Bunker Door


In Harmony with Nature

As someone who loves both nature and residential architecture, I think it’s really noteworthy when the two can coexist in harmony. So when some dear friends offered us their Sea Ranch home on the ocean for three days, we jumped at the chance. I’ve been to Sea Ranch a number of times, and never fail to return relaxed and refreshed…the ruggedness of the coast combines wonderfully with the airy and sophisticated dwellings thoughtfully arranged to take advantage of it.
The Sea Ranch, located about 100 miles north of San Francisco, is a unique ocean-front community of vacation homes and full-time residents. Its distinctive look evolved as a group of architects selected by developer Castle & Cook sought to arrive at a new way of envisioning the relationship between house and setting, where the house neither dominates its surroundings nor is subservient to them. Using historic sheds and barns as inspiration, they developed a distinctively modern yet rustic style based on unpainted wood siding, steeply pitched roofs with no overhangs (encouraging the wind to gracefully sweep over them) and lots of glass to let the outdoors in. The “Sea Ranch Style,” as it became known, has reverberated throughout Northern California residential architecture since. The style of many of Marin’s custom homes had their origins in these groundbreaking designs.

The Sea Ranch architects also created highly restrictive landscape guidelines to insure the integrity of their vision. (Lawrence Halprin, a noted landscape architect, is considered by many to be the artistic force behind it, and his vivid drawings served as its blueprint.) Visible landscaping was limited to native plants not planted in a “geometric or obvious way,” although screened courtyards could house “unauthorized” landscaping or planters from non-indigenous sources such as Pottery Barn. The architects were seeking a goal, which they defined as the house and the site entering into a partnership.

Driving or walking through the Sea Ranch is a much different experience than in a typical suburban neighborhood…in fact, The Sea Ranch is in large part a revolt against suburban land use. Each dwelling has its own relationship with the site, as opposed to less thoughtful development in which concrete grids, rather than topography, tend to make key decisions. Despite the presence of more than a thousand homes, The Sea Ranch feels decidedly rural and unobtrusive…the houses merge into the landscape and mimic the shapes and textures of the rocky cliffs, cypress trees and wooden fences that were there before the houses. It’s a very popular second-home retreat destination from the Bay Area (even the developer concedes that it’s too isolated for most full-time residents other than reclusive novelists or very independent retirees) and it only took us a little over two hours to get there, making it pretty accessible. The Sea Ranch is a great lesson on what is possible when developers work with nature instead of simply trying to push it out of the way.

Speaking of nature…Kona and I hiked all the way up south of Hamilton to the newly-finished section of the Bay Trail. This trail seeks to link the Bay with a clearly navigable and accessible trail, and it’s coming together in pieces. This new piece links the south part of the Hamilton neighborhood with the Bay alongside the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project. The trail, surfaced with an attractive sand-like material and featuring a tasteful fence of rounded posts, encouraged me to hike on it…I actually used that excuse as to why I was home so late… and we ventured in the direction of the Bay to where we could see the St. Vincent’s School in San Rafael across the meadow.

We chose to walk back through Hamilton, and passed through a neighborhood of the original Spanish Revival homes from the ‘30s. The streets themselves had an almost European flavor to them, with wrought-iron street signs and frequent roundabouts. The houses were set well apart from each other, unlike their newer neighbors who have the small yards more characteristic of ‘90s suburbs. They featured lots of period details, such as decorative tiles in the doorways and ornate balconies. Some of them were boarded up, although they looked as well-maintained as their neighbors. Probably these are Coast Guard properties, as they still own most of the houses in the original part of Hamilton.
Walking further, the flow into the newer neighborhoods is smooth…many of the details of the original neighborhood, such as tile roofs and brown wood trim, have been echoed in the Mediterranean vibe of the tidy, well-kept streets that line the community park and ball field. Retracing our route south, we eventually found our way to now-familiar Ammo Hill. (I just found out its name on a site dedicated to its preservation: www.novatogardenproject.org, who are behind the murals on the bunkers.) Soon we were home enjoying the sun and a craft brew on our dock.

I also acquired my own kayak…a Necky Manitou Sport 11-footer I found on Craigslist with a sweet wooden paddle. First time out, I misplaced both my phone and Kona. The phone was under my seat, and Kona (who tried to follow me) was on someone’s dock four houses up the street and had to be rescued. My next trip was much more satisfying. The Necky paddles with effortless grace and seems perfectly suited to the lagoon and surrounding environs. Next up: Exploring the south lagoons.

Property Watch

Properties here seem to be selling more quickly lately. A couple of really nice homes have recently sold, and only one new listing has appeared to take their place. Spring is here and the gardens of Bel Marin Keys are coming alive, and summer is coming. I can feel the whole lagoon getting ready. The roses we planted in January are now decorating our coffee table. Hopefully more homes will come on the market to give some lucky people a chance to spend the summer here. If you would like to be among them, feel free to give me a call.

Back here at Montego Key, nature is a bit more subdued but no less rewarding. On a magical afternoon when the water is glassy-still and the lagoon looks like a gigantic mirror, it’s easy to feel that one is truly blessed to live here.
And yet the lessons of The Sea Ranch linger. Can we as a society live in greater harmony with nature? Is it possible to have enlightened views about development and make enough money to continue? Are we moving in the direction of bringing nature back into our neighborhoods and our lives?

It will be interesting to see whether in the future we find a better balance with nature. But for now, we have as much balance as we need.