The Utopian Promise of a Community Tucked Away on California’s Rugged Northern Coast

Set on a ravishing section of the California coast about a hundred miles north of San Francisco, Sea Ranch is a remarkable community. Originally a 5,000-acre sheep ranch of mist-shrouded hills and Redwood forests, Sea Ranch was developed by a band of progressive designers and visionary architects in the mid-1960s. It was the country’s first purpose-built, architectural eco-friendly community. Founded on utopian ideals, it’s a truly spectacular blend of a trendsetting-built environment with awesome coastal beauty. Driven by the concept of “living lightly on the land” the widely-spaced, low-slung modernist houses conscientiously embed in undulating coastal meadows and among Redwood forests.

In 1962, architect and real-estate developer Al Boeke flew over a windswept, desolate, but strikingly beautiful 10-mile strip of coastal sheep farms and decided to start a venture that would end up influencing modern architecture in a way few could have ever anticipated. Boeke had embraced the progressive belief that architecture and community could, and should, have a positive, and even transformational effect on the people who lived there. Once the ranchland was purchased, Boeke began to recruit a variety of visionary California designers and architects to create what would come to be known as The Sea Ranch.

The first building to be constructed in 1965 was Condominium One, designed by Charles Willard Moore, a professor of architecture at UC Berkeley. Condominium development was in its infancy and the idea of building a condominium in a rural, unpopulated site was both radical and strange. Condominium One, however, was the keystone of Sea Ranch that served as a microcosm of its idealistic goals and values and set forth a new style, a kind of California Eco-Modernism, that amalgamated the vernacular of rustic local structures with the burgeoning modern Case-Study style of architecture.

It was also emblematic of the Sea Ranch principle of having buildings conform to the landscape, not dominate it. Further, the units would be affordable to an economically and societally broad cross-section of people who subscribed to progressive notions of community, as well as reverence and respect for the environment. “The Sea Ranch Style” was widely embraced and popularized in the following decades and may seem familiar now, but at the time it caused a sensation. In 2019, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art celebrated Sea Ranch’s outsized influence and continued relevance in its exhibition “The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism.”

“The images of The Sea Ranch were very strong and were picked up really early on in international magazines,” says Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, the curator of the SFMOMA exhibit.  “It was incredible how wide-reaching those ideas were right off the bat. It had international reach before the internet.”

Sea Ranch (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Arquitecto Defecto

A thriving creative community led by the architects and designers who both worked and resided at Sea Ranch soon developed. However, early on the financial realities of real estate development began to encroach on Sea Ranch’s idealistic founding principles. Demand for more condo units was nonexistent and the plans for further condominium development were scrapped. Instead, single-family houses, primarily for use as second homes, began to proliferate, but the novel design ambitions set out by Condominium One continued.

Covenants designated 50% of the land as shared, open commons, and principles set forth by a Design Review Board mandated that builders adhere to the “Sea Ranch Style” and forgo such commonplaces as flower gardens or fenced yards. At Sea Ranch, houses were clustered together to minimize environmental impact and the open spaces functioned as preserved communal property. Houses were built back from the coast to preserve views of the Pacific. Sloping roofs and walls made of local woods were designed to complement and augment the forests, bluffs, and meadows on which the houses were built. Landscaping made conscientious use of the local terrain and flora.

By the early 1970s, Sea Ranch was a successful, unique, and growing development, but a bitter legal fight brought further construction to a crashing halt. Inland residents, increasingly concerned about public coastal access on privately owned beaches, sued Sea Ranch, and the California Coastal Commission put a moratorium on new construction until a compromise could be reached. By the time the courts finished with the dispute, ten years had passed and many of the original guiding spirits were no longer closely associated with Sea Ranch. Times were also changing and, by the 1980s, progressive ideals and being at one with nature had fallen out of fashion. However, Sea Ranch continued to attract residents and grow, but as it grew it also began to change.

Sea Ranch, like everywhere in California and beyond, has been greatly impacted by the climate crisis. It’s no longer advisable–or even legal–to adhere to the original concepts that strove to seclude small wood houses among groves of Cypress trees. Instead, due to fire hazards, many trees have been removed and the materials for both new construction and renovations are worlds apart from what was used there in the 1960s. Gone are copious local supplies of Redwood for framing and shingles, and new structures have to adhere to stringent fire codes, thus making abundant use of steel and concrete the new norm. Despite these strictures, the original covenants remain in place and a Design Review Board ensures that those who buy or build in Sea Ranch maintain architectural integrity with past designs.

Sea Ranch’s reputation continues to grow and gather accolades; Moore’s Condominium One is now a Sonoma County Historic Landmark and is also listed on The National Register of Historic Places.  Tourists, home buyers, and builders continue to be drawn to Sea Ranch; at present, there are around 1,800 homes and there’s still room for further development. As the internet lends flexibility to professionals and their families to work remotely, Sea Ranch has embraced many more new families and full-time residents but, in many ways, it remains true to its roots.

“One of the things that’s so amazing about the Sea Ranch is that, while you might quibble about this house or that house, overall, it has a real sense of place to it,” says Eric Haesloop, an architect who has worked extensively at Sea Ranch. “And in that sense, I think it’s incredibly successful.”

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