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A Sea Change Where the View Once Ruled

SEA RANCH, Calif. - HERE on the California coast, 110 miles north of San Francisco, a community begun in the spirit of the 1960's struggles to maintain its architectural ideals.

Beginning in 1964, Lawrence Halprin, a San Francisco landscape architect, and Charles Moore, a progenitor of postmodernism, led a youthful team of like-minded Bay Area designers in establishing the Sea Ranch development. Their approach united the emerging field of ecology with an inventive architecture. Along 10 miles of rugged coastline, they built weekend houses that were remarkably attuned to the windswept landscape of dense woods and open meadows. Sea Ranch came to evoke the image of seemingly endless boulder-strewn meadows sweeping along the heaving Pacific.

Sea Ranch also marked an inspired moment in the history of the American house, comparable to the emergence of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie House. Its architects stood the 1950's ranch house on end, in vertical dwellings with exuberant, light-filled overhead spaces. Their tall silhouettes suggested the Western mining shed. Popularized as the Sea Ranch style, shed roofs and vertical board siding were mimicked in residential developments as far away as Connecticut and Florida.

"Sea Ranch influenced the revival of American vernacular architecture in wood, as part of the reaction against the International style in the 1960's," said Vincent Scully, the architectural historian. "Moore's buildings there are in the spirit of California -- laid-back shack architecture from which even the work of Frank Gehry derived."

More than three decades later, the defining spirit of Sea Ranch is being tested by a new population of residents. Like other majestic settings in the former Wild West, Sea Ranch finds its wide-open spaces filling up with improbably large and luxurious houses. They sprawl across the meadows, blocking ocean views. The original scattering of residents has grown to 1,500 households. Some newcomers exhibit a very un-60-ish taste for luxury, requiring media rooms, libraries and private gyms even in the wilderness.

"People come up here now and want to build their dream house," said George Homsey, chairman of the committee that reviews designs for new houses. "We try to remind them that the Sea Ranch is not about that. These large houses cause alarm among the old guard."

The old guard includes the founding architects and the younger partners who have carried on their practices. The original planner, Mr. Halprin, picked Mr. Moore and Joseph Esherick, a San Francisco architect, to design a handful of prototype buildings. Mr. Moore, who was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, brought along his former Princeton students Donlyn Lyndon and William Turnbull Jr., as well as his teaching assistant Richard Whitaker -- a "weekend" firm known as MLTW.

"It was the most exhilarating experience," said Mr. Whitaker, 71, who bought a house at Sea Ranch after retiring as dean of the college of architecture and the arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We had the last intact property on the California coast and a developer who wanted to keep it that way." The developer, Alfred Boeke, an architect who had worked with Richard Neutra, fell in love with the 5,000-acre site, the Ohlson sheep ranch, when he saw it from an airplane while scouting for land for Oceanic Properties, a Hawaii-based company. Enlisting Mr. Halprin, Mr. Esherick and MLTW, he formed the design family that created Sea Ranch between 1964 and 1970.

In a departure from usual developer practice, Mr. Halprin's layout clustered houses against the cypress windbreaks, reserving prime shoreline for common use. "Larry's original concept was brilliant," said Richard Whitaker, an architect who worked with Mr. Moore on Sea Ranch. "Placing houses at the tree line meant that the meadows were left open, giving everybody a view." Mr. Halprin's plan also required that homeowners live close together and be willing to build small. One residence that set the tone was the house, now owned by Mr. Whitaker, that Dimitri Vedensky designed for himself in 1972, at only 900 square feet.

"Living up here was a lot like camping out," said Mr. Halprin, 84, who did not have a telephone until last year in his Sea Ranch studio, where he worked weekends and summers. Mr. Vedensky still hadn't gotten one when he died in 1997.

"You couldn't call Dimitri," said Mr. Lyndon's wife, Alice Wingwall, a photographer. "You waited for him to come down when he wanted a drink."

The original Sea Ranch spirit proved hard to sustain. By 1974, Mr. Boeke had left Oceanic Properties (which owned the development until 1980). MLTW had chosen not to stay on as the developer's official architects. Written guidelines enforced by a design review committee were meant to carry out the intentions of the original architects. "Trying to keep control seemed autocratic," Mr. Halprin said. Oceanic later hired other planners to lay out the remaining two-thirds of the property, to the north, with lots in the meadows and along the bluffs, making possible the view-blocking meadow houses of the 1990's. "My big mistake was not putting a limit on bulk," Mr. Halprin said.

At 65, Donlyn Lyndon is the last of the original MLTW team still building. (Mr. Moore died in 1994 and Mr. Turnbull in 1997.) In four recent houses, he has deliberately asserted the unpretentious character of the original buildings, including their modest scale. The house he designed for his brother, Maynard Hale Lyndon, a Boston furniture designer, is only 1,439 square feet. (A separate workshop is 360 square feet.) The architect and his office, Lyndon Buchanan Associates, worked with the original Sea Ranch contractor, Matt Sylvia, in the building method that defined early Sea Ranch: post-and-beam construction, which allows windows to be positioned wherever they maximize light and views.

