Blue Bottle founder’s octagon house makes a quiet statement
“It’s so quiet you can actually hear the leaves hit the ground,” says James Freeman, standing on the deck of his almost-finished Geyserville weekend retreat, which the Blue Bottle Coffee founder and his wife, pastry chef Caitlin Williams Freeman, bought a few years ago.
And it’s believable: The only sound this visitor hears on a Tuesday morning in May is the rushing of the creek, the wind in the leaves, and the paw-steps of the family dog, Hobbes.
This isn’t just any preternaturally serene country house, though. This one is shaped like an octagon, bought by the Freemans from the only previous owner, a woman named Elinor Howenstine, who led a fascinating life that included a position as one of the first female stockholders at investment management firm Dodge & Cox. She sent her nieces and nephews to college. She was a local iconoclast. And she decided that building an octagon-shaped house nestled deep in the woods of Wine Country was the next logical eccentric accomplishment.
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The Freemans found it by happenstance. They’d been angling for a house in Sebastopol, and the prospect fell through. “James started looking on the Internet and then he was like, ‘Wait, an octagon?’” Caitlin recalls.
We’re all standing in the (original) red Formica kitchen. James is making coffee —“I don’t have a battery in my gram scale so it’ll be approximate,” he says of the pour-over at hand. Caitlin is holding their newborn, Monroe Pippin, and keeping a close eye on their 2-year-old daughter, Linden, who’s crawling up and down the bright wooden staircase that leads to the second-floor mezzanine. Dashiell, James’ son, is absent today but he’s a frequent weekend presence who relishes days spent roaming the countryside, a welcome respite from the cacophony of San Francisco, where they all live when they’re not here in Geyserville.
The couple hired an architect of record to help with plans to update the home and keep everything up to code, but the majority of the work was carried out by their contractor, Malcolm Chase, who’s worked in the area for decades.
His primary job, they realized, was to take things out of the house — a strategy that worked until James and Caitlin realized that, for instance, there were no lights. Or electrical cords. Or places to keep their clothes. Chase’s job became a tightrope walk of removal and re-addition: lights, cords, storage.
The main part of the house is a great room, two stories tall, with an open kitchen and a living room centered around a hearth. The mezzanine holds a sleeping loft complete with translucent toilet box, freestanding tub, and a plywood bed inspired by the minimalist artist Donald Judd and custom-built by Chase. “WWDJD?”— What Would Donald Judd Do? — became a refrain, James says, of building the geometric bed, which just fits within the loft.
Chase installed a tile pattern delineating the bathroom space that was, Caitlin says, inspired by the tile she’d encountered at Los Angeles International Airport. “If you’re going to tile your bathroom, why not be inspired by LAX?” she says of the green and blue patterns that snake across the floor and up the wall. A set of freestanding cabinets separates the bathroom from the bedroom, but they’re not necessarily for privacy. “What do you do when you don’t have right angles in your house?” Caitlin asks. “Where do you put everything?”
Hence the continuous process of removal and addition. The cabinetry that had blocked the kitchen from the main room was removed and re-installed in an open plan. “We’re acculturated to think that this is normal and desirable,” James says of the current kitchen, which feels like the obvious choice.
Some of the ‘70s moments have been preserved (“Red Formica! We’ve got it!” Caitlin says). Some, like a balcony, have been removed. And some were re-integrated, via new purchases. That aforementioned un-weighed coffee was made using a specific kettle they bought to fit with the aesthetic of the 1970s Olympia Cremina espresso maker. That espresso maker, meanwhile, was bought to fit with the aesthetic of the original GE stove, which they kept, just like that red Formica. A multicolored outdoor totem pole designed by artist Doug Coffin was also retained to salute the setting sun with a mysterious gong sound.
The interior might be high design, done with sensitivity, but it’s clear that this place is all about nature. Caitlin describes the occasional bat visits; the animals like to fly around the sleeping loft.
Hobbes has to rely on the dog parks of San Francisco during the week. Here, he disappears for hours, returning covered in burrs, happier than he’s ever been. “Forest house!” Linden calls it. And then on some days, the creek slows, the wind stops, and you can hear a leaf fall.
Eva Hagberg Fisher, based in the Bay Area, writes about architecture and design. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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