They call it The Wisteria House.
Near the edge of the Sacramento River, vines the size of an elephant’s leg twist around even thicker poles from berm to trellis. Bare-root in the winter, they create a lattice against skylights through which the sun warms aggregate floors. Spring’s purple blooms reserve their show for the flat roof, since most of the energy goes into the green canopy that cools everything down come summer.
It has taken more than three decades to create this sustainable umbrella. Now that it is done, it is time for me to leave. The dream is fulfilled. It is the right time to pass it on to someone who will likewise love, respect and care for it.
This is the house that Brent Smith designed. An artist at heart (and former Sacramento high school art teacher), Brent might be the only California home designer to have a bronze plaque in a park across from City Hall: “Brent Smith, humanitarian,” it reads. “He truly believed that we were here to transform matter into spirit and touch the soul.”
When he was killed by a city bus in 2002, Brent was 61 years of age and perhaps best known for designing the downtown Quinn Cottages homeless village to which he donated his time and money. He also created the Rumsey Wintun Tribe Village as a multigenerational development and other homes in northern California.
But it is Sacramento County’s first passive-solar, Wisteria House – built in 1978 -- that is probably his most widely published design.
Brent and I had met two years earlier in his University of California, Davis, extension course on building and designing your own, small energy-efficient house. A Jersey girl to whom “do-it-yourself’ meant doing your hair without help from a professional, I enrolled on an impulse. Once in the sway of Brent’s intensity and philosophy of living, his obsession became mine.
Those were the days of “small is beautiful,” and Brent walked the talk. He believed homes should be “sacred” and reflect “vocabulary” of their surroundings without imitating other designs. He preached designing homes with expansion in mind. Design what you need, he’d say, in a way that offers multiple use of space and provides with integrity of design for adding square footage for children and/or elders. Why build huge spaces and waste precious energy heating and cooling them for one or two people? How many American dining rooms sit empty while a couple eats in the kitchen or den?
The Wisteria House, for instance, is 1,065 square feet of open space with insulated, moveable shojis, several of which lift out to create space for the dining area to seat up to eight people. In place, those moveable doors offer privacy for a second bedroom/study off the dining room. The foundation of 36 poles deep in cement was separately engineered for earthquake and flood and remains level today. Brent’s vision for more than two, pared-down dwellers was to add another story.
Those were the days when farmers and only a few urban individualists willing to deal with wells, septic tanks and floods lived off the Garden Highway, a two-lane road separating the Sacramento River from riparian and farmed fields. I bought three-quarters of an acre two miles north of the Elkhorn Boat Dock, and when Brent’s course was over, I asked if he would design a small, pole house that would put us “above the flood.”
On retreat at California’s first commune—Ananda in Nevada City—Brent met the head of its construction company. These builders meditated after their lunch breaks and you could eat off the planks they cleaned at the end of each day. They named the house “Haridasi” (daughter of God) and to this day, “J’ai Guru” (long live the Guru) remains carved in the cement holding the country mailbox.
Despite this backstory – and a redwood hot tub in the master bedroom/bath area under a dome-shaped skylight—the house is timeless. Many visitors have remarked that it feels like combination of a New York City penthouse and a coastal Sea Ranch house.
My favorite touches: Water running down Japanese chains inside plexi-glass downspouts; the plexiglass overhang keeping the front doorway dry and allowing full view of the wisteria-protected entrance; the ability to close the house “like a box” against too hot or too cold weather via counterbalanced, vertically drawn window shutters and hanging, insulated doors; standing in the hottub watching flames in the fire stove – and the sun going down over the river.
The Wisteria House has had many admirers. In 1982, Architects David Wright and Dennis A. Andrejko featured it in a six-page spread in Passive Solar Architecture, logic & beauty (35 Outstanding Houses Across the United States). That same year, Sunset magazine showed it off in two pages. In 1983, Fine Homebuilding magazine took six pages to describe the house and how it “works.”
It is my hope that the next occupant keeps the spirit of The Wisteria House in tact. There are enough McMansions on the river.
As Brent wrote in 1996 in Dialogues with the Living Earth (New Ideas on the Spirit of Place from Designers, Architects & Innovators), “We just can’t afford to continue building unlovable buildings, towns and cities.”
Hilary Abramson is a long-time California journalist. An award-winning staff writer at Sacramento’s two mainstream, daily newspapers for nearly 20 years, she was known particularly for news-feature profiles of movers and shakers in the capital and of people living on the under belly of California. She has also been managing editor of the venerable Pacific News Service, a health policy investigative reporter, a public radio contributor, and consulting researcher/writer for nonprofits and foundations. Priding herself on finding stories before the pack, Abramson has placed freelance work in The Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, The Oregonian, The San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, and others.
Hilary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Realtor Maggie Sekul can be reached at (916) 341-7812 www.maggiesekul.com For a virtual tour http://tours.us360.info/public/vtour/display/70055?_a=1&_b=1&_l=1