The ‘nth’ degree of separation.

This story begins in the spring of 1997, some seventeen years ago…

At the time, my wife and I lived in Houston, Texas. She had stumbled upon an absolutely marvelous Marvin Watson-designed condominium located in the “Upper Kirby” district only months before and we’d begun to settle into an urban lifestyle that revolved largely, (if not exclusively), around food, wine, art and architecture. It was these shared passions prompting friends of ours to suggest we plan a trip that summer to visit wine country in northern California. …little did I know what a profound influence this trip would have on our lives!

We spent time in Napa Valley and in Sonoma Valley, sampling offerings from some of the best wineries and restaurants in the region. Additionally, our friends made arrangements for the four of us to spend three nights at a planned community simply called The Sea Ranch located in the northwestern corner of Sonoma County.

As architectural neophytes, we’d never heard of The Sea Ranch – what was this place? Our friends had made the trek to the Sonoma coast years before and visited The Sea Ranch, but it was a day trip, so their attempts to describe it to us, while admirable, just didn’t do justice to what Martha and I were about to experience for the very first time…

We traveled south from Healdsburg on Interstate 101 to River Road, then wound our way west through the Russian River Valley, intersecting first with Highway 116 and then, eventually, with Highway 1. We drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway, tracing the contours of the western edge of the continent through Jenner, Fort Ross, Salt Point, Timber Cove and Stewarts Point before reaching the southern boundary of The Sea Ranch. After a brief stop at the Sea Ranch Lodge to pick up keys to the vacation rental we’d be staying in, we made our way to the house, opened the door, stepped in and were immediately captivated by the crashing waves, rugged cliffs and wind-ravaged cypress hedgerows we could see off in the distance.

Over the course of the next several days we ended up doing what countless other visitors to The Sea Ranch have done since 1964. We hiked the coastal bluff trails, we lunched on the deck of our vacation rental, (or at nearby restaurants), we gazed at the stars at night while relaxing on chaise lounges and in between all of this relaxing and eating, we explored the nooks and crannies of this eleven mile stretch of the Sonoma coast while looking at undeveloped lots with our friends and fantasizing about having a home there. Several days later we reluctantly packed our suitcases and made our way back to Houston.

Time passed, and while many other memories began to fade, my memories of those windswept bluffs did not. I kept recreating mental images of what I’d seen – vivid, and yet a little bit hazy around the edges, just like a dream – in my mind. Those images never left. Within a few short years, we found ourselves living in northern California in the heart of Silicon Valley. After being invited to attend the opening reception for a photographer we’d collected for years, (but had never met in person), we had our reason to return to The Sea Ranch.  …and therein lies the tale.

It was early afternoon on July 3rd, 2004 when we arrived in the small town of Gualala – red, white and blue banners were everywhere – and we immediately made our way to our dear friend’s gallery where we were introduced to Christopher Burkett and his lovely wife, Ruth. While this was the primary reason we’d made the 3 ½ hour trek from Cupertino, our interactions with Christopher and Ruth were just the start of numerous “magical moments” we experienced that weekend!

While we were enjoying Christopher’s photography, we were (re)introduced to Jim Alinder, (a renowned photographer in his own right), who was sharing gallery space with Paul and Carol Kozal, (the owners of Studio 391). Jim, (who unbeknownst to us at the time), is a close friend of Donlyn Lyndon, of the the principals in MLTW, the firm chosen by Castle & Cooke in 1963 to design Condominium One at The Sea Ranch. Jim is also the photographer of many of the images found in the book titled The Sea Ranch, regarded by many as the definitive record of this very special place. Jim patiently listened to my remembrances of our first visit to The Sea Ranch seven years prior, then asked if he could step away momentarily to make a telephone call. We learned days later that Jim had, in fact, stepped away to call Donlyn and explain that he, (Jim), had just met a wonderful couple, (us), who seemed to be just the type of client Donlyn would enjoy working with. Jim rejoined the conversation and a short while later, we were introduced to Donlyn Lyndon for the very first time.

While we were blissfully paging through a copy of The Sea Ranch, Donlyn began describing the designs he was working on for two lots located on Sea Gate Road. Donlyn explained these two lots were owned by his brother and sister-in-law, (one having been just been sold to the author, Jacquelynn Baas, a few months prior), and that he was going to design the houses for both lots. Donlyn suggested we join him on Sunday afternoon at his studio where we could look at the sketches of the cottage meant for the available lot – we were thrilled by the prospect of getting to see what were absolutely guaranteed, (in our minds), to be classic Sea Ranch designs!

Donlyn also suggested we make our way across the street to a local bookstore where Buzz Yudell and Tina Beebe were signing copies of a recently-released volume focusing on recent projects by Moore Ruble Yudell, (both Buzz and Tina were longtime collaborators with Charles Moore), before we concluded our afternoon in Gualala. Not wanting to miss out on a serendipitous moment like this, we said our goodbyes and headed up the street to Cypress Village. We emerged from the bookstore with a signed copy cradled in our arms, exchanging bewildered glances, wondering aloud how this weekend could get any better? Well, it did…

We wandered upstairs from the bookstore to a tastefully decorated space called Current Carpets, and had the privilege of meeting Hansine Pedersen Goran, the proprietor. She specializes in handcrafted wool carpets, and we immediately fell in love with both Hansine and her designs. Within 24 hours we were at her house – a spectacular home perched on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific – where we met, among others, Al Forster, Hanne and Henrik Liisberg, and Hansine’s husband, Mike Goran.  We proceeded to have one of the most memorable July 4th cookouts ever! How does something like this happen? We’re roughly four hours into our visit and we’re already being invited to join Sea Ranch veterans to celebrate July 4th – where else on earth does something like this take place? In our experience, nowhere else, but it has happened more than once when we’ve visited The Sea Ranch.  Absolutely remarkable!

