Intended to integrate naturally into its wild surroundings, Sea Ranch Chapel looks like something off a Lord of the Rings set. (photo by James Hubbell, re-used courtesy of hubbleandhubble.com.)
Just north of Salt Point State Park, half way between Point Reyes National Seashore and Fort Bragg along the Pacific Coastal Highway, is a place called Sea Ranch. About 300 of the 1,800 uniformly shingle-clad, unpainted clapboard cottages house fulltime residents; the rest are vacation rentals. There is no perimeter fencing and no street lighting. The grass level is maintained by a herd of sheep.
If those features in themselves don’t put Sea Ranch in a totally different category for oceanfront developments, then its non-denominational chapel will.
More than a decade ago, two residents of Sea Ranch contracted internationally renowned San Diego architect James Hubbell to design and oversee construction of the small structure, intended to provide a space for spiritual contemplation for this small seaside community. Sea Ranch Chapel, as it is called, is the only publically accessible thing on the Ranch, made so from the onset by endowment to its affiliated nonprofit.
The shape, aptly evoking a cresting wave, consists of peaked shingled wings that emerge from a heavy stone foundation. The organic, weathered materials and fluid shape integrate naturally into the hillside and surrounding meadows. As the sun beams brightly above, the waves slam into the crags below and the wind whips the wildflowers. Visitors slip inside like a hermit crab into its shell seeking protection from the elements.
the chapel's interior
(photo re-used courtesy of hubbleandhubble.com)
Although not large, the 360-foot chapel provides a serene sanctuary as it was intended to do. But, typical to Hubble’s work, it is – as a whole – also a functional sculpture, a piece of art. The interior’s polished woodwork and foot-thick flagstone floors and walls yield a feeling of antiquity and, certainly, a solid sense of belonging to the place. A massive white mosaic flower engulfs the peaked ceiling, drawing eyes upward. The stained glass windows beneath the petals infuse the sacred space with a sense of the ethereal.
Considering the fact that most of Hubbell’s works are private residences, publically accessible examples such as the Chapel at Sea Ranch, the Pacific Portal on Shelter Island and the Sea Passage Fountain on Coronado’s Glorietta Bay offer the rare opportunity to experience the magnificence of his craft.
Sea Ranch Chapel is a well-kept secret tucked within a cloistered development along California’s northern coastline. Although it IS just 120 miles from San Francisco, day trippers are forewarned: given the precarious nature of this historic road, the going is slow. Surrender to the alluring seascape. No rush; no need. Like Hubbell’s Chapel, find harmony with the surroundings.