OUT AND ABOUT: REVISITING HISTORICAL ICONS ON CALIFORNIA’S NORTH COAST (April 30, 2021)
Like many of our senior peers, now that Nancy and I are fully vaccinated, we’re eager to emerge from COVID isolation. Yet with herd immunity still elusive and new virus variants a rolling threat, our cautious vacation strategy is to drive to a remote destination and enjoy its attractions in relative seclusion.
Our latest excursion took us to California’s North Coast, moseying from Bodega Bay to Mendocino along the Shoreline Highway, State Route 1. We’d been to this stretch several times before over the past 50 years. But rediscovering can be reenergizing. These journal notes home in on two historical landmarks. Both sites have played surprisingly pivotal roles in California’s political, economic and environmental development.
The Great Game
In the opening decades of the 19th Century, North America’s Pacific Coast hosted a four- cornered tournament of imperial chess.
Wasting no time to exploit westward-expansion opportunities doubled by his 1803 Louisiana Purchase, President Jefferson immediately commissioned the Lewis & Clark Expedition. By 1805, these explorers reached the Pacific Ocean and began construction of Fort Clatsop on the southern bank of the Columbia River (near modern Astoria, Oregon.)
By 1808, Tsarist Russia had erected its North American colonial hub in New Archangel (now Sitka, Alaska) under the flag of the Russian-American Company.
Tracing its contesting territorial claims back to Francis Drake’s late-16th Century expedition, Great Britain established Fort Vancouver on the Columbia’s northern bank in 1824. The settlement served as regional headquarters for the semi-governmental Hudson’s Bay Company. HBC soon opened forward bases of California operations in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and French Camp (Stockton.)
Consolidating its preemptive colonization of California, by 1833 Spain had completed installation of a string of 21 missions extending from San Diego to Sonoma. Staffed by Franciscan friars and armed troops, these settlements also anchored a network of vast land-grant cattle ranches.
Driving much of this multifaceted competition was the trans-Pacific fur trade: hunting fresh-water beaver and salt-water sea otters for luxurious pelts commanding one hundred gold dollars apiece in Chinese markets.
As pursuit of these resources heated up, Russia experienced a double disadvantage. Its New Archangel hub was far to the north of the best marine-mammal hunting grounds. And Alaska’s cold temperatures and short growing season made that expanding colony difficult to provision. Supply shipments from the imperial capital of St. Petersburg to Alaska could take two years in transit. The empire’s pragmatic win-win solution was to establish a satellite outpost on California’s northern coast. This placement would be squarely in the center of rich sea-otter and fur-seal grounds. And its relatively temperate climate could support cultivation of grains, fruits and vegetable to sustain New Archangel residents.
Like a Base on the Moon
In 1812, Ivan Kuskov led a pioneering party of 25 Russians and 80 native Alaskans to begin construction on a Fort Ross stockade. The site was selected for its plentiful water, adjacent pastures, and a nearby supply of coast redwood for timber. The name “Ross” was chosen to honor the site’s connection to the imperial metropole, Rossiia. To survive and succeed, this forward base would have to be virtually self-sufficient. New Archangel lay 1,400 miles away.
The settlement population soon grew to 260, with a richly diverse composition. In addition to Russian traders, craftsmen and soldiers, it included sea hunters from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula, local Kashaya Pomo tribesmen, indigenous Hawaiians, and mixed-ancestry Californians. There were dozens of women, mixed couples and children.
The expert sea hunters were vital for the venture’s success. In their waterproof sealskin kayaks, these Native Alaskans hunted with an effective arsenal of throwing spears with detachable points. Sinews attached the points to inflated air bladders made from sea-mammal stomachs. These natural buoys kept prey and carcasses afloat for open-water retrieval. Veteran hunters could paddle all the way to the Farallon Islands, 35 miles to the south, at the mouth of San Francisco Bay, for a seasonal basecamp.
Interestingly, the main job of the Hawaiian carpenters was to craft components for prefabricated redwood houses which were then shipped to the Islands for reassembly. The Russian-American Company maintained a mid-Pacific trading post in Honolulu.
