In California, a John Marsh Davis-Designed Home Comes Up for Sale for the Very First Time
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In California, a John Marsh Davis-Designed Home Comes Up for Sale for the Very First Time

The Oklahoma-born architect’s Barbour House is unlike most Midcentury Modern buildings

Tue, May 2, 2023 9:06amGrey Clock 5 min

Nestled in a thickly wooded site in Kentfield, Calif., about 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the house commissioned by Donald and Nancy Barbour 60 years ago pairs the solidity of a barn with the intricacy of a pagoda. A giant wooden rectangle, its entry facade is made mainly of two giant glass doors. Some 16 feet high, the doors slide open so completely that inside and outside unite, with the living/dining room becoming a kind of covered porch. A vast skylight over the interior space further blurs the line between indoors and out. Bedrooms occupy a kind of mezzanine that seems to float, as does the extra-wide roof. There are supports, but a magician hid some of them in floor-to-ceiling bookcases and threaded others through wisteria-laden trellises. In that way, anything heavy either disappears or dissolves into filigree ornament.

The magician was the Oklahoma-born architect John Marsh Davis (1931-2009), who built some of the most original Bay Area houses (and a handful of Napa Valley vineyards) in the second half of the 20th century. Though labeled Midcentury Modern, his houses are nothing like the better known Midcentury Modern works of architects like Richard Neutra, which are composed of flat, white surfaces. And, though labeled organic, they are nothing like the better-known organic works of Frank Lloyd Wright, which tend to hug the ground. Mr. Davis’s houses aren’t flat, or white, or low. They soar, in a style that Hans Baldauf, the author of a new book about Mr. Davis, calls “wood expressionism.” Mr. Davis himself liked to call his approach Forgotten Modern.

Now Mr. Davis’s Forgotten Modern is being remembered. Mr. Baldauf, himself a successful Bay Area architect, discovered Mr. Davis when he was hired to design a visitor centre for the Joseph Phelps winery in Napa. He was enamoured of the vineyard’s main building, a dramatic barn-like structure split by a great trellis. To make his addition successful, he says, he wanted to know more about that building. Its designer, John Marsh Davis (a name he had never heard before), turned out to be “the visionary behind a whole series of buildings that I had long admired,” he says. Given access to Mr. Davis’s archive by his niece, Katy Davis Song, Mr. Baldauf learned enough to finish the winery project, then spent more than a decade compiling a book about the early years of Mr. Davis’s career.

“The more I dug into John’s work, the more I came to believe that it deserved to be more widely known,” he says.

One of the first buildings Mr. Baldauf visited was the Barbour house, which, he says, “bowled me over. Having designed a large sliding door on an early project, I knew the complexities involved, and here was one four times as large and almost twice as high that allowed interior and exterior to merge completely.” The residence, he adds, “is one of John’s masterpieces and established themes that he would go on to explore throughout his career.”

Mr. Baldauf couldn’t have known when his book, “Design Legacy of John Marsh Davis: Early Years,” was published in March that the house on its cover would soon come up for sale. In the wake of Donald and Nancy’s deaths, both in 2022, their three children are listing the five-bedroom, three-bath, 4,000-square-foot house on 0.75-acre for $4.995 million. (The sale includes an adjoining 0.43-acre lot.)

“The grand scale of the rooms and the views of Mount Tam will draw many potential buyers,” says listing agent Bitsa Freeman of Boulevard Marin, “Whether they can pay the price remains to be seen.” In 2023, the median sale price in Kentfield was around $4.2 million, Ms. Freeman says. ​“We have priced [the house] definitely on the higher end because of its esteemed architectural history.”

No one who knew John Marsh Davis as a child could have predicted his career path. Growing up, Mr. Davis later told David Sheff, a journalist who is married to the Barbours’ daughter Karen, he didn’t know what an architect was. And nothing about his birthplace, in Oklahoma’s western prairie, taught him about expressive architecture or dramatic topography.

But two things happened that had profound effects on Mr. Davis’s direction. First, when he got to the University of Oklahoma in 1951, the director of the school of architecture was Bruce Goff, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who designed some very quirky houses, and encouraged his own students to be just as idiosyncratic. So successful was Mr. Goff as a teacher than an entire cadre of architects, who fanned out across the country in the postwar years, have together been dubbed “the American School” by scholars. Their archives (including Mr. Davis’s) are being gathered at their alma mater, now the Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma.

Second, as an officer in the U.S. Navy from 1955 to 1959, Mr. Davis was able to tour Japan extensively, according to his niece. Among the landmarks he visited was the five-story pagoda at Horyuji Temple in Nara, its vast overhangs cantilevered from a single cedar post, and its wooden joints loose enough to withstand earthquakes. After leaving the Navy, Mr. Davis spent a few years working in Oklahoma before moving to Sausalito, Calif., in 1961. There, he began building in a style that had roots in what he had seen in Japan. His first house, which he designed for himself, was an elegant wooden volume, shaped roughly like a Japanese temple, overlooking Richardson Bay.

In 1963, Donald Barbour, a young physician, and his wife, Nancy, were looking for an architect to design a house on a parcel of land they had bought in the hills above Kentfield. Ms. Barbour saw the house Mr. Davis had built for himself in Sausalito on the cover of “California Home” Magazine. She called him. Soon, says their son Steve Barbour, Mr. Davis was sketching the rough outline of the house, which included a wooden bridge over a garden as the only route to the front door.

To design that garden, Nancy called the renowned landscape architect Thomas Church, whose work included helping with the master plans for UC Berkeley and Stanford University. According to their son-in-law Mr. Sheff, “Mr. Church agreed to design the garden only because (he admitted that) he liked the sound of Nancy’s ‘husky’ voice on the phone; she had a cold at the time. He charged $100 and a bottle of vodka.” For that, Mr. Church planned a terrace garden with twisting Japanese maples in large wooden planters.

According to Nancy Barbour, Mr. Davis’s style went beyond architecture to encompass a way of looking at life. “John taught me how to see beauty in details,” she told Mr. Sheff. “As I grew up, I noticed every corner, the trim, the way the boards intersected…. John anticipated every sightline, the way the light would filter in at different times of year. Everything is lined up. Everywhere you look, there’s something dramatic and spectacular.”

As Mr. Sheff wrote in an essay in Mr. Baldauf’s book, Mr. Davis’s “relationship with the family didn’t end when the house was complete; he became a lifelong friend. He never stopped redesigning the interior of the Barbour home. He would show up with Hargrave lamps, Persian rugs and random objects from shopping sprees abroad or at flea markets.”

Steve Barbour, was only 12 when Mr. Davis began designing and building the house. At one point, as it neared completion, the banisters needed to be smoothed. Mr. Davis handed young Steve a router and said, “You can do it.” And he did it. Not perfectly, perhaps, but that’s OK. Steve, now 70, says, “The house takes your breath away. So you don’t notice any of the little things.” He adds, “It was always a joyful house. It’s emotional to see it go.”

Steve Barbour, shown here, and his two sisters are selling their parents’ home. The siblings are settled into their own homes (one of which is also designed by Mr. Davis). PHOTO: AARON WOJACK FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


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Expert tips for prospective buyers looking to purchase a home in 2024.

By Josh Bozin
Fri, Apr 12, 2024 3 min

For aspiring homeowners, be it a first-time buyer, downsizer, or investor, picturing your idea of homeownership bliss is the easy part. But before deliberating on furniture choices or scouting for that perfect neighbourhood coffee, understanding your purchasing power stands out as the most important step in ensuring your success in homeownership.

And with the Australian property market gaining momentum in 2024, there’s never been a better time to come to grips with your financial options.

In 2023, amid the changing financial landscape that saw rising interest rates and the cost of living skyrocket, among other factors, the total amount borrowed for property purchases across Australia was estimated at $300.9 billion, a 12.7 percent decrease from the previous year, according to PEXA’s latest Mortgage Insights Report.

Each mainland state also experienced a decline in new lending, according to the report, with Victoria and New South Wales seeing the biggest drops to $84.1 billion and $109.5 billion, respectively.

While this trend reflects the repercussions of such financial hardships on the everyday Australian, John Morello, director and auctioneer at Jellis Craig, said we’re seeing renewed confidence in the property market during the first quarter of 2024, particularly in Melbourne.

“Auction clearance rates have started the year strongly and consumer sentiment is rising. This lift is driven by cooling inflation and an improved outlook on interest rates. At Jellis Craig, as with the rest of the market, we are experiencing an increase in volume of property compared to the same period in March last year (up 28% in 2024),” Mr Morello said.

“Melbourne’s property market, in particular, is showing its ongoing evolution and resilience.”

PEXA’s report revealed that, while borrowing saw a decrease in 2023 in Australia, Australians still invested $613.0 billion in property purchases in 2023. In 2024, purchasing confidence is only going up, as prospective first home buyers, seasoned downsizers, and savvy investors look to capitalise on a flood of new property hitting the market, coupled with the lowering of interest rates across the board.

“With more certainty in the economic outlook, along with an increase in volume of property available, we are seeing these factors translate to early signs of a boost in confidence in both buyers and sellers,” said Mr Morello.

“Further encouraging data shows that whilst there is more property available to purchase, more people are inspecting property, again indicating that demand has increased broadly across our marketplace.”

If you’re in the market for a new property, the biggest question you must ask yourself is how much house can I afford?

A great starting place is to speak with your mortgage broker or financial professional, who can guide you on your lending options. This is critical, as you need to know what your future repayment options might look like, and ultimately, what you will typically be able to afford.

A useful tool for judging whether you can afford a specific property is to factor in the 28/36 rule — a rough guide that suggests you should not spend more than 28 