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A Respite, Revisited

A new SFMOMA exhibition investigates the founding spirit and enduring appeal of the Sea Ranch.


Condominium One, the first home built at the Sea Ranch, 1965.

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Sea Ranch architects Richard Whitaker, Donlyn Lyndon, Charles Moore, and William Turnbull in Condominium One’s courtyard, 1991.

Photo: Jim Alinder

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Hedgerow House, 1966.

Photo: Courtesy of University of California Board of Regents, Environmental Design Archives, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley

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Rush House, 2018.

Photo: Leslie Williamson

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An idealization of enviro-friendly NorCal living, the Sea Ranch has long held a special place in the Bay Area’s consciousness. Its loose, windswept assemblage of striking yet modest homes, camouflaged behind rows of cypress and under sod roofs, spoke to a 1960s-era utopian desire to live in harmony with nature, to share open and collective spaces, and to tread lightly on the land. Over half a century, that vision for the Sea Ranch has evolved, at times a success and at others a failure. It’s still a stunning blend of mid-century and California design, yet one governed by a strict 52-page set of guidelines outlawing, among other things, visible satellite dishes and exterior holiday lights and decorations.

First envisioned in 1964 by Bay Area designers Al Boeke, Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, William Turnbull, Lawrence Halprin, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the Sea Ranch was intended to be a collection of affordable second homes and vacation properties erected alongside a small village of permanent residents. The development’s ahead-of-its-time naturalistic landscape design emphasized the stark beauty and filtered light of the North Coast, integrating what would eventually become a 2,225-unit hamlet into the rugged natural setting. Fifty percent of the land was set aside as commons, webbed with trails and shared by residents in perpetuity. “The Sea Ranch was not the only development that aligned itself with modern architecture as a symbol for progress, but I think it remains one that really has held up over time,” says Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which this month launches its first-ever exhibition on the famed community, The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism.

Of course, not all of its founders’ high-minded ideals came to fruition. A 1970s lawsuit that led to financial troubles for investors meant that the village never materialized, leaving the Sea Ranch with a diminished permanent population and less communal spirit. Essentially, it became a getaway, most of whose properties are now prohibitively expensive. Turnbull’s 1968 Hines House, which won the Sunset/AIA Home of the Year award in 1970, is currently on the market for $2.3 million. Meanwhile, the Sea Ranch Lodge, a high-end restaurant and hotel that is also the site of the community’s post office, is in need of an estimated $4 million worth of capital improvements.

What was intended to be a model for other sustainable, low-impact developments instead became an aesthetic curio. The fact that it was never replicated, Fletcher says, has nothing to do with the architecture or the approach; it simply reflects developers’ shifting priorities. While she believes the Sea Ranch “couldn’t be cookie-cutter copied,” because of its unique site, “the approach could be emulated” if a developer was interested.

Even if the grand idea behind the Sea Ranch never completely manifested, the development’s legacy as a spiritual respite for those burnt out on urban life has proved durable. Some Sea Ranchers, as they call themselves, are now exploring the future of the seaside retreat, Fletcher says. They’re talking about a school, bike lanes, and high-speed Internet, maybe even that long-dreamed-of village. “It doesn’t feel dated to me at all,” Fletcher says. “Architectural excellence plus environmental stewardship—you don’t see that in too many places today, and it’s important to ask why.”


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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