The Fort Ross stockade was substantial, measuring 300 feet on a side. Two massive blockhouses at opposing corners were outfitted with cannons. These defensive installations were cautionary. The Russians’ 1804 Battle of Sitka with Alaskan natives was doubtless still fresh in their minds. Structures inside the compound include the Manager’s residence, Officers’ Quarters, an armory, artisans’ workshops, a furs warehouse and a chapel. A well in the center provided secure water. The growing community was housed outside the gated perimeter.
Ocean-going ships sought safe harbor in Bodega Bay 18 miles to the south. Locally built small lighters ferried goods and personnel between the fort and the bay, supplemented by overland horses and wagons.
The core agricultural program enjoyed only mixed success. Fruits and vegetables produced bumper crops. But the crucial wheat-for-bread project never fulfilled expectations, a victim of coastal weather, botanical pests and persistent rodents. But for unrelenting gophers, today’s Californians might all be speaking Russian.
By 1820, overhunting by American, Spanish and Russian settlements had decimated the coastal marine-mammal populations. The New Archangel authorities imposed a hunting moratorium, but it was too little, too late. The Tsar’s colonial enthusiasm was waning. His competing European priorities beckoned. Fort Ross Resident Managers traveled all the way to Mexico City to try and promote reciprocal diplomatic concessions. Their tacitly insubordinate objective: to stave off the Tsar’s withdrawal of support by winning Spanish Viceroys’ approval for an extended Russian presence in Alta California. The Spaniards were game but St. Petersburg rejected the deal.
During the brief 30-year Fort Ross occupation, visiting Russian naturalists made unprecedented contributions to scientific knowledge of California. The scope of their field research, publications and collecting encompassed geography, cartography, ethnography, geology, meteorology, botany and biology. Like their contemporaries, Darwin and Banks, von Humboldt and Bonpland, these amateur enthusiasts were Enlightenment pioneers.
In 1841, the weary Empire pulled the plug. The Russians sold the fort and its surrounding holdings to a Swiss-American opportunist named John Sutter. (As a cruel footnote, Sutter offered a $30,000 promissory note which he subsequently failed to pay.) Stripping the bluff-top property’s building materials and livestock, Sutter transported them to his own fort in the Sacramento Valley. As California school children learn, it was at Sutter’s resulting mill that the California Gold Rush was sparked in 1848. In 1867, the final curtain came down on Russia’s North American colonial ambitions when the Empire sold all of Alaska to the United States.
Fast Forward to Today
The happy educational ending to this complex historical tale is Fort Ross’s current handsome state. In dramatic contrast to the near-empty site Nancy and I had visited 50 years ago, today the substantial fort has been restored and recreated, complete with blockhouses, cannons, a striking chapel and a giant wooden windmill. The accompanying Interpretive Center contains lucid exhibits of occupants, structures and the surrounding colonial context. The site’s long-term indigenous predecessors are extensively acknowledged. For fit visitors, across the highway and up the hill there’s a Russian cemetery and surviving orchards. In a rare instance of post-Cold War cooperation, the State Historic Park’s exemplary restoration has been co-financed by the Russian Government. Well worth your visit.
For me, the most moving symbol of this collaboration was the replica windmill. Russians built California’s first windmill at Fort Ross in 1814 to grind grain into flour. Modern Russian master craftsmen built the wooden replica in St. Petersburg, following the original designs and even utilizing 19th Century tools. Disassembled, shipped and reassembled at Fort Ross, the mill was donated to celebrate the outpost’s bicentennial in 2012.
THE SEA RANCH
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Commission
One hundred and twenty years after Fort Ross’s deactivation, Project Manager Al Boeke was given the procurement challenge of his career. His Hawaiian employer, a subsidiary of conglomerate Castle and Cooke, tasked him with purchasing and developing a remote California property as an architecturally distinctive, environmentally respectful second-home community. The site he selected and acquired in 1963 was Rancho del Mar, a “barren and grand” Sonoma County sheep ranch, 20 miles north of Fort Ross on State Route 1.
