The Deep Dive: A Sea Ranch Renovation

The house was originally built in 1968 as a demonstration home for the Sea Ranch planned community.
Text by
David Sokol
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As any issue of Dwell proves, the choice of material or joinery method can transform a good project into a design for the ages. The Deep Dive is a monthly forum where Dwell Pro readers can obsess over those details. Here we ask expert colleagues to share the inspiration behind house elements that delight clients—as well as the nitty-gritty information with which they strategized the solution.

A Reinterpreted Kitchen

For the September installment, we head to the redwood groves of Sea Ranch, California. Here you’ll find Mini-Mod #3, which was originally completed in 1968 by architect Joseph Esherick with his associate George Homsey as a demonstration home for northern California’s most famous planned community, and is now one of 3 Vacation Rentals We’d Love to Stay In from Dwell’s July/August travel issue

Since 2017, the 684-square-foot house has been owned by Framestudio founder Chad DeWitt and his husband James Cook. As residents of the mythically expensive Bay Area, Chad and James decided to buy an income-producing second home while they were renting their primary residence to get on the property ladder, giving themselves six months to prep the house for renters. Muscling the renovation almost entirely themselves, the couple swapped out windows and doors as well as the roof, and they turned Esherick’s storage alcoves into closets where their personal belongings could hide from guests’ view. They even replaced the original drywall stair guard with the rough sawn Douglas fir plywood that Esherick had specified in diagrams. "When developers build on spec, things get changed in the field," Chad says of the altered surface. "Those choices don’t necessarily make it back to the construction drawings."

The homeowners’ new kitchen encapsulates the care with which Chad approached all three prongs of the overall renovation: refresh existing building elements, modify the design to suit present-day uses, and define how Esherick and Homsey might leave their imprint today. In the matter of refreshing, the kitchen’s U-shape is effectively no different in plan, and Chad and James restored its rotary sawn Douglas fir overhead cubbies. Above the cooktop, they recreated a hood that was designed but never executed, installing within it a 1960s-era extractor fan discovered via eBay.

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Modifications are barely visible and cunning. Naturally the kitchen’s other equipment is new, but Chad specified proportionately narrow appliances more often associated with Europe than rural California. The toe kicks that edge the bottoms of cabinets are now drawers filled with cooking sheets and serving trays, which have supported dinners that Chad and James have hosted for as many as 20 friends. And just as vinyl covered the kitchen’s plywood floors for almost 50 years, rubber finishes it now. "Whatever material we landed on, it had to be formatted in similar sheets," Chad says of the flooring. Rubber is also a subtle nod to the High Tech movement that followed late-midcentury modernism, not to mention a nice cushion for footfalls.

Indeed, Chad exercised the most creative license with the kitchen’s final layer of finishes. "I was trying to find products that evoke the originals, but which are also of the 21st century," he explains. Consider the cabinet faces, which originally were also fabricated from Douglas fir plywood. Chad instead decided to affix a satiny black plastic laminate by Abet Laminati and manufactured by Polaris to a birch multi-ply substrate. "If I want to hide something in plain sight, I usually opt for a dark charcoal color—black kitchens don’t draw attention to themselves," he says. "There’s also the unsexy answer that, at the time, Polaris was the greatest ultra-matte, fingerprint-proof laminate technology. And it was only available in black, gray, or white."

Black countertops and a Vola faucet underscore the cabinetry’s departure fromlegacy. In another example of zigging where Esherick and Homsey had zagged, Chad eschewed surface-mounted handles for integrated pulls. These were made by routing out the cabinets, which also reveals their layered assembly and nods to the kitchen’s woodsier roots. 

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"For midcentury houses with personality, even those of lesser importance, I like to approach remodeling without ego," Chad says of his vision for Mini-Mod #3, "While the kitchen is my design, it’s a design that defers to the architecture." In the five years that he and James have stewarded the house, the only contradictory voice they have encountered was that of Homsey himself, whom Chad met (by way of circumstances almost too improbable to believe) just before the architect’s death in 2019. "George was pretty nonchalant that there was no need to preserve a house in amber, because houses change."

Would you have sensitively bridged past and present, like Chad, or are you a member of precedent-defying Team Homsey? We welcome your thoughts and illustrative projects. Reach out to


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