Sea Ranch Reborn

Charles de Lisle’s revival of the Sea Ranch Lodge is both passion project and pilgrimage
View of an unusual building at entrance of The Sea Ranch.

Above Image: The landmark entry building for Sea Ranch

By Alisa Carroll

“We have an important responsibility here. What do we bring to this environment and how do we alter it? In some profound sense I feel myself a custodian rather than an owner of it. To this place which enriches my life, I feel I owe constant vigilance and care for its poetic and spiritual survival. I hope those who follow me feel the same.”

– Lawrence Halprin

Arguably the most iconic community of its era, Sea Ranch was born in Sonoma County in the early 1960s, when architect and developer Alan Boeke and his firm purchased a 5,200-acre sheep ranch that stretched for ten miles along the coast. Boeke wanted to create a place where residences would be in harmony with the landscape, and brought in visionary architect Lawrence Halprin to create the master plan. Halprin commissioned like-minded Bay Area architects Joseph Esherick, Charles Moore, Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker to design private residences and public structures. Graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher contributed the bold, radical supergraphics that would become emblematic of the Ranch.

Now a new generation of interior designers is revitalizing this community for the 21st century. San Francisco’s Charles de Lisle has the honor of redesigning Sea Ranch Lodge, the site’s core public space. De Lisle’s deep appreciation for the architecture of the era and his craft consciousness—he trained as a ceramist—make him the design soul mate for the project; he has drawn lifelong inspiration for elements his own work from the aesthetic of Sea Ranch. Its organic materiality can be seen in his spaces for fashion designer Rachel Comey, his extraordinary interiors for a modernist residence in Pacific Heights, and his own rustic-cool Sonoma getaway. Here, De Lisle talks to HENRY about his studio’s thoughtful approach to the restoration of the Lodge, which is scheduled for completion in early 2021.

Designer posing for photo in his library.

Charles de Lisle. Photo by Daniel Dent.

Would you walk us through the project?
We started helping out with the main lodge building, which includes a restaurant, cocktail bar, lounge, general store, and local post office, then came on board to help mend the small hotel building next door. Our role in the renovation has been to help rehabilitate the buildings along with designing new interiors. We began with a down-to-the-studs renovation of the Lodge and collaborated with the architect and owners to carefully maintain the finishes and the character of the original buildings while meeting current ADA access and energy requirements.

How are you staying true to the original Lodge while bringing a fresh sensibility to its spaces?
We are super excited to have the opportunity to collaborate in stewarding this amazing California story. I’ve always had an obsession with the shingled box, and especially these, which are perched on the rocks overlooking the ocean. The character of these structures has inspired so many of our projects that for us to be able to help restore the source of that inspiration—to preserve it so it can continue to transmit ideas and stories to other people—is really amazing.

The main buildings had major deferred maintenance and were in serious need of repair and restoration. Our goal was to surgically insert all the required upgrades in a way that wouldn’t be evident to most people wandering through the spaces. For us, keeping the experience true to its original nature was the most important guide for the design. The Lodge is the only public space in the Sea Ranch community where visitors can witness those original ideas of how architecture could fit together with the rugged and rocky coast, so we wanted to make sure that experience and vibe stayed intact. The buildings have morphed and mutated from the original, but all within a certain language. We chose to replace as much in-kind as possible, with a focus on strengthening the buildings while maintaining their original character.

Our concept for the interior furnishings was to keep them simple and not to overdesign—to let the furniture almost be a transient, temporary installation that sits in the original envelope. It’s loose and kind of casual, in the spirit of the early condos and residences.

What was the condition of the interiors when you began? Obviously, there have been many redesigns over half a century.
The interiors were in great shape compared with the exterior, which had been battered by salt spray for so many years. We opted to remove any inconsistent details that had been added over the years and got the shell back to its basic open-barn-style character, protecting the original cedar paneling as much as possible and replacing it only as needed with as close a match as we could find.

Have you had an opportunity to talk with Donlyn Lyndon, Barbara Stauffacher, or any of the other living visionaries who created Sea Ranch?
I met Barbara years ago, long before this project. She is a fantastic, vibrant artist who had some great stories to tell. I’ve been a fan of supergraphics for as long as I can remember, so it was a dream to be able to meet her and hear stories of the evolution of that concept directly from the woman who created it. We protected all surviving original graphics at the Lodge.

There is a new generation of homeowners at Sea Ranch, and a new generation of interior designers working with them, including yourself. Do you feel the new owners are invested in the ethos of living with nature and preserving that for the future?
We are currently renovating a 1970s private residence up the road from the Lodge. Our clients are equally in love with the special calm and mood at the Ranch, and we are helping to update the functional areas in the bath and kitchen while retaining the charming, funky, old-school character. I think that’s why people want to be up at Sea Ranch again—that combination of comraderie with nature and solitude that is held by the architecture, mashed with this great pop sensibility and simplicity. It’s pretty unique.

What a privilege to be chosen for this project, not only for its architectural and environmental legacies, but for you personally, since Sea Ranch has been a touchpoint for you throughout your life. How did that fascination start, and how has it inspired your work over the years?
It’s been in my language forever. I have always been a huge fan of shingle style or the modern craft style I love the irreverent application of primary color up at Sea Ranch and the original elements of the houses there—lots of vertical wood paneling, shingles, even the common chrome Chicago faucets and colored Formica countertops that find their way into almost every project we do. I’m also a big proponent of how humble materials can elevate a story and contribute to how you experience your world. Being a child of the seventies doesn’t hurt, either—there was nothing better than a cool modern barn conversion back then, and it still works pretty great today, too.

Updated mid-century modern living area with floor to ceiling view.
Modern designed log cabin.

De Lisle’s own Sonoma retreat, a study in craft and form. Photo by David Duncan Livingston.

Room divider in 60's reminiscent graphics.

A supergraphic detail from the Pacific Heights project.

What is the heart of Sea Ranch for you? What is the experience it delivers?
Sea Ranch holds a bit of that magic in altering experiences of your day-to-day world. It makes sense to me that this phenomenon happens here in California; the feeling of it is radical. Other examples could be visiting Big Sur or the Tassajara Zen Center—the light, the way you feel between redwood buildings and the cold river—it kind of rewires your brain. The houses at Sea Ranch are vessels for people to be remote, quiet, and solitary, to be in touch with the atmosphere of nature.

Hand drawn topographical map.

Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103