Fast forward to the next afternoon when we find ourselves at Donlyn Lyndon’s house where we are introduced to his wife, Alice Wingwall, and her guide dog, Slater. After  carefully studying their lovely home while Donlyn described it to us, we made our way out to his studio. It’s a sunny, comfortable, perfectly-proportioned space located about 20 feet from the house, across a deck connecting the two buildings to one another. Donlyn had already pulled out the drawings of the two designs and had them spread out on the table in his studio. There was also a 1/16 inch scale topographical model of both lots, with models of both structures perched high up on the slopes of each. Shelves lined his studio, all of them crammed full of countless volumes, all of those volumes begging for our attention, but we – with some effort – turned our attention to the items on the table. As we began to study drawings, Donlyn casually reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a pair of glasses, flicked them open and slipped them onto his face. He glanced up at the two of us, and I heard Martha inhale sharply – almost like a gasp – and exclaim “Donlyn, were you at William Stout Architectural Books about four months ago on a Saturday afternoon?” as her eyes got rather wide. He paused, then said it was entirely possible he had, in fact, visited the bookstore – in fact, he was almost certain he’d been there – and that’s when the two of us began to laugh.  It was the glasses – Martha recognized Donlyn in that moment – the beard, the voice and the glasses!

Here’s what happened: we had been at William Stout Architectural Books on that pleasant Saturday afternoon just months before and while we were scouring the shelves, Martha leaned over and said to me she was almost certain this dignified-looking gentleman standing up at the counter talking with Bill Stout was a famous architect, but she couldn’t be absolutely sure. As Donlyn was collecting his purchases and preparing to leave, this dignified – and bespectacled – gentleman paused for just a moment, turned so he was facing into the store, said “Please be sure to support wonderful shops like this one!” to those who were within earshot, smiled broadly at Bill, turned toward the door and made his way out onto the street.

To this day, we are absolutely certain we had, in fact, encountered Donlyn Lyndon in the heart of San Francisco at one of our favorite architectural bookstores of all time. Now tell me, what are the odds?

…back to July 4th. We conclude our afternoon with Donlyn, bid farewell to Alice and Slater, and, after a final meal at Pangea Sunday evening, (Pangea was a quaint restaurant that brightened the southern corner of the Mendocino coast for a brief period of time), we made our way back to Cupertino on Monday morning, (happily, the chef/owner is still turning out great food, just a little further north in the town of Point Area at his newest venture, UNEDAEAT).

I’m sure you can see where this story is headed. Yes, Martha and I did purchase one of those two lots from Donlyn’s brother and sister-in-law, Maynard and Lu Lyndon, a few weeks later. We completed the transaction shortly after the two of them wrapped up their cross-country trek from Massachusetts to California to become full-time residents of The Sea Ranch. In fact, we ended up purchasing the adjacent lot a little over a year later from Jacquelynn Baas after she and Rob Elder were married and moved into his lovely Sea Ranch residence several miles north of Sea Gate Road.

Alas, as of July 4th, 2014 our two Sea Ranch lots remain vacant – at least for the time being – though we did enjoy many trips to The Sea Ranch while we lived in the Bay Area to refine the designs, visit the site and relish the company of fellow Sea Ranch residents. I have no doubt that, in time, two exquisite structures will emerge from their respective sites, each relating remarkably well to one another, as well as to the surrounding landscape that is, and always has been, unique to The Sea Ranch.  That’s the goal.

While we hadn’t been back in almost four years, we decided to spend July 4th, 2014 at The Sea Ranch, just as we had 10 years prior. That same magic abounds – we had as marvelous an experience as we’ve ever had there – and that brings me to the last twist in my serendipitous tale.

Now you may be asking yourself about the title of this post…

Why call it “The ‘nth’ degree of separation.”?

…and what could The Sea Ranch possibly have to do with the Byrne residence?

Well, this is where it starts to get interesting.  You see, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the inception of The Sea Ranch, (in fact, the celebration began in May and is scheduled to run for the next twelve months, concluding in May of next year with a special concert by the Kronos Quartet).

On October 18th of this year there will be a one day workshop called “The Once & Future Sea Ranch: An Architectural Forum”, moderated by Donlyn Lyndon.  …and the most heartwarming news related to the Forum?  One of the five panelists invited to participate in the event is none other than Will Bruder – the architect of the Byrne residence!

It was this wonderful coincidence that inspired the title of my post – we have the privilege of knowing both of these extremely talented architects personally, and will most assuredly be sitting in the audience at the Architectural Forum this coming October when we return to The Sea Ranch for what is going to be a very, very special occasion!

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