When most of us think of what West Marin offers, great food, beautiful hikes, pristine wilderness and scenic drives may come to mind. With the power of Mother Nature everywhere around us, we may spend less time thinking of the positive things that stem from human ingenuity.
Four years ago, we bought the historic Waite property on Vision Road. We were drawn to it for its serenity, remoteness, forested views and unique vision. After getting to know members of the Waite family, researching the property and talking with experts, we came to learn that the property is a treasure trove of some of the most influential architecture in the Bay Area, and it is almost frozen in time.
At the top of Vision Road are four cabins—expressions of the handmade house architectural movement that flourished in West Marin during the 1960s and 70s, an important era for California architecture. But most importantly, these cabins convey the artistic spirit of one pioneering builder, Howard Waite, who represented a unique part of Inverness history.
Longtime residents may be familiar with an influential book published in 1973 titled “Handmade Houses: A Guide to Woodbutcher’s Art.” Written by Art Boericke and photographed by Barry Shapiro, it chronicled the beautiful, free-form architecture that emerged when people living off the grid took matters into their own hands. The structures they built from trees they felled and without traditional constraints or even formal plans conveyed a purity and beauty that epitomize the larger social themes of the ’60s and ’70s. Their creativity, ingenuity and uniqueness caught the attention of artists, curators and architects around the world and influenced a whole generation. Because Waite was a successful engineer by trade, his cabins are some of the only examples of the movement that are still intact.
Architectural expert and author Richard Olsen defends the notion that “architecture is about the people.” He opines that the Waite property is a reflection of ideas and visions inspired by bold friendships, daring creativity, brazen spirit and an audacious point of view—the very essence of Inverness circa 1960. It’s that very same spirit that drew us to the land.
A recent Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive spring exhibition called “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” drives home the point, featuring 30 of Barry Shapiro’s images from “Handmade Houses.” While the show exhibited over 400 different kinds of media and objects to illustrate how the counterculture era had explosive reverberations internationally, the exhibition’s signature image—reproduced repeatedly, from Australia to Austria—is the iconic, late 1960’s photograph of Waite’s Inverness cabin, with its distinctive parabolic log roof.
In talking with the show’s curator, Greg Castillo, an associate professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, we learned that the image was also featured in Paris in 1976, at an exposition deemed so shocking at the time that is was shut down. While we had known that artists like Isamu Noguchi, Gordon Matta-Clark and others had gathered under that roof, we had no idea that the cabin’s influence was so widespread, nor its impact on Northern California’s cultural heritage so important.
Who would have known that under the bishop pines and behind the silvered fences of our region lie such influential structures?
This leads to many questions. How to preserve such a legacy? How many other buildings in the area also stem from this period? In a place so concerned with conservation, how do we also learn preservation? The J.B. Blunk House, built by Waite’s daughter Nancy Waite and her husband, J.B. Blunk, is another exceptional example from the era that has garnered national attention and reverence.
What else can we collectively be doing to maintain this legacy that West Marin gave the world? These buildings, by their very nature, were not built to last. They were made from whatever materials were available and not insulated or well managed. Though they may be hard to live in by today’s standards, that does not mean they should be demolished. In fact, if we don’t all act now, it may be too late.
This issue may be academic for some, but it is personal for us. After spending several years working closely with the county to ensure that our project was environmentally sensitive, the county granted its approval last December to replace one of the cabins with a new 3,900-square-foot home and to preserve three existing handmade cabins.
Disappointingly, we are now facing an appeal from certain members of the Inverness Association who seek to tear down one of the more unique cabins, known to many as the “studio” or “windmill.” Waite and his grandsons built the cabin from logs felled on site, and it has existed in the community, without complaint, for over three decades. Its loss would be a very sad thing, and we have a hard time imagining that the broader membership of the Inverness Association and of the community would knowingly seek to abolish an important link to the past.
Trevor and Alexis Traina live in San Francisco with their young family and have spent their adult lives visiting Inverness. Alexis works in wine marketing and Trevor runs IfOnly, which raises money for charities and causes.