A Beach House for the Ages

LEWIS W. BUTLER of Butler Armsden Architects in San Francisco is proof that architects design their earliest work for family and, in his case, for several generations at once.

Indeed, while Butler was still at Harvard in 1985 and under the tutelage of architect William Turnbull of Sea Ranch fame, one of the first homes he worked on was a 2,200-square-foot beach dwelling for his grandmother Lucy Butler and his parents, Sheana and Lewis H. Butler.

Their weekend redoubt on a broad stretch of Stinson Beach’s Seadrift sandspit was built on land that had belonged to Butler’s grandmother since the 1950s. “She bought two adjacent 60-foot-wide lots for just $3,000 each,” Butler says, with the idea that a house would rise there someday in the spirit of her 1935 retreat near Santa Cruz, designed by the prominent California architect William Wurster. That house had an unusual central courtyard that she loved, and Wurster’s ranch-style, gable-roofed houses with large overhangs for outdoor living were the kind of Bay Area modern structures she always admired.

Butler worked under his architecturally savvy family’s gaze and cleverly split Wurster’s central courtyard notion into two. An ocean-facing enclosure and, opposite it, a rear courtyard with a mountain backdrop are contained within the H-shaped plan of the house, which has two parallel wings, each containing small bedrooms and guest spaces. They are bridged by a large 20-by-24-foot family room in the middle with sliding glass-paned barn doors on opposite sides that open the room to both courtyards. The result is the ultimate in indoor-outdoor living; “it feels like a tent where breezes flow through,” Butler says. “When the wind picks up from the ocean side you can close the doors on that side and still leave the doors facing the mountains open.”

Butler included a fireplace inside the living room to echo a double-sided fireplace at his grandmother’s house. However, veering from the painted vertical board-and-batten exteriors Wurster favored, Butler used cedar shingles and white trim to echo weathered beach cottages in Massachusetts and Maine on the East Coast.

“We strode outside regionalism,” he says. “Instead of channeling Sea Ranch or the California beach vocabulary, we opted for the national beach house model.”

He made the house as small as he could, with thin bedroom wings so that the courtyards could be larger, with a feeling of open space.

“It seems so obvious to design like that, but few houses on our stretch of beach do quite that,” Butler says.

The wings on each side afford privacy from neighbors but are also designed to ward off coastal breezes when they intensify.

Nonetheless, by 2008, the winds had indeed taken their toll, and the house was worn down from being “beaten on the beach,” the architect says.

The Butler retreat clearly needed weather-resistant windows and hardier finishes than when it was first built. It had been designed to be the simplest of shelters so that visitors could focus on the beach and the ocean, but after nearly a quarter century, the inexpensive redwood decks now had to make way for more resilient stone courts. Formica (“believe it or not,” Butler chuckles) that had run its course in the bow-shaped, vaguely nautical kitchen was replaced with bluestone and the refurbished kitchen was fitted with energy-efficient appliances.

“For a beach house, it has fragile finishes, and vertical-grain Douglas fir floors had to be refinished or replaced because the beach literally sands the floor down every year,” he says. Double-paned windows now complement the heating systems and insulation embedded within the outer layer of the house, whose double-walled structure is not immediately obvious when you see the exposed structural studs inside. The skeletal interior framing contrasts with elegant wainscoting that conceals plumbing and electrical lines. All that infrastructure was left intact, and yet the surgical remodel proved pricey — about $500 a square foot — mainly because an H-shape house has far more walls than a rectangular one.

It was ostensibly being improved for Butler’s aging parents, but the architect and his sisters were also thinking of it as a convivial multigenerational retreat.

So, not too long ago they invited interior designer Barbara Scavullo of Scavullo Design, with whom Butler Armsden has worked on several projects, “to blend together old and new furnishings inside,” Butler says. “She became an expert guide when it came to balancing the aesthetic needs of everyone in this house.”

The house is a family diary, as it were, and vintage benches, tables and bunk beds original to the family’s Wurster home had begun to feel like worn bookmarks, calling out to be refreshed with newer touches.

Now, in the great room, seat belt chairs from J. Persing are arranged around a dining table that is an heirloom from the Santa Cruz house. Roomy, somewhat nostalgic McGuire wicker chairs by the fireplace are placed around a peninsula square coffee table designed by Terry Hunziker for Sutherland, all atop a handmade Tufenkian rug. Classics such as a Saarinen breakfast table and an Eames coffee table in the den are paired with new sectional seating made of twin beds that accommodate guests who stay over when the three small bedrooms are all occupied by family.

In the end, the house feels by turns like a timeless cabin, a carefully crafted boat, and a camping tent. Whitewashed fir and painted wood take on the color of natural canvas rather than a solid bright hue, and pale blue, green and gold fabrics simulate the muted tones of the dune grass that was carefully harvested along the beach and planted outside the house to complement its patina.

“Barbara avoided dramatic pops of color or stark whites inside,” Butler says.

“She stayed within a middle ground of textures and colors borrowed from the outdoors.

But mainly, her shot at the house has helped breathe contemporary life into it.”

View the gallery below for more photos.