This narrow 5,200-acre strip stretched for 10 miles, straddling Highway One, three hours’ drive above San Francisco. On the property’s inland side, a ridge of second-growth hardwoods sloped down to grazing meadows. Across the highway, the slope traversed more open-space to emerge in dramatic bluffs above Pacific coves and beaches. Boeke envisioned creating “a regenerative country-life colony within a wildlife preserve.”
For his design team, the Project Manager recruited a coalition of respected Berkeley professionals. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin was tasked with creating a Master Plan. For buildings design, the partners of Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull and Whittaker were joined by Joseph Esherick.
The Designers’ Response
With Halprin’s reconnaissance of the site’s topography, weather and vegetation for guidance, the designers formulated a concept and plan embodying Sixties idealism. Their core principle of “dynamic conservation” pledged to preserve and protect the natural environment with minimal disruption. This commitment encompassed restoration where logging and grazing had destroyed native trees and plants. (In the end, 100,000 new redwoods and firs would be introduced.)
The team’s mantra of “living lightly on the land” traced its roots to the culture of local indigenous people. This restraint was manifested in height and size restrictions for structures, an avoidance of decorative embellishments and an absence of starlight-competing streetlights, among other commitments. Commercial and retail services would be excluded. Recreational centers would be sequestered behind earthwork berms for less visibility.
Halprin had been deeply influenced by time spent on an Israeli kibbutz. He and Boeke shared a passion for community primacy and responsibility. Halprin spoke and wrote unsparingly about his determination to prevent “Notice Me” mansions and placements. He strongly favored keeping houses off of the bluffs, out of common meadows and tucked into ridge-top forests.
With an aim of attracting owners of modest means, the designers planned to emphasize condominiums as much as detached single-family dwellings. The four-partner firm designed two prototype condominiums. Esherick designed a cluster of prototype houses. Contractor Matt Sylvia constructed all of the original designs. This concentration of residences, especially along windbreaks of Monterey cypress retained from the ranch, would allow half of the total land area to be reserved as commons.
The site’s incessant northwest winds also inspired the signature design feature of slanted shed roofs. This standard, combined with use of unpainted local wood for building exteriors, paid explicit homage to the surviving ranch structures.
The founders’ design principles were recorded in a Declaration of Restrictions, Covenants and Conditions. This informal community constitution was required to be signed by all property buyers. The DRCCs aimed to connect concept to compliance.
Sonoma County building permits and approvals were granted, eased by the project’s donation of a 140-acre parcel on the property’s northern edge for development as a public park along the Gualala River shore.
“The Sea Ranch,” an evocative translation of “Rancho del Mar,” and the accompanying logo of seashells within ram’s horns, were contributed by team member and graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Marion Conrad mounted an ambitious publicity and public relations campaign that soon generated rave reviews in architectural journals and general media. It was a project for its time. Within months of its 1965 launch, the remote development was attracting a national buzz.
Notwithstanding the evident sensitivity and innovation of the Sea Ranch concept, almost from the outset plan-implementation began encountering resistance and opposition. Problems arose both outside and inside the perimeter.
The external opposition focused on the Sea Ranch’s sealing-off public access to coastal beaches. This complaint became a flashpoint for statewide wrath. At the time, only 100 miles of California’s 1,300-mile coastline was open to the public. The rest was fenced off as private property. When local protestors lost at the Sonoma County level, they joined a burgeoning coalition. Proposition 20 on the 1972 statewide ballot established the activist California Coastal Commission which soon assumed a role of access champion and watchdog limiting private coastal developments. Although the Sea Ranch compromised and created eight public-access trails with parking areas and stairways to beaches within its boundaries, the project’s legal troubles were only beginning. The Coastal Commission imposed a moratorium on new house construction within the property while further disputes were being resolved. As acrimonious negotiations and litigation dragged on, this blockage continued from 1976 through 1983. An adversarial climate and elitist-enclave reputation had been established that would prove difficult to dissolve.
