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Warren and Sadie Gregory purchased the Santa Cruz mountain acreage in 1916, and they drove or took the train down from Berkeley to vacation there whenever they could. Initially, a small Gothic Revival farmhouse dating from the 1880’s provided adequate shelter. It eventually felt cramped for a family of four children, and it stood at the bottom of a heavily forested canyon. They hired William Wurster to design a larger residence to be located at a higher point in the canyon, in order to take advantage of the views and to enjoy the sunshine.
The Gregory Farmhouse is a Bay Region Modernist style house. Upon arrival, all of the elements of the residential compound are visible at once. Standing on the western side of the property looking east, there is the concrete block front wall with its central, diagonal braced wooden gates that open onto the compound’s forecourt; the tall, sheer frame water tower, with a thick mud-walled one-story structure at its base to the northwest; and the L-shaped house proper, itself wooden frame with board siding - its simple gable-ends and covered walkways forming the southern and eastern two sides of the courtyard. This forecourt affords the house a public countenance, shielding the main living spaces behind it and allowing them to open informally to a private outdoor space. On the south side of the house, a low-walled terrace off the living room looks out over a vineyard sloping down to an old apple orchard. In the distance is a view of Monterey Bay. The terrace broadens into a sweeping curve as it extends around the east side or back of the house. The whitewashed vertical boards, double-hung windows, porch overhangs and shingle roofs have a timeless quality about them – they are devoid of any decorative flourish or fashionable quirk. In the words of the architect, William Wurster, this is, “a house of a carpenter architecture – no wood beams or posts larger than absolutely necessary – an arid, California yard with the protecting walls about.” For the Gregory farmhouse, Wurster reinterpreted aspects of the vernacular Monterey ranch, by abstracting it slightly, by favoring broad unbroken surfaces and by employing a stricter sense of proportion and axiality.
The stark whitewashing of the complex, gives a flash of white through the frame of scrub oak and the shadowy redwood groves. In the summertime, the crispness of the white, prismatic forms emphasizes the contrast with the parched grass field to the south.
Currently, the house remains as isolated as had originally been intended given its usage as a summer house. Warren Gregory’s affection for this particular site is movingly expressed in a letter, “I am building a new house up on the ridge where the sun is a more frequent visitor and we can look across Scott’s Valley in the evening and count the evening stars.”
The Gregory farmhouse is ±70 miles south of San Francisco, CA. The house stands at the end of a dirt and asphalt drive, on a terraced clearing in an area dense with manzanita and groves of redwood, oak, and fir in the Santa Cruz Mountains along the central California coast.
"I like to work on direct, honest solutions, avoiding exotic materials, using indigenous things so that there is no affectation and the best is obtained for the money," Wurster said in 1936. The Gregory farmhouse was one of his first houses to express that philosophy with eloquence and assurance.
The Gregory Farmhouse is often labeled the first ranch house. This achievement isn't as dubious as it may seem; Wurster's intriguing design puts to shame the ubiquitous, low-slung copies that eventually sprang up in suburban housing tracts across the country.
Wurster’s trademarks, as architectural historian Daniel P. Gregory, grandson of Sadie and Warren Gregory, remarks, are “a sophisticated simplicity, careful siting, emphatic indoor-outdoor relationships, natural materials straightforwardly worked and a contradictory air of informal, sometimes rustic elegance – like an expensively tailored workshirt.”
Gregory goes on to explain, “His was not a radical but a subtle art. Like a photographer or collage-maker, he dealt in ready-made images, fashioning his assemblages out of the experience of everyday reality.” In his early houses Wurster reworded the old and ordinary, helping us to see familiar things as if for the first time.
A vivid composition fashioned out of ordinary forms and materials, the Gregory farmhouse expresses a brand of assertive modesty that became especially appealing during the Depression. The process of clarification and simplification, of reduction to essential elements was important to the owners. Not only did Sadie Gregory need to keep costs down with her husband’s death (Warren Gregory sadly died of a heart attach in 1927, before the house was completed), she also frowned upon pretense of any kind. She had been trained as a political economist at the University of Chicago, where she had studied under Thorstein Veblen. Any hint of “conspicuous consumption” was anathema.
"The endless variety of fronts presented by the better class of tenements and apartment houses in our cities is an endless variety of architectural distress and suggestions of expensive discomfort," Veblen wrote. "Considered as objects of beauty, the dead walls of the sides and backs of these structures, left untouched by the hand of the artist, are commonly the best feature of the building." Veblen's stinging condemnation of those who flaunt their wealth was never far from the mind of Sadie Gregory; she kept a photograph of Veblen on her dressing table.
"In the wake of such indictments, a segment of the upper classes, emulating the European aristocracy or 'old money,' more calmly adjusted their lifestyles and possessions in architecture and furnishings," Marc Treib, who curated a SFMOMA exhibit on William Wurster with the assistance of Dorothée Imbert, wrote in the exhibit catalog. "The higher social strata of the Bay Area tended to adopt these precepts and wished to inhabit an architecture at once comfortable yet expressive of social station."
"Architecture is not a goal," Wurster wrote in 1956. "Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture." Published widely in the architectural journals and popular shelter magazines of the day, first in Sunset in 1930, as well as in Architect and Engineer, Architecture, and Pencil Points, and House Beautiful, from which it won a gold medal for small dwelling design – the Gregory farmhouse stood out among the traditional Tudor, Neoclassical, or Spanish Colonial Revival-inspired houses and estates that were still appearing regularly. The house looked new and old at the same time. It expressed a modern approach to function without assuming radically new shapes and forms. House Beautiful wrote, “This house has, we believe, the great merit of originality and simplicity. Obviously a copy of no other house, it is a straightforward attempt to solve a specific problem, which it does in the most discreet manner.” Simplicity became the Gregory farmhouse’s most remarked upon quality. By the 1960’s the house had become an emblem of regionalism, used often to illustrate part of California’s contribution to the history of architecture. It represented at the time an in-between in the evolution of modernism: not traditional, not avant-garde but free thinking and pragmatic. Architectural historian Sally Woodbridge wrote that in the farmhouse Wurster “took the body of modernism and gave it a regional soul.” Wurster designed high ceilings and wide, generous hallways that could be used as far more than just pathways from one space to the next. He created the "room with no name" by eliminating interior walls that traditionally separated the living room, dining room and den. Again, this opened up the interior. Wurster also blurred the distinction between inside and outside. It was not unusual for several--if not all--the rooms in his homes to have access to the outside.
Feeling that modernism was being turned into a rigid stylistic dogma, Wurster insisted on a flexible approach.
"Over and over again I would reiterate that Modern is a point of view not a style," Wurster wrote in a 1936 Architect and Engineer article. "And everyone seems so determined to pin set things to it. Use the site--the money--the local materials--the client--the climate to decide what it shall be."
By blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors, carefully positioning windows to take in breathtaking views or intimate private gardens, creating spaces that could serve a variety of uses, and relying on unadorned interiors and exteriors, Wurster helped define what architecture critic Lewis Mumford dubbed the “Bay Region” style of modernism.
Through the Gregory farmhouse and other structures, William Wurster offered an alternative to the austere, dogmatic International Style espoused by architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who held sway over the US architectural scene throughout the bulk of Wurster's career. Instead of glass, steel and stucco boxes, Wurster developed an understated architecture that relied heavily on regional building history and indigenous materials – handled, however, with simplicity, refinement, and a forward thinking and creative mind.