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Sea Ranch Community: A Modernist Legacy on the California Coast

POSTED BY katherine mcbride COMMENTS

If you fancy yourself a lover of distinctive modernist architecture who is seeking retreat in a breathtaking natural setting, Sea Ranch, California may be just what you need.  Just 100 miles north up Highway 1 from San Francisco, you’ll find a stunning, and isolated seaside community that features some of the most world renown examples of modern architecture to come out of the twentieth century.  The Sea Ranch is an experiment born of the idealism and forward thinking of the 1960s that gave shape to new notions about community, and the relationship of buildings to their natural surroundings.

The Original Plan

The idea for Sea Ranch Community was conceived in 1964 when a 10-mile stretch of coastal land in Sonoma County was purchased by Hawaii based company Oceanic Properties, led by Vice President Al Boeke, who was interested in developing a new planned community of secondary homes to serve Bay Area families.  Boeke convinced his company that the design concept for their new planned community needed to be minimalist, and give special consideration to the setting where it was to be established.  He teamed up with acclaimed landscape architect Laurence Halprin to organize the Sea Ranch design and planning team. They chose Bay Area architects Joseph Esherick and the firm Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, Whitaker (MLTW) to design the first residential structures at Sea Ranch, which include the internationally praised Condominium One, and Esherick Houses.  They also joined forces with geologists, hydrologists, and climatologists to ensure that the strategies being implemented kept with the overall mission of the plan for Sea Ranch to preserve the areas landscape and physical beauty.  At the time this was an unconventional approach to community development, but has since been recognized for laying a framework for how developers can be more mindful of the ecological footprint structures have on a building sites.

Condominium One. Photo Credit: California Historical Society

Condominium One. Photo Credit: California Historical Society

The Land

The land at Sea Ranch is characterized by its rugged terrains, ferocious winds, sheer ocean bluffs, rocky beaches, and rough surf.  It is situated along an isolated stretch of the vigorous Highway 1, and just getting there can be an adventure unsuitable for the faint of heart.   Formally known as ‘Rancho Del Mar’ the piece of land that would soon be known as The Sea Ranch had become quite eroded from heavy usage by the farming and timber industries at the time of its acquisition.  It had most recently been used for cattle ranching, and was relatively barren from grazing.  Hedgerows that were planted in the early 1900s to shield livestock from the high winds along the coast line would come in to play in determining the placement of the original structures at The Sea Ranch.  The landscape featured grassy meadows, and cypress trees that would be integral to the planning of this new development as well.

The founding architects of Sea Ranch wanted to be true to the roots of the region.  Early on they envisioned an agrarian concept for their new residential structures that would pay homage to the farming industry of the northern California coast. They drew their influence from the old, weathered barns that were sprinkled along the coastal line on the winding route North from San Francisco toward the Sea Ranch. In addition to being considerate of the historical context of the building site, special attention was given to the way buildings would interact with the land on which they were being constructed.  The architects of Sea Ranch felt that the structures they were designing should be complimentary to the natural setting instead of detracting from it.  They determined that instead of each home having a large plot of land, that each home owner would have access to a large, communal area that could both be enjoyed by all residents, and would help to preserve the regional ecology at Sea Ranch.

Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

The Community

The original vision at The Sea Ranch was to create a utopian community with a shared emphasis on preserving the land.   Today the Sea Ranch community is comprised of roughly 1800 houses that belong primarily to part-time residents.  There are only a select few full-time residents at The Sea Ranch, as it requires a particular type of person who seeks out the isolated nature of life the Sea Ranch provides. At The Sea Ranch there are no sidewalks, curbs, or streetlights.  There are very few public and commercial spaces, or infrastructure like you might expect to see in a community of this size.  There is no bank, school, grocery store, or hospital.  What exists instead is the Sea Ranch Lodge; a small hotel that with a restaurant and gift shop, a post office, and a few communal buildings including ‘Moonraker’; a recreational center for swimming and tennis.  All the buildings, roads, and structures were designed intentionally as to not diminish the natural beauty of Sea Ranch.  Along Highway 1 there are several beach access points, and miles of hiking trails wind through the shared open spaces that are maintained by the residents of the community.

The Homes

Planners wanted the buildings at The Sea Ranch to look as though they’d always been there, intrinsically linked to the environment in a way that gives deep appreciation to the land and its roots.  The naturalistic design approach was an emerging school of thought around the Bay Area architectural community at the time that the Sea Ranch was conceived.  Architects in this region tended to view a home as less of an object or piece of art, and more of a place devoted to human habitation.  This contrasted with the modernist movement that was shaping residential design in much of California and elsewhere around the nation at the time.   They placed significance on regionalism and the incorporation of natural elements into the design of structures.  They felt that building materials should be locally sourced whenever possible, and that people should do their best to ‘live lightly off the land’.

“What is now known as the “Sea Ranch style” features informal, simple timber-frame structures clad in wooden siding or shingles, a vertical form inspired by farm buildings, natural light, and other characteristics mindful of the environment.”  (SeaRanchLodge.com)

Photo Credit: Mennadata

Photo Credit: Mennadata

Although there has been some deviation from the original concept, there are several commonly defined elements that help characterize the homes of the Sea Ranch.  Originally, houses were placed in clusters around communal spaces, and strategically positioned on lots to take advantage of the amazing views.  The exteriors of homes were designed to blend into their landscape.  Drawing on the influence of the agricultural structures of this area was for more than just creative inspiration, it was also a design solution for dealing with the many challenges that the complex weather and typography of this region presented.

Common interior features of homes at Sea Ranch include open layouts, phenomenal ocean views, sunken rooms, nooks, ladders, lofts, and other small intimate spaces.  They are formed by basic geometric, and angular forms, and are mindful of how light enters a space. Windows are typically simplistic in their design, and lack ornamentation.  The Sea Ranch Association requires that cars be hidden from sight, as to not act as reflective surfaces for the sun.  Homes lack overhangs, which create too much turbulence from the wind.  Outdoor courtyards are also commonplace as they allow residents to enjoy the outdoors while being shielding from the harsh winds.

Photo Credit: Life of An Architect

Photo Credit: Life of An Architect

Soon after its inception, The Sea Ranch Association was created to oversee the building of new homes at The Sea Ranch.  The guidelines put in place by the committee help ensure that residents build homes that keep with the original intention of the founders of the Sea Ranch community, and address issues primarily relating to exterior elements of homes that include height restrictions, roof slopes, and landscaping.  Over the years, deviations have continued to reshape the landscape of the community, but in the beginning the vision for Sea Ranch was quite purist in its approach to design, and its intention for creating a community focused on the connection to nature, and respect for the physical beauty of the environment.



Stunning Sea Ranch Properties that can be yours today!

127 Larkspur Close The Sea Ranch, CA 95497
Built: 1992
Square Feet: 2,451
Price: $1,195,000

larkspurSource: Zillow


33251 Sea Forest Rd The Sea Ranch, CA 95497
Built: 1973
Square Feet: 1,056
Price: $875,000
Architect: Carson Bowler

6455843bec104ea-21705083Source: Realtor




55 Galleons Reach The Sea Ranch, CA 95497
Built: 1985
Price: $1,525,000

21626408_2_0Source: Redfin

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