Board and Batten on the Beach

Carpinteria Magazine, Spring-Summer, 2009
Motorists passing Summerland on Highway 101 find their eyes drifting toward town, with its quaint bungalows and colorful Victorians scattered over the hillside like a collection of children’s blocks. On the ocean side of the freeway, the rooftops behind a line of trees barely attract a second glance. This strip of Summerland, like the lace border of an underskirt, holds hidden beauty. Perched on the bluff below town are some of the nicest homes with the best ocean views on the South Coast.

Finney Street and Finney Street East make up two short blocks on the narrow margin of land between the railroad and the ocean. The 14 houses located there are low, unobtrusive and tastefully situated so as not to obstruct views from above. They range from elegant Nantucket-style homes to informal beach cottages, and when they go on the market they fetch millions.

Not so long ago this land with the priceless views of sea and islands was a weedy tract occupied by a couple of tin warehouses. In the 1970s, barrels, metal casings and pipes--remnants of Summerland’s early 1900s oil industry--littered the ground under a cover of coastal sage scrub. Two modest homes sat near the bluff’s western end. Visible from the freeway, a large Surf Realty “For Sale” sign was planted near an old Seaside Oil warehouse.

That sign was a siren call for up-and-coming young architect Andy Neumann. In 1977, he formed a partnership with two others, Harwood (Bendy) White and Rosabel Cooper, to buy the neglected acreage. “It really was the wrong side of the tracks then,” Neumann says, “because when we purchased it, it was basically an oil junkyard.”

The “junkyard” backed up to a vista of sandy beach and sparkling blue water—attributes that won over Bendy White, now a Santa Barbara city planning commissioner. “I always wanted to live on the beach,” he says, recalling childhood days spent at Sandyland and his uncle Stewart Edward White’s beach shack.

A moratorium on new water meters delayed the partners’ plans to develop the land, and Neumann’s fledgling business, Seaside Union Architects, set up shop in the drafty warehouse, which was heated only by a wood-burning stove. Once lightning struck a nearby transformer, and the small architectural staff evacuated to the Nugget. When they returned, the phone was out, its cord singed and black. “We had fun there,” Neumann recalls today.  

The trio’s development plans hit another rocky road when the California Division of Oil and Gas produced a 1901 map showing 29 oil wells on the property. A surveyor located the wells, and, according to Bendy White, “it was a gridlock of equipment for a month,” as construction vehicles and concrete trucks swarmed the area in a “drill, blow and fill” operation. With the wells capped and the water moratorium finally lifted, Neumann designed the six homes that now line East Finney. He worked with local review boards to keep profiles low and colors muted, minimizing the visual impacts from above.

Andy and Yvonne Neumann still occupy the house he designed, and White uses his home next door as a vacation residence. From the deck of the Neumanns’ spacious board-and-bat style beach cottage, Andy, a surfer, can monitor incoming swells. (He won the Legends division in the 2009 Rincon Classic.) Yvonne grows vegetables and flowers in raised beds kissed by sea mists. Their home, with its grass mats, comfortable seating and Yvonne’s bright Fiesta ware, exudes an aura of simplicity, ease and elegance.

Early residents of Finney’s western end, closest to Lookout Park, were Bill and Marie Woggon and their family, who moved into their cottage in 1970. Woggon estimates that the house was constructed in the ‘40s. Their sons Jerico and Credence grew up playing in the seaside wilderness of the bluff. Jerico recalls the open fields and gorge next to the house as a “kid wonderland—a farm on the beach—where we kept ponies, goats and chickens.”

The Woggons sold the property to Bob and Suzie Mecay in 1996, and the redecorated house was featured in a 2006 Santa Barbara magazine article centered around family life in an original beach house. Suzie says she feels “lucky living on Finney,” with its panoramic views—“sometimes all the way to L.A.”—and the convenience of the close-by post office, cafes and coffee shops. 

Lester and Judy Cohn, who own the shingled Cape Cod style house next door, also chose Finney for its unbeatable views and what Judy terms “the homey little town of Summerland.” Contractor Bill Krock built the large home in 1979, and the Cohns have spent most of their weekends there for the last 22 years. Lester Cohn, an orthopedic surgeon, redid much of the interior’s original woodwork, including the staircase and banisters, and constructed a scale model Victorian playhouse for his granddaughter. The home, with the delightful playhouse outside and an intriguing collection of antique arcade machines inside, was a must-see on Summerland’s 2008 Home and Garden tour.

The stairway from Rod and Sharon Berle’s house leads straight down to the beach, and it gets frequent use by the couple, their three children and three grandsons. “The ocean is always beautiful, no matter what the weather,” Sharon Berle says. She loves pointing out pods of dolphins looping through the waves along shore. “They’re well-trained,” she says with a laugh. “Whenever we have visitors, I tell them the dolphins always arrive at 2:00 P.M.” A favorite shoot of commercial photographers is a view of the sea through the limbs of a graceful cypress tree off their patio.

The Berle’s 3000 square-foot Nantucket style home features a master bedroom with a barrel-vaulted dormer and a guest room over the garage. Finished in 1989, the Richard Thorne-designed residence won a National Home Builders’ Association Magazine “Best in America” award that same year. The spacious residence, with the Berle’s unique collection of Americana—19th century tin sculptures discovered in an old Illinois barn—was a stop on Summerland’s Home and Garden tour in 2007.

            The two sections of Finney Street have separate entrances, but they are united by a sense of community. “The two Finney streets are very private,” Sharon Berle says. We all know everybody, and everybody is very nice….We are very lucky. We have our own little community right here within Summerland.”