Sea Ranch, Spread Out

A new website focuses on a 60s trendsetter.

By Zach Mortice

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Sea Ranch, in Northern California, seems to have always existed, emerging from the Pacific Coast cliffs like sun-dappled lichens spread across the rocks. But it was like little else people had seen when it was built by a supergroup of designers, developers, and artists in the early 1960s.

A new website is pulling back the curtain on how this masterpiece came to be. “Journey to the Sea Ranch” holds more than 800 digitized images from the Environmental Design Archives of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania to tell the story of how Sea Ranch was conceived and built.

The project was funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and there is a parallel exhibition about Sea Ranch at Berkeley’s Environmental Design Library that will run through December 20. Two days later, SFMOMA’s exhibit The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism takes the reins, on display through April 28.

Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County, is a planned community along 10 miles of coastal cliffs, amid cypress hedges, wildflowers, and grasses. Even when the developer, Oceanic Properties, opened it in 1965, its cedar-sided buildings seemed weathered—earthy, humble, never preening. It also offered respite from the coast’s fierce winds. Its pitched roofs inspired by the local barns deflect gusts up and away.

The first hire by the developer, Al Boeke, was Lawrence Halprin, who planned the entire community. Joseph Esherick designed its initial run of houses, and Charles Moore’s architecture firm—Moore Lyndon Turnbull Whitaker—designed a condominium complex, recreation centers, and more. Throughout, Sea Ranch was crafted with an ideal of understated and rugged luxury; it was a contemporary environment that would preserve the land as it embraced it.

The new website (designed by Agile Humanities Agency) presents freshly unveiled drawings, photographs, documents, and ephemera that offer a narrative synopsis of Sea Ranch’s formation.  A timeline tells the essential story, and several virtual tours juxtapose maps of Sea Ranch with imagery from its ideation and construction. A collection of imagery exploring the colors and textures of the place is most evocative, and invites the viewer to drink in details as Halprin and his team might have. There are pale green lichens growing on a weathered fence, a rocky coastline viewed through pine needles, and Halprin draped in seaweed and zipped into a wetsuit, exploring Sea Ranch beneath the waves. A series of black and white photos commissioned by the chief marketer, Marion Conrad, capture the austere power of the place. Halprin’s sketches are an ebullient counterpoint, far more animated and colorful than the actual site.

“Journey to the Sea Ranch” pays special attention to marketing materials that define how the place was conceptualized and sold. It was meant to make money. “It’s not this pure, [idealized] thing,” says William Whitaker, the curator of Penn’s Architectural Archives, who helped assemble the website. “It was this remarkable thing that happened over the course of two years in a highly pressurized environment.” Considering the name of the place, the marketers urged Boeke away from any upper-crust signifiers of superfluous wealth, like “Portola Highlands,” or “Miramonte Oaks.” “The name should be simple—it should belong naturally to the place,” was the directive. Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, who designed the development’s iconic room-scaled supergraphics, suggested the name “Sea Ranch” be presented alongside Ansel Adams photography.

Stauffacher Solomon wasn’t the only woman to play an integral role in shaping Sea Ranch. “[Marion Conrad’s] vision and how she marketed the Sea Ranch is what we think made it a really relevant project at that time,” says Emily Vigor, the digital and collections archivist at Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives, who assembled the website with Whitaker. (Vigor also curated the Berkeley exhibit, along with Chris Marino, curator of the Environmental Design Archives). Jean Walton was the first person Halprin hired and dispatched to study the site and give direction for plantings. “The project is most groundbreaking for just slowing down enough to do this depth of study related to the ecology of the site, and to think about the cultural landscape that surrounds the site,” Whitaker says.

To contemporary eyes, Sea Ranch’s curated presentation of wildness is instantly recognizable. “They didn’t go up there to make it pretty,” Whitaker says. But in the end, they likely changed our perception of beauty.

Credits: All images courtesy the Lawrence Halprin Collection, the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania. 

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

One thought on “Sea Ranch, Spread Out”

  1. Sadly, Zach, the architectural aspect of Sea Ranch is only half the story, but it’s all you can find online about Sea Ranch. I thought yours might be different, but it doesn’t accurately describe what’s currently happening at Sea Ranch.

    I live here, and as the Principal Investigator for The Center for U.S. Rural Cultures Studies, I’ve been immersed in the Sea Ranch culture for more than a year. The Halprin slogan “Living Lightly on the Land” is only that: a slogan to sell property. (The current Sea Ranch narrative ERASES Halprin almost completely.)

    What the Center has documented in a little more than a year is a staggering lost of habitat for deer, quail, turkey, raccoons, bats, and monarch butterflies. The land management and landscape policies have long since abandoned any preservationist stance and, instead, have been geared toward the opening of the new Lodge at Sea Ranch. Although the new owners are not Sea Ranch, The Sea Ranch Association–Lisa Dundee, in particular–have approved and arranged extensive tree cutting for both Sea Ranch and the new owners of the lodge. Information can be found here: https://cathybglenn.com/the-sea-ranch-nonhuman-residents-project/ (The book with findings will be available mid-2020.)

    The most recent post from the on-going research at The Sea Ranch:

    She wakes, crying. Yesterday’s images won’t leave her mind: the laughing men with roaring chainsaws telling her to calm down; the world-shattering grind of chippers; all those newly gutted spaces where trunks and branches and leaves and roots—other beings’ worlds–used to stand. In this ghost town of a development, run by an outsized homeowner’s association, just one woman continues making all the decisions, to decimate an ethic, while destroying the homes of all the other beings here except the human beings.

    It never stops—there are crews constantly cutting, slashing, slicing, chopping, every single day, all over Sea Ranch. Shelter, homes, other beings’ infrastructure—now sticks and cut trunks and piles of chips. The human architecture—its surrounding “garden” freshly shorn— awaits the few human visitors it’ll see all year. Some humans stop in for a few days; others stay longer; just a few others live here year-round. The ghosts in the Sea Ranch ghost town — the “owners” who work with rental agencies to sell vacation spaces — use this fragile part of the California coast as an investment strategy. But they can’t see whose worlds they destroy because the approving woman silently stands between them and the obscenity of lost worlds.

    She lies in bed, eyes closed, while the countless rabbits she’s seen huddling under gutted trees won’t leave her mind, because she knows she’ll see them again today. The quail scattering to find shelter and yelling for days, trying to find each other past the sheep’s electric fences and “weed” whackers. All the new bucks in the neighborhood, looking for food, hiding under shrubs because the trees are just standing trunks now. The big birds, looking for the missing big perches. The monarch butterflies, who should live in the Monarch Glen behind her house, disappearing because they can no longer overwinter in the cypresses next to the Glen. The Monterey Cypresses have been gutted by an angry “owner” next door who didn’t want to mow and “clean up” anymore. A wind tunnel hole lives there now.

    There’s a scene in the movie, Lone Plains Drifter, where men with whips surround an unarmed man in the middle of a rural town. It’s nighttime, and all the townspeople are in their homes, silently looking out their windows. As they watch, the surrounded man is slowly whipped to death. No one comes out of their houses. No one yells, “stop!” No one tries to divert attention. No one does anything to help.

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