Sea Ranch, a Planned Community in Northern California, Is a Testament to the State’s Utopian Spirit
My husband, Jason, and I first heard of the place in 2019. Friends had seen an exhibition about its history at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and they soon made the three-hour pilgrimage. "The hedgerows!" one of our friends gushed, trying to explain what made the Sea Ranch so wonderful.
Jason and I agreed that we had zero interest in seeing it—why would we want to spend days trapped in a glorified gated community? It turns out we were very wrong.
The idea for the Sea Ranch was born in the early 1960s, when an unconventional developer named Al Boeke fell for a rugged, 1,000-acre former sheep pasture just south of the small town of Gualala. The project was ostensibly a financial investment for the Hawaiian company that employed Boeke, but for him, it was also a chance to explore the way design intersects with ecology, social justice, and the idea of "living lightly with the land"—a phrase coined by one of the Sea Ranch's architects, Donlyn Lyndon.
Boeke hired San Francisco–based landscape architect Lawrence Halprin to help lead the project. Halprin was a kind of architectural shaman who wore cowboy boots and made hand-drawn plans that looked like hippie manifestos.
His guiding principle for the Sea Ranch was to preserve the natural character of the landscape. He assembled a dream team that included future graphic-design legend Barbara Stauffacher Solomon; architects Joseph Esherick, Charles Moore, and William Turnbull; and master builder Matthew Sylvia.
Magic happened. Houses were built with charm and modesty. Development bylaws ensured that the land was shared and unspoiled. Trails wound along the cliffs to private beaches and into upland forests of redwoods; communal recreation centers were built with swimming pools, tennis courts, and saunas, their walls decorated with playful, oversize motifs in primary colors that later became known as "supergraphics."
Then the spell was broken. Utopian and capitalist impulses began to butt heads, and the schizophrenic nature of the project was revealed. During the next two decades, architects and designers jumped ship and a few mega-mansions appeared among the community's some 2,200 properties.
But thanks to Halprin's vision and renewed enforcement of the bylaws, the Sea Ranch spirit is alive and well. A new wave of families is moving in, and a younger generation of design enthusiasts is starting to visit.
Since the Sea Ranch is a private community, you have to rent a house within its bounds if you want access to the exclusive trails, beaches, and recreation centers. There is a "choose your own adventure" aspect to renting there. You can stay on a windswept bluff, deep in the redwoods, in a spartan cottage, or in a glass box—the list is long.
Be warned: on arrival, you might find yourself asking, "What's the big deal?" But after seeing those fairy rings of redwoods and the lines of the Modernist structures through rising sea mist, you will become a believer.
A version of this story first appeared in the February 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Into the Woods.