Internal disruption came from both prospective buyers and the project developer. An unanticipated and increasing segment of buyers was interested in The Sea Ranch for permanent residences rather than vacation bolt holes. (We were informed that a steady migration of retirees from the UC Davis faculty constituted a sizeable contingent.) Many of these year-rounders wanted more rooms and larger total floor-space than the originally targeted part-timers. Many were more impressed by redwood siding’s soaring costs than by its subdued aesthetic appeal. As land and construction costs soared statewide and locally, a new group of wealthy buyers began to drive the Sea Ranch market. Several of them preferred showplace structures and stand-alone placements to the concept’s modest proportions and clustered groupings.
In tandem with these market trends, Oceanic, the Hawaii-based developer, reputedly grew impatient to recoup its investment, calculating more profit to be made from upscale mansions than the original plan’s mid-point condos. As one index of these changing pressures and priorities, when the Coastal Commission demanded a reduction in the Sea Ranch’s total population as a condition for lifting its moratorium, the developer rushed to lay out expansive subdivisions at the property’s northern end. The scaled-back headcount would be spread out in conventional rows of larger single-family dwellings. Surrendered were the founders’ visions of hedgerow clusters. Upscale suburbia was overwhelming Sixties utopia.
Defenders of the original concept attempted to use the multi-stage design-review process and DRCCs to resist new houses’ non-compliance. But that compact had always been consensual, not legally binding. And the developer and marketers strongly preferred to avoid media-attracting litigation with disgruntled new buyers.
The cast of characters was also transitioning. The original design champions had moved on or were deceased. New architects and contractors were pushing the constraints envelope. New buyers still loved the place; they just never bought into the Sixties dream. The parties and priorities were changing.
Today and Tomorrow
Taking a current snapshot, 1,900 of 2,400 available Sea Ranch lots have been built on; all remaining unbuilt lots have been sold. Height limitations have remained largely intact, but square-footage, amenities and placement constraints have been mostly relaxed. (One glossy for-sale ad that caught our eye may illustrate new trends and ambitions: three 1966 cottages have been reconfigured into a single 4,600-square-foot residential compound, with its own private lap pool, on offer for $3.6 million.)
The Great Recession and COVID pandemic combined to inflict a serious slump on Sea Ranch property sales and construction. Only 25 new houses have been built since 2010. An informal survey by a local professional tallied eight houses currently for sale, at prices ranging from $1 million to $5 million. Meanwhile, 18 unbuilt lots for re-sale are priced from under $100,000 to $600,000. As Sonoma County’s COVID tier continues to improve, vacation rentals are booming.
The 2019 census reported 600 Sea Ranch year-round households containing 1,100 permanent residents. Residents’ average age was 67 but is anecdotally dropping. 85% were white, 15% Hispanic, 1% Asian and 0% Black.
The Sea Ranch Lodge, the original cherished venue for an on-site restaurant and adjacent guest quarters, was closed during COVID lockdown. It is currently humming with a total remodel, reported to encompass upscale shops and a community Main Street. The restaurant is aiming for summer reopening.
Although born in acrimony, the California Coastal Commission has evolved to earn a worldwide reputation for vigilant stewardship of fragile shoreline environments. One direct descendent is the California Coastal National Monument, a federal system protecting all our state’s offshore rocks, islets and reefs for 12 miles out.
At least three statewide issues may influence The Sea Ranch’s future development. In COVID’s wake, the lack of nearby major medical services may deter additional senior buyers from assuming full-time residence. Price and demographic imbalances may attract Equity, Diversity & Inclusion attention. And wildfire mitigation measures may force increasing clearances around forest houses, as well as materials substitutions.
Two historical landmarks. Two scenic properties with breathtaking shoreline vistas. Two sets of risk-taking visionaries daring to develop pioneering outposts. Two start-ups complicated and compromised by contesting parties’ conflicting agendas. Reaching high. Leaving a mark. Setting a memorable standard before conditions changed. California in microcosm.
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My deep appreciation, as always, to Nancy Swing for her value-adding photos.
COMING May 31
How Agile Agers’ Youthful Relationships Have Had Lifelong Impacts