewarded by the Kashaya Pomo peoples.) Moved by the meditative environs, Boeke imagined an alternative to the suburban sprawl happening all over California. He would assemble a community of modest second homes with small footprints and simple forms, organized in such a way as to preserve the beauty of the landscape. It would be a weekend escape for people of all classes and backgrounds who would opt to live with, and not against, the landscape.
Boeke enlisted a cadre of rising and established San Francisco designers to draw up the plans for the radical development. Operating as the master planner, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin conceived a vision that drew on his communal experiences in an Israeli kibbutz and his design schooling under Walter Gropius but was imbued with a localized sensibility that had long characterized the architecture endemic to the Bay Area. This regionalist aesthetic was informed by the understated simplicity of nearby redwood and cypress barns made from locally harvested timber and left unpainted to be patinated by the weather. When it opened in 1965, The Sea Ranch heralded a new architecture that expanded on this Bay Area tradition, combining vernacular forms with a modern refinement.
Following a rigorous site analysis that included soil, bioclimatic, wind, solar radiation, and flora and fauna studies, Halprin and Boeke hired Joseph Esherick, an architect known for his take on regional modernism, and the upstart firm of Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker (MLTW), to design the first structures. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, a Swiss-trained graphic designer who rented office space from Halprin in San Francisco, designed a logo and graphics that grew to be incredibly influential in their own right.
Esherick was responsible for the community-facing buildings, including the combined general store and post office, and the Marker Building, a slant-roofed volume that announced the southern end of the development to passing traffic. He also designed six stand-alone homes dubbed the Hedgerow Houses. These homes—the first to be built on the site—were nestled into a row of cypress trees that had been planted by ranchers to protect livestock, and their rooflines matched the wind-shaped bend of the branches. For these structures, Esherick specified unstained shingled siding that blended into the natural palette. This effectively camouflaged the residences, but the Marker Building and the general store stood out, thanks to Stauffacher Solomon’s brilliant nautilus-shell/ram’s-head logo and “The Sea Ranch” set in Helvetica, a then-unusual typeface she had brought from Switzerland.
MLTW’s task was to experiment with a relatively new building typology for a ten-unit condominium, consisting of truncated volumes parading up the bluff’s edge. As with the general store, the unstained redwood cladding would quickly weather, a nod to the two old barn structures that stood nearby. With Halprin, MLTW designed the Moonraker Athletic Club, whose pool and tennis courts were sheltered from the wind by earthen berms. Inside, Stauffacher Solomon’s off-the-cuff murals successfully translated her graphic arts prowess to an architectural scale. As photogenic as the landscape and new architecture were on their own, the supergraphics were instrumental in catapulting The Sea Ranch across the globe.
Boeke’s idea for The Sea Ranch was to place careful stewardship and responsible architecture on an equal footing with financial returns. But almost immediately, several factors unraveled this aim. Despite its best intentions, the development would privatize miles of coast, which ran afoul of a burgeoning environmentalist movement, and local pushback eventually forced a temporary moratorium on building. The ensuing politics would eventually create the California Coastal Commission, responsible for the “quasi-judicial control of land and public access” for the state’s 1,100 miles of coastline. Five public access points were cut into The Sea Ranch development, and the number of salable units reduced by half. Oceanic took a major financial hit, and the viability of the entire project was called into question. Instead of selling the dream of participatory conservation, the sales team began talking up exclusivity, and what was once imagined as a second-home community open to a diverse group of weekenders grew to be beyond the reach of most.
The original architects and designers, who consulted on the development’s rigorous covenants, conditions, and restrictions, weren’t keen on this turn of events. And yet, despite instituting a design committee to review future adherence to the original scheme, by 1969, few if any members of this cohort remained in the project’s employ. This left Boeke as the project’s sole architect, and he designed the expansion of the general store into the Sea Ranch Lodge, which opened the site to overnight transient guests and prospective buyers.
In 2018, a group of minor investors purchased the Lodge, which had long since ceased to be a gravitational center of the community, with an eye toward reviving some of the Sea Ranch spirit. Following an extensive revamp, the Lodge partly reopened in October 2021. The remodel, led by Mithun Architects, made some much-needed upgrades, with more on the way.
To the outside, landscaping by Terremoto is unpretentious and looks as if it has always existed—tall grasses and an occasional well-placed rock to step on or hewn log to sit on. Likewise, the interiors feel seamless and prioritize open movement and visual connections to the ocean. Crisp detailing is paired with copper accents that will age and mellow just as the freshly updated redwood siding will lose its color over time. The furnishings are playful, particularly the kelly-green sofas selected by interior designer Charles de Lisle. The fireplace recycles the original masonry into a rough aggregate concrete volume that alludes to the geology of the site. Where the Lodge’s previous owners had painted over a large supergraphic, a new work by Stauffacher Solomon now appears over the bar and lounge. Painted in black, vibrant vermilion, and deep sea-green, the graphic is a fitting tribute to her groundbreaking contributions decades prior. The architects also refreshed the restaurant (helmed by Eric Piacentine, previously of Big Sur Bakery) and added a daytime cafe and a pleasant gallery space.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, an exhibition of paintings by area artist Keith Wilson, organized by Sea Ranchers Lu and Maynard Lyndon, brought a crowd of locals to the Lodge. They mixed with the visitors passing through for dinner at the restaurant or drinks on the deck. In that moment, the building was abuzz with a community feeling its founders had envisioned all those years ago. But that may change with the second phase of the renovation, which will focus on updating the Lodge’s 17 rooms and adding two meeting spaces, due to open in 2023. No details yet on what the cost per night will be—a crucial marker for the much-touted idea of “accessibility” embedded in the original plan. And beyond that lies the potential for more buildings on their 53-acre parcel, which will surely impact the landscape one way or another.
Sea Ranch embodied a vision unlike anything seen before. But if the idea of conservation through careful development that preserves “natural values” actually means a buy-in community that is limited to a select enriched few, then what good is it? From the get-go, the development was forced to balance financial imperatives against its stated desires for low-impact land stewardship, small homes, and wide-open commons, and for many years the former won out. The Sea Ranch Lodge will face the same equation. Let’s hope it stays the course and hews close to the original ethos of broad community building and safeguarding the exquisite landscape.