sea ranch
Photo courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.
Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin conducting a “Driftwood City Discussion” at Sea Ranch during a July 5, 1966, workshop.

Fifty years ago, a breathtaking, 10-mile-long, mile-wide strip of the California coast, 105 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, was declared a privately-owned model community and opened for radically eco-friendly residential development. Owned and managed for 42 years as a sheep ranch, the new town was named The Sea Ranch (the “The” is mandatory). 

Al Boeke, manager of The Sea Ranch for its new owners (Oceanic Properties, a division of Hawaii-based Castle & Cooke), enlisted the advice and support of Larry Halprin (who died in 2009), now regarded as the country’s most idealistic, farseeing, nature-loving landscape planner, to come up with a strict set of guidelines to prevent his dream development from turning into one more piece of suburbia-by-the-sea. Halprin, in turn, picked two architectural firms he trusted to realize his ideals, and demonstrate to subsequent designers, builders, and homeowners what could be done the integrate their buildings with this unique setting. Joseph Esherick was the most respected architect of the “Bay Region Tradition” at the time. MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker) was a young Berkeley-based group of friends who had designed a couple of small but remarkably innovative houses in northern California, which had attracted Halprin’s favorable attention.

MLTW was invited to design what was called Condominium I: an interlocked redwood cluster of 10 individual homes under one common roof sloping down to the sea, punctured by “mineshaft modern” towers facing south. Each distinctive unit manipulates a common kit of parts, and has a different orientation to the ocean.

Finished in 1965, Condo I seems to grow out of the land, like a pile of elegantly shaped and assembled wooden boulders facing rock formations that rise out of the sea, forever washed and sculpted by climbing ocean waves. It went on to become the most famous building of its time in the country. Esherick’s contribution was a family of six “natural” houses tucked under one of the many old cypress hedgerows that divide the grassy meadows, perpendicular to and behind the steep oceanside bluffs. They were designed in such a way that one is almost unable to say where landscape ends and building begins, particularly now that the hedgerows have grown to embrace the houses. Some even had sod roofs—a conceptual statement found in later Sea Ranch houses—to help hide their intrusive existence. As Esherick wrote, “The ideal kind of building is one you don’t see.” Along with Esherick’s welcoming village store, bar, and post office (signposted with Barbara Stauffacher’s stylized ram’s-head logo), these model buildings reflected Halprin’s kibbutz-bred ideals of an egalitarian, democratic community, with people and houses “living lightly on the land.”

Fifty years later, there are about 1,800 houses and 1,300 permanent residents at The Sea Ranch, California, 95497. Many non-residents also own property here, which makes them members of The Sea Ranch Association (TSRA), which became the legal owner of about half of the original 3,500 acres. When people buy a lot at The Sea Ranch, they simultaneously become members of the Association and legal owners of a parcel of the commons land open to all members—which includes many acres of legally protected ocean-fronting hedgerow and meadow land, as well as forested land east of the highway. Oceanic Properties saw its $27 million investment on the Sonoma County coast driven underwater by a nearly 10-year-long moratorium on building new houses and (effectively) selling new lots, the result of a 1972 California law designed to keep the state’s public coastline open to all. Oceanic decided to sell its unsold share of The Sea Ranch to the incorporated non-profit owners’ association it had created. Many of the non–resident owner/members today use their properties as second or vacation homes, which they rent out to visitors between their own stays. In recent years, some houses here have changed hands for a million dollars or more.

After generating a great deal of controversy and hostility (and many lawsuits) among property owners, the moratorium was ended in 1981-82 by a complex compromise agreement, which satisfied few. Even after 1982, disputes continued, occasionally becoming hostile and divisive. What have they been arguing about for more than 30 years, in what was intended to be a challenging but Utopian demi-paradise?

Many of Halprin’s original guidelines have been respected, and a common (perhaps too common) design language did emerge, one of irregular but simple wood-faced buildings that merged with or at least respected the landscape and their neighbors. But Halprin’s hopes for clustered housing, which left clear the meadows and bluffs, were overridden early in the day by Oceanic Properties’ decision to realign building lots to obtain maximum ocean views. By the end of the 1960s, Halprin had been dismissed by Oceanic. In 1969 Boeke quit, leaving planning and management in the hands of less idealistic administrators. This, as architectural critic and editor Donald Canty wrote in 2003, “marked the beginning of the end of the heralded Sea Ranch plan.”

Both Halprin and his principles for the development of The Sea Ranch had been all but canonized, if often disregarded, by 1983, when he held the first of three day-long workshops to re-educate residents about those principles, discuss benign, malign, and unavoidable changes over time, and (he hoped) put a stop to unorthodox and wayward growth. Halprin conducted similar workshops in 1993 and 2003. Sea Ranch residents apparently need to be reminded of the founders’ ideals once a decade.

Only a small percentage of property owners participated (150 in 2003), and they tended to be true believers in Saint Larry’s creed, so he was effectively preaching to the choir: no lawns, no visible gardens containing non-native plants, no houses along the bluffs, on slopes leading to the inland forest or intruding on the meadows; houses ideally built in compact, related clusters conforming to the land and the trees, with unpainted wood siding or shingles, eaveless shed roofs, and large windows irregularly punched to capture light and views. Above all, Halprin pleaded, avoid the unholy blight of suburbanization, in which large, unrelated, show-off houses dare to dominate the landscape.

Although they may appear to be reticent, self-effacing wood sculptures from outside, the interiors of many Sea Ranch houses are made up of lofty, light-filled spaces, ingenious combinations of rough or gleaming walls, finely joined stairways, balconies, bridges, lofts, ladders, and exposed structural timbers and trusses of a variety of woods, projecting or rooftop decks with hot tubs, large areas of glass (including skylights), built-in couches and classical modern furniture, personal objets and vibrant accents of color.  

At the end of the 2003 workshop, the participants, divided into small groups, presented their comments on the past and their recommendations for the future. Their chief concerns addressed the growing density of an aging population; a perceived deterioration in the quality of architecture; the growing number of oversized “trophy houses” unrelated to the land or their neighbors; the lack of controlled management of overgrown meadows, trees, and hedgerows, and the resulting loss of view corridors; the growth in number of newcomers, weekenders, and short-term renters unaware of the founding vision. In “Diary of an Idea” (1995), Halprin had written:  “...self-governance at Sea Ranch has at times been difficult. It is fair to say it has even been rancorous, shrill, and sometimes based on special interests. Some of the new architecture Is mediocre and not up to the early high standards.”                                        

Since the deaths of most of the founding fathers, architect Donlyn Lyndon has been the most visible keeper of the flame. In 2004, with photographer Jim Alinder, he brought out the definitive book on The Sea Ranch, updated this year. The 2014 edition surveys the project’s development over 50 years, before focusing on 60 separate buildings or complexes Lyndon admires. He now serves as chair of the Commons Landscape Committee, which offers suggestions to the decision-makers of TSRA regarding the right things to do with the large mandated open spaces between buildings.

Lyndon admits there has been a certain tension, even enmity, between older and newer homeowners, between those in the south end and those in the north, because of a perception (in both cases) that too many of the latter were unaware or resistant to the original ideals and intentions. In his essay on common landscapes, he mentions unapproved tree removal by individual owners, dismayed at the loss of their original views to ever-growing woodlands, and the “featureless stretches of tightly constrained houses” (often painted a pale suburban gray) to the north. Community involvement and concern for the overall landscape, he ruefully observes, tends to be limited to a relatively small number of permanent residents. As a majority of Sea Ranch homeowners today spend most of their time elsewhere, their dedication to the whole place is less strong.

In a public lecture earlier this year, Lyndon complained about radical changes to once appropriate buildings (including units of Condo I) made by subsequent owners (“there’s no way to stop them”), and the uncontrolled overgrowth of hedgerows, some now grown into sprawling groves 75- to 100-feet tall, which hide fine older buildings from view. At the end of the lecture, he advised future builders and owners to “make the parts responsive to the immediate landscape, even as it evolves. Learn from the place. Steward the place.”

“Buildings must be secondary, and the landscape must be respected,” he said in an interview. “It’s not all about architecture, it’s about landscape. Buildings bow to the meadows—and the place as a whole.” When I pointed out that the international reputation of The Sea Ranch came from its architecture, he replied, “I want to expand the reputation, I want to expand the notion of what The Sea Ranch is.”

By 2015, his Commons Landscape Committee will have held 30 neighborhood workshops for residents of the Ranch, which include educational tours of open areas held in common. The committee’s proposals so far have included defining, mapping, and all but sanctifying every meadow; and the preservation, trimming, addition, replacement, or removal of individual trees and hedgerows. Much of the lighter work is performed by volunteer resident stewards, which makes their commitment to the place all the more strong.

David Littlejohn, Hon. AIA, was a professor of English and journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, for 35 years. He has been a West Coast arts correspondent for The Wall Street Journal since 1990. Among his 15 books are works on Las Vegas, English country houses, and Architect: The Life and Work of Charles W. Moore (1984).