It’s the stuff home fantasies are made of: A newly married couple goes in search of a house they can afford and finds a midcentury cabin created by one of their architectural heroes, perched on an ocean bluff.
It may sound like an elevator pitch for a movie, but it’s all true—and it happened to architectural designer Chad DeWitt and James Cook.
The couple lives in Oakland, California, but they found their dream home 113 miles north in The Sea Ranch, a design enclave like no other. It came about in the most ordinary of ways. “It’s the classic Bay Area scenario—we wanted a toehold in the real estate market, but we were finding it very expensive,” says DeWitt, principal of Framestudio. “We started looking outside of our area.”
DeWitt’s mind immediately turned to The Sea Ranch, an area he’d long admired. When Cook saw it, he, too, became an instant convert.
If you are of a design mind, it’s easy to see why. The short story of Sea Ranch is that it’s a planned community along a short stretch of the Sonoma Coast. The long story is one of architectural and environmental significance.
In 1962, architect Al Boeke came up with the idea of a development that would sit lightly on and integrate beautifully with this dramatic, remote part of Sonoma County. It was purchased by Oceanic California Inc., and what most would consider an architectural dream team was assembled to develop it, including Boeke, Joseph Esherick and George Homsey, and the firm MLTW (Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker.
Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed a 10-mile master plan and artist Barbara Stauffacher Solomon created the community’s distinctive logo and the supergraphics in some of the buildings.
Not only did the project spawn what’s called the Sea Ranch Style—a midcentury rustic vernacular applied to rough-hewn but sleek-and-simple homes—community opposition to the development of the land eventually birthed the California Coastal Commission.
All that is part of the bigger picture. The subject of this story is much, much smaller—684 square feet in fact. It was one of the model homes that Esherick and Homsey created for the community.
“We believe that ours was one of about 10 tiny homes built there. There were three versions of the tiny homes, and Homsey considers ours the best,” says DeWitt. “They were created to show how working class people might afford a place in Sea Ranch.”
Of the 10 or so small homes built, DeWitt says only this one remains with its original dimensions. “It was owned by the same family for 49 years,” says DeWitt. “Although there were plans for an addition, that was never built.”
In fact, not much else was changed until the original owners decided to put the three-level, two-bedroom home on the market. “It had been pretty much abandoned. When the owner decided to sell it, she put on new siding, a new roof, and new windows,” says DeWitt. A large pile of construction debris remained in the middle of the floor on the first day the couple viewed it.
DeWitt, who is an Esherick admirer, describes that moment: “When I saw it, I kind of died,” he says. “I calmed down and told myself: ‘No, you can’t do this. It’s too early in the marriage, and you don’t have enough savings. But as I considered it, I realized what an opportunity it was. This was a chance to buy a blue chip architectural starter house—and there won’t be more homes created by Esherick, Turnbull, or Moore.”
Cook was enchanted by the landscape. “I was first struck by how rugged and pristine it felt, the crashing waves on rocky cliffs, mists carried on the wind and through the redwoods, and grassy meadows with resident deer and turkey,” he says. “In Sea Ranch, I saw a community built primarily to appreciate and sustain natural beauty.”
It’s that special quality that, once the home was purchased, thrilled and scared the couple. “It’s a conundrum many people face when they by a midcentury home with a provenance,” DeWitt says. “What do you keep for the sake of the original historic fabric? At what point do you give up and say three drawers in the kitchen will not cut it and that you need a dishwasher?”
The couple decided to do an architectural version of WWJD, only their acronym was WWED, or what would Esherick do? “We decided to ask ourselves what—given the materials we have now—would the architect have done,” says DeWitt. “Everything we added, we had that in mind. The idea of these houses is that they should be inexpensive, so things like granite countertops would not be right. We used materials like laminate and plywood where we made modifications.”
They also used what was there. Remember that waste pile in the middle of the floor? It contained the remains of the original bunk beds. Although they couldn’t be re-installed, the couple used them as a template to recreate the beds out of new plywood.
That original wood, complete with its age-appropriate patina, was used to build some new shelves in the kitchen and nightstands in the bedroom.
Where they made modest changes, they decided to execute them in a color. The kitchen—where upper shelves remain and the lower cabinets were removed to accommodate drawer storage, a new cooktop and oven, and the first dishwasher the home had ever seen—is done in black laminate.
When the home was built, closets were niche-like and did not have walls that reached the ceiling. The couple filled in the niches by inserting custom-made cabinets crafted from blue laminate.
Another change also involves adding a door. “When we bought it, the house had a single door, and it was on the bathroom,” DeWitt says. “We wanted to give our guests privacy, so we added a door on the guest bedroom.” When that pocket-like door is closed, a supergraphics mural of their design is revealed. They also painted supergraphic designs on the underside of the bunk beds.
“What we were trying to do is respect the ideas of the original architect,” says DeWitt. “Rather than try and create an architectural pastiche and write a fake history, we did things in the spirit of the original, but made it clear what we had done.”
That said, DeWitt was so uneasy about the alterations, he sought out Homsey to ask his opinion. The architect, now in his 90s, was the “H” in the famed EHDD, an architectural firm founded by Esherick. “I tracked him down and presented what we proposed doing,” DeWitt says. “We met at his home, and I spent a couple of hours chatting with him and showing him our plans. At the end of our time together, he said: ‘Go on, make it!’ It was a huge exhale for me.”
With that blessing, they began work. In most design articles, it’s understood that “they” and “we” means contractors. In this case, it means DeWitt and Cook themselves. For both of them, it was a new experience—especially Cook, who is a medical (not a design) professional.
“I hadn’t done remodel or renovation work before, other than minor home repairs, so this seemed quite daunting and demanding at first,” he says. “Since I’m very much an amateur in this arena, I made plenty of mistakes. I learned that it cut down my re-work to double-check assumptions along the way. Chad was patient with my endless questions—it was definitely a challenging six months, but helped us to value each other’s strengths and allow space for each other’s human side.”
For both of them, the finished home is a source of pride and refuge. “I love that we were able to update the house and leave it the same,” says DeWitt. “While we stayed true to the idea of the house, we added modern technology that makes it function for us. It still feels the same way it did on the day we walked in, only better.”
But perhaps the most satisfying moment was when DeWitt received an email from Homsey after sending him pictures of the finished product. “He’s a man of few words,” the designer says. “But he wrote back and said ‘you did a great job.’”