This cluster of cliffside buildings that seem ready to slide into the pounding Pacific is actually the beginning of a remarkable new resort community called Sea Ranch, which will stretch for 14 miles up California's spectacular coast only two hours north of San Francisco. One day there will be 3,000 houses at Sea Ranch, but the vision of its builders has insured that the seascape, with its coves, seamist-enshrouded forests and driftwood beaches, will never be spoiled. Even when fully developed, two-thirds of the 5,200 acres will remain wilderness, common land for all Sea Ranch settlers. The architecture is equally visionary. The dramatic condominium complex that looks like a fortress against the elements is built around a central courtyard that captures the sun and is raked so that every apartment has a view of the sea. The cypress hedges, gracing the shore meadows since the turn of the century, will soon shelter groups of other dwellings. Eventually a golf course, tennis courts and swimming pools will contribute to the recreational attractions of this unique vacation community.
PIONEER PLANNER IN THE WESTERN WILDERNESS
The 100,000 vacation houses that are now going up each year could well turn America's coastline into one long Shanty-town-by-the-sea if it were not for such men as Lawrence Halprin, the man behind the magnificent use of the land at Sea Ranch.
Halprin is one of America's foremost landscape architects, a master planner who has come a long way from the green-thumb garden stage to the complexities of urban redevelopment, freeway planning and new towns. He lives in San Francisco, where he dedicates his time to seeing that America's landscape doesn't go completely down the drain. A native of Brooklyn, he has adopted the rugged, outdoor look of the West—at Sea Ranch he wears heavy tan Levi's and suede climbing boots. A small but powerful pair of Bushnell binoculars is slung round his neck, and he carries a sheath knife stuck in his belt. The binoculars are for bird watching and the knife for slicing abalone.
Larry Halprin is a new breed of landscape architect, an environmental planner. He has been intensely occupied with the Bay Area Rapid Transit scheme, the revolutionary network that hopefully will solve San Francisco's very considerable commuter woes. Ground has been broken for a new town he designed for 65,000 people in Hawaii, and plans are completed for another in California.
Halprin is no prophet crying in a vanishing wilderness. "To be sure, I'm an ardent conservationist," he says, "but I understand that people can't enjoy the land unless they're on it. What we need to do at the moment is to plan environments that let people live on the land without destroying it."
Sea Ranch is an ideal place to put such a theory into practice. It follows the north-south shoreline of Sonoma County in California, bounded on the north by the Gualala River, whose chief claims to fame are that it flows north and that Jack London used to fish there for steel-head. Until a few years ago Sea Ranch was a working sheep ranch. Then Oceanic Properties, Inc. came along and bought it for $2.7 million. They put a further $2 million into developing it as a vacation community and brought in Lawrence Halprin.
Halprin's office studied the area for two years before submitting a master plan. Halprin himself slept out on the beach for weeks. He explored the effects of weather, noting that there is no rain to speak of between April and October. He mapped wind shadows, for the best placing of houses. He observed that one day out of three in this hardy country the weather is either windy, foggy or rainy. The other two days are lovely.
Halprin's plan for the land calls for reseeding the meadows, thinning the forest, planting 100,000 trees and damming the erosion gullies caused by the weather after the sheep had chewed the grass so short there was virtually no field cover left.
Large sweeping meadows and groves of trees will run between the clusters of houses built on each side of the cypress hedges. New roads will follow the natural terrain. In the forest—redwood, bull pine and fir—trees have been tagged for removal, and Halprin has adopted the old Indian conservation practice of controlled burning of the choking underbrush on the forest floor.
The architecture is in line with the general concept of blending with the landscape. "The houses were thought of as pieces of sculpture," says Halprin. The clifftop condominium, built as economically as possible, with simple but dramatically shaped interiors, has aroused some controversy. People drive up from San Francisco to criticize or admire, and the visitors' book in the general store is full of their remarks: "I dig it," "Cheap but neat," "The condominiums are very well executed. Think you should consider more of the same." Encouraged, Oceanic Properties will go ahead and build two more.
"Whether or not you like the graphics," says Halprin, "there's been blood spilled on every aspect. If something is wrong, it's not because it wasn't thought of." In any case, there has been no trouble selling the condominium units. The one-bedroom apartments went for about $26,000, two bedrooms for about $30,000. Six of the seven houses designed by Joseph Esherick and Associates have been sold, at prices ranging from $39,000 to $53,000. More than 80 lots have also been sold—altogether about $1.25 million worth of real estate.
Lots vary from one-third of an acre to one and a half acres. A lot on the bluffs costs as much as $16,000, one by California state route No. 1, which runs through the property, $4,500, and land on the hillside $10,000. The average price for a fully improved lot is around $8,500, and although this seems expensive it includes the use of the common land and its sports facilities. All houses must harmonize with the landscape theme so carefully delineated by Halprin.
Sir Julian Huxley, the biologist, once remarked that wilderness was one of the major functions that humanity demands from the surface of the earth. In preserving that wilderness Lawrence Halprin and Oceanic Properties are performing a pioneer service for a California bursting with vacation communities that are as crowded as tract suburbs.
The general store is currently selling more land than provisions but is set up to provide Sea Ranch settlers with the necessities and comforts for life in the wilderness. Both seashells and rams' horns inspired its white-painted symbol.
Sliding glass doors permit this room in the condominium to be flooded with sunlight. Each of the 10 units in the complex designed by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whitaker has its own plunging view over the Pacific, 50 feet away.
Sea Ranch's first seven vacation houses, designed by Joseph Esherick and Associates, set the design stamp on the community. Their shed roofs snuggle into the line of cypresses originally planted as windbreaks for vegetable crops.
The houses use rough and simple finishes: redwood shingles for the outside walls, sometimes sod roofs with high insulating qualities and no maintenance except cutting. Fences are louvered, making the gardens almost wind-free.
Against a patterned background of Monterey cypresses Pamela and Reverdy Johnson of San Francisco start on an upland hike. Their one-room weekend house, the first to be built on the hillside, is an ingenious circular design.
A community freshwater swimming pool with two saunas and the first tennis court are now completed but not yet landscaped. Both pool and court are surrounded by earth dikes affording all-season use. A golf course is in the future.
Horseback riding is a popular sport at Sea Ranch, with bridle paths wandering over the common land and into the forest. Grape-stake fences that once penned sheep are a feature of the ranch landscape and will be repaired and preserved.
The range of water sports includes skin diving for abalone, steelhead fishing in the Gualala River at the northern end of the ranch, and surf casting for cod and cabezon. A well-designed wooden stairway leads to the black-sand beach.