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SFMOMA presents an exploration of the Sea Ranch, the beacon of 1960s modernism

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New exhibit details the allure and idealism of this Northern California coastal community

Condominium 1 (circa 1965).
Photo by Morley Baer; all photos courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Dreamed up in 1964 by particularly visionary Bay Area architects and designers (Al Boeke, Charles Moore, Joseph Esherick, William Turnbull, Lawrence Halprin, Donlyn Lyndon, and the phenomenal Barbara Stauffacher Solomon), the Sea Ranch community, located on a 10-mile stretch of coast in Sonoma County, was a striking, yet not entirely successful, response to the urban sprawl that sparked shortly after World War II.

The midcentury homes were modern, yet elegant, conceived to blend in with the rows of the site’s longstanding Monterey cypress trees. The community was full of people who yearned for something different than the hustle or homogeneity of Main Street, USA. The Sea Ranch was an escape from the 1960s counterculture and all its psychedelic upheaval.

Hedgerow House by Joseph Esherick and Associates, now EHDD (1968).

“In mid-20th-century California, modern architecture represented social progress,” notes Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, curator of architecture and design at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The Sea Ranch was envisioned as a place to embrace the land, a particularly moody and memorable land, that could expand California’s existing indoor-outdoor lifestyle beyond cloudless skies and manicured golf courses.”

And while there were a handful of attempts to replicate the Sea Ranch’s utopian vision (Monterey’s prohibitively expensive Walden, inspired by transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, being the most recent example), none have been quite as successful.

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon at Condominium 1 (1965).
Richard Whitaker, Donlyn Lyndon, Charles Moore, and William Turnbull in Condominium 1 courtyard (1991).
Photo by Jim Alinder

Today the Sea Ranch remains a destination spot for architecture geeks and vacationers—favorites are Turnbull’s 1968 Hines House, which won the Sunset/AIA Home of the Year award in 1970, now on the market for $2.4 million; and Condominium 1, which nabbed the California Governor’s Design Award in 1966 and an American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1967—as well as home to many who still live in the seaside community.

But the overall vision never came to fruition. In the early 1970s, nearby NIMBYS, who worried that coastal development would prohibit public access to the beach, filed a lawsuit against the Sea Ranch, resulting in a decade-long construction moratorium. Developers had to look elsewhere to recoup their investment, and the final part of the Sea Ranch (a town for year-round residents) never happened.

Moonraker Athletic Center interior supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon.
Photo by Leslie Williamson
The Sea Ranch principles.

Next Friday, SFMOMA will open an exhibit diving into the background and the appeal of the coastal community. Visitors will get the chance to walk through a replica of Charles Moore’s unit 9 from Condominium 1, pore over a photographic mural, and—best of all—fawn over Solomon’s signature supergraphics. (Solomon used cost-effective paint and Helvetica type to create a look that was copied the world over. No small feat in the male-dominated architecture field.)

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism runs from December 22 to April 28 at SFMOMA (151 Third Street).

Condominium 1 and south entrance marker along Highway (1965).
Photo by Morley Baer
Sketch for Condominium 1 (1964).
Site conditions study for Sea Ranch (1962).
Experiments in environment workshop (1968).
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon’s Sea Ranch Design Brochur (1965).
Rush House (2018).
Photo by Leslie Williamson
Rush House (2018).
Photo by Leslie Williamson