Adventure Journal | The Tricky and Sensitive Restoration of a Classic Coastal Cabin

By Mark Robertson

Photography by Drew Kelly and Jesse Boomer

November 16, 2018

When Californians refer to “the Ranch,” they’re traditionally talking about Hollister Ranch, a private enclave north of Santa Barbara that hide epic surf breaks (and which gave its name to the derivative “surf-inspired” clothing line from Abercrombie). In the last couple of years, they might have been the Surf Ranch, home of Kelly Slater’s epic artificial wave located in the state’s Central Valley. But if it was the late 1960s, they were probably talking about the Sea Ranch, a somewhat idyllic development of cabins and low-key homes about 100 miles north of San Francisco.

The developers of the Sea Ranch weren’t exactly utopians, but they saw themselves as idealist about building homes in harmony with nature. They wrote at the time (around 1967 or so), “It must be assumed that all owners of property within the Sea Ranch—by virtue of their purchase of such property—are motivated by the character of the natural environment in which their property is located, and accept, for and among themselves, the principle that the development and use of the Sea Ranch must preserve that character for its present and future enjoyment by other owners.”

Opponents didn’t agree that Sea Ranch was preserving the local character, and their fight against Sea Ranch led to the 1972 creation of the California Coastal Commission, which is one of the most powerful government bodies and whose charter is to preserve access to the coast for all; the commission forced the Sea Ranch to shrink from more than 5,000 planned homes to about 2,400. One of those homes is known as the Sea Ranch Cabin or the Esherick MiniMod, designed by noted Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick and build in 1968 to be a show house for the Sea Ranch. Over the last 50 years, many of the first-built cabins located there have been modified and no longer resemble their early, low-key, and harmonious designs, but the Esherick was recently renovated to match the original by an Oakland design collective called Framestudio. The renovators used wood from the site and added bunk beds, a built-in sofa, kitchen, and new cabinets, while fully restoring the exterior and modernizing the utilities.

Framestudio’s brief writes:

Commissioned by the original developers of The Sea Ranch, the cabin was built in 1968 by Matt Silvia for Oceanic Properties as a Demonstration Home. Along with the more famous Hedgerow homes on Black Point, the cabin showed by prospective buyers by example how the Sea Ranch design standards could produce a cleverly designed, affordable weekend home. Esherick collaborated with his associate George Homsey to design these homes, along with the General Store and Restaurant that we now know as The Sea Ranch Lodge. Three versions of this model were produced, with Homsey remarking in a letter to the original owners that he felt this was the best version

The cabin was purchased new from Oceanic by John & Carol Marchant. A prominent Berkeley attorney, Marchant served as president of the board of directors at The Sea Ranch during the challenging Bane Bill years that lead to the formation of the California Coastal Commission. Ms. Marchant shared that the cabin was well loved, nicknamed Old Yeller for its vibrantly yellow painted interior, traces of which you can still see on the beams

Due to their diminutive size, many of the MiniMods were modified during their lifetime. While Homsey at one point produced drawings for an addition, status quo reigned, and the cabin was never significantly modified. Times changed, and the home was rented to long-term tenants, who made their own mark by building the deck and carving the stump into the seat, which is loved for its views of the setting sun. By the early 2000’s, the home began to suffer from age and neglect, being virtually abandoned for almost a decade.

In 2010, long deferred maintenance was commenced by the Marchants. Homsey was again consulted to add insulation to the formerly uninsulated roof. The original redwood plywood siding was replaced with mahogany, along with new windows and doors. The mullion in the sliding doors is an attempt to capture the look of the original glass sliding doors, which were divided with a tempered panel on the lower lite. The interior suffered over the years, with many original elements dismantled or missing entirely.

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