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Utopian Dreams on the California Coast

Sixty years after its radical formation, Northern California’s Sea Ranch maintains its idealistic vision of living in harmony with its surroundings.



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NOT LONG AFTER moving to the Bay Area about eight years ago, I started hearing murmurings about Sea Ranch. It came up in conversations with screen-weary tech workers, designers, architects, and food and wine industry types — always with a note of longing. A friend, at a turning point in her marriage, got misty-eyed recalling her many trips there. Maybe if they went back, things would improve. But what was it? Sea and Ranch? The two things seemed incongruous.

Sea Ranch was one of a smattering of utopian communities developed in California in the ’60s and ’70s, guided by the core tenet of “living lightly on the land.” Perched 100 miles north by car of San Francisco on the Sonoma Coast, it is just far enough away from the Bay Area’s well-trodden, coastal day-trip hot spots to operate in a liminal space between an open and closely guarded secret. Perhaps some are discouraged by the drive, the last 30 miles of which involve hairpin turns overlooking what would be a fatal drop into the Pacific Ocean. For others, this sense of life lived on the literal edge is surely part of the appeal. After one curve, the Sea Ranch Lodge suddenly appears — with its raw, modernist, vaguely Scandinavian architecture featuring signature steeply pitched roofs. The architecture was groundbreaking when it was designed, and, since then, the “Sea Ranch style,” as it came to be known, has influenced designers for decades. Still, nothing quite prepares you for seeing it in its intended setting.

Story Wiggins, a partner and landscape architect at Terremoto, the renowned firm tasked with developing the Sea Ranch Lodge’s modern-day landscape design, learned about Sea Ranch in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley while studying its developers’ unusual approach of letting the environment, not people, determine development. “I think that this is such an important case study because it shows that this kind of development can really work,” she says, adding that even today, as we become more ecologically minded, Sea Ranch remains an anomaly.



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First inhabited by the Pomo Indians, the area was then occupied by Russians, Spaniards, Mexicans, and Germans for logging, fur hunting, and cattle and sheep ranching. In 1962, developer Al Boeke learned of a sheep ranch for sale on the Sonoma Coast but was skeptical until he got into a small plane and saw the setting from above. Then, as now, it recalled the English moors of “Wuthering Heights,” but sun-bleached, like David Hockney’s famous paintings of California, paired with a turquoise sea. After spending a day in Sea Ranch, you feel like the scenery has been stained on your eyeballs — still there even after your lids shut. In the spring, the wind howls, temporarily obliterating your memory of wherever you came from. As one Sea Rancher told me, “This place is a vortex.”

Boeke assembled an ace team: For the architects, he went with the influential San Francisco firm Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker (MLTW), who collaborated with the celebrated landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. Largely thanks to Sea Ranch, Halprin would become arguably the most famous landscape designer of the twentieth century. The community now comprises private homes and the Lodge, which acts as a hub and runs the post office, restaurant, cafe, hotel, general store, and several rental homes in the area.

As it is often pointed out, the word “utopia” contains an irony: translated from Greek it means “nowhere” or “no place,” so striving for utopia is a fool’s errand. Sea Ranch, on the other hand, was always intended to be somewhere. The designers let the landscape lead, building structures with materials taken directly from the environment with minimal intrusions. “We weren’t into the ‘conquer nature’ thing,” says Donlyn Lyndon, the only surviving architect from the original group, now regarded as a kind of patriarch of the place. He explains that even when you’re inside, outside is the focus, thanks to the buildings’ enormous windows, designed expressly for this purpose.

Halprin, responsible for the overarching vision, spent as much time on the land as possible, studying the flora, fauna, and the ever-present wind; camping with his family; and eventually building a home in Sea Ranch. His marriage to the famous modern dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin informed his work, as he developed “ecoscores” — designs that he intended to be read like music. Whereas most renderings seem stagnant — a structure in an unchanging space — Halprin’s have movement. One of his “ecoscores” looks like a nautilus shell and measures time from its beginning, as well as drought cycles, regular burning sequences, fog, animal migration, and changes in the ground cover. Another “locational score” contains more instructions for what not to develop than it does development plans: “keep coast open,” “keep meadows open as commons,” it reads. “Preserve Black Point as permanent open space.”


This was a radical reorientation of priorities — a development based on non-development. “Most developers are just looking at how to pack the most buildings into a site to make it profitable,” says Wiggins, “but [with Sea Ranch], there was this synergistic thing between this developer and this group of designers, and they were willing to go with them on the idea.”

In 2018, an anonymous group of Bay Area families bought the Sea Ranch Lodge. Kristina Jetton, the Lodge’s general manager, told me that the purchase was motivated by a desire to preserve the land and vision. The families don’t speak to the press, preferring to “let the community speak for itself,” she said. In 2019, they embarked on a renovation to restore the Lodge and its guest amenities to Halprin’s original vision: to make the place a “shining emblem of what a community can become.”

In an effort to create an environmentally conscious dining program, the Sea Ranch Lodge has launched an ambitious farming program. “The goal is to eventually supply all the meat and produce for the Lodge,” says David Hillmer, a genial, mustached man — one of those small-town figures who seem to have a hand in everything. A few years earlier, Hillmer noticed that the Richardsons, a cattle-ranching and artichoke-farming family, were letting their land go to forest as their children moved away. Hillmer spent a year persuading them to lease the land by agreeing to convert the brushland back to pasture. It would be farmed, just as the Richardsons had done for generations.

Hillmer is deeply knowledgeable about the social dynamics of the cattle and sheep and is experimenting with the stocking capacity. He got into farming by “reading a lot of books,” he says. He’s trying out crops of blueberries, potatoes, mushrooms, various nuts, and veggies. Bees are expected to arrive in a few weeks, and the chickens are laying.

At 87, Lyndon has chosen to spend what remains of his life here. When I arrive at his house, which he designed in the ’90s, he is marveling at a flock of turkeys flailing in the dirt as the wind howls. He thinks they’re laying eggs; I am concerned that they’re dying. (We’re both wrong, they’re bathing.) He tells me he wants to take me to his elevated patio, but the trip up the stairs is hard for him. When we finally get to the top, he is visibly tired, and I worry about how we will possibly get back down.

And yet, I can see why he brought me here. From this perch, we can view his life’s work: the houses he designed, the cliffs, the hedgerows, and the sea. He looks out and says, “I’ve spent a lot of my life in this place, and I see it as my job to care for it into the future.” Though he still advises on various projects, the time to hand the work over is approaching. “This is a place not just to be in,” he says, “but to steward.”

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Our Contributors

Laura Smith Writer

Laura Smith is the deputy editor of Departures. Previously, she was the executive editor of California magazine and has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the Atlantic, and many more. Her nonfiction book, The Art of Vanishing, was published by Viking in 2018.

Martien Mulder Photographer

Dutch-born Martien Mulder combines portraiture, architecture, landscape, and still-life photography. She lives in New York, and her clients include commercial brands, cultural institutions, magazines, and newspapers. Mulder’s work has been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, and she has published two books.


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