From a distance, all the Lyndon houses have the classic Sea Ranch slant-roof silhouette. But the architect insists that he is not perpetuating a style for its own sake. "These features are repeated for reasons of climate and place," he said. "The major problem for habitation at Sea Ranch is getting out of the wind and into the sun. The tall volumes give protection. Slant roofs deflect the winds upward."

The house Mr. Lyndon designed for himself and Ms. Wingwall is an anthology of the signature features of the original Sea Ranch Condominium, one of the development's founding structures. Exposed timber framing supports a loft bed over the living area, beautifully illuminated by a skylight and windows facing south and east. Although all the walls are wood, the décor is strong on color. A red-and-white-striped hanging by a Finnish designer (formerly a dress) screens the bed.

Like most people building in Sea Ranch today, the Lyndons and their neighbors could not buy lots tucked into the hedgerows in the old unspoiled southern end. Instead, their lots run along Seagate, a road perpendicular to the hedgerows. The newer meadow houses often seem isolated and adrift, but Mr. Lyndon devised ways of connecting his house and two neighboring houses he designed, to form a coherent landscape unit. The architect linked them with connecting fences and back gardens, which reinforce a row of trees that follow a small stream. Part of each lot is given over to a wide common area that connects the three lots to each other and the surrounding landscape. Mr. Lyndon, in effect, created his own hedgerow.

Buzz Yudell, an architect, and his wife, Tina Beebe, a designer, belong to the next generation of the Sea Ranch first family. Mr. Yudell, 53, is a successor to Charles Moore, who was his partner in the Moore, Rubel, Yudell office in Santa Monica. Just down the road from the Lyndon compound, Mr. Yudell and Ms. Beebe's own elegant house is a polished variation on classic Sea Ranch themes. Its interior woodwork is refined, and the sleek walls are finished in subtle colors.

In his 1,850-square-foot house for Stephen Walrod and Jacquelynn Baas, Mr. Yudell celebrates wood and the post-and-beam tradition. The main house is a file of tall, serene rooms. No loft beds here. Giving the rustic tradition a slight new twist, Ms. Beebe has introduced strong wall color, this time as green and red stain on the fir walls.

"I wondered why wood stain wasn't used more at Sea Ranch," said Ms. Baas, an art historian. "You don't lose the rustic feeling. At the same time, you have some relief from the relentlessness of all wood."

Mary Griffin, 49, and Eric Haesloop, 45, are the professional heirs of William Turnbull Jr., whose buildings are among the most admired at Sea Ranch. Mr. Turnbull's prototype barn house, designed in 1968, was reproduced 17 times here. Ms. Griffin, who was his wife and partner, is designing four houses at Sea Ranch now. "We work in a changed landscape," she said. "On three of our lots, we are responding to the neighbors' architecture as much as to the land."

Sea Ranch has received a spate of critical attention this spring, with the publication of "William Turnbull Jr.: Places in the Landscape" (William Stout) and a revised edition of "The Place of Houses" (University of California Press), by Mr. Moore, Gerald Allen and Mr. Lyndon. In addition, Richard Sexton's "Parallel Utopias" (Chronicle Books, 1995) compares Sea Ranch and the neotraditionalist community of Seaside, Fla. It is a telling contrast. The aims of Sea Ranch had nothing to do with nostalgia for small-town life or bygone architectural styles. Mr. Halprin and Mr. Lyndon, however, accept the New Urbanist criticism that Sea Ranch lacks a social center. There is not even a grocery store.

In 1983, the Sea Ranch Association, a homeowners' group that now owns and runs the development, invited Mr. Halprin back to meet with residents to discuss the development's future. One result was that Mr. Halprin and Mr. Lyndon have produced preliminary schemes, now under review by Sonoma County, for an expansion of the lodge, which will include eating places, stores, meeting rooms, a fitness center and more overnight accommodations.

There are newcomers to Sea Ranch who prefer the simple ways. Ms. Griffin and Mr. Haesloop are designing a Sea Ranch house for Jim Friedman, a former philosophy professor who now runs the San Francisco contracting firm of Ryan Associates, commonly known as the contractors to the stars. He and Suzanne Stassevitch, a costumer for the San Francisco Opera, were lucky enough to find a hedgerow lot in one of the old meadows.

"Jim and Suzanne get it," Mr. Haesloop said. "They know you don't have to have a 6,000-square-foot house."

Gone are the 60's, when schoolteachers built houses at Sea Ranch for $30,000. But a new generation of designers, artists and writers are drawn to Sea Ranch, in part for its architectural tradition. Alison Owings, a writer, and her husband, Jonathan Perdue, a businessman, spent 10 years looking for property at Sea Ranch. In October, they bought one of its architectural gems, the Shinefield house, designed by Charles Moore in 1972 and added to by Mr. Vedensky. The absence of a media room is no drawback in their eyes. "I wake up here feeling like Goldilocks," Ms. Owings said. "Everything about it is just right."


New York Times, 5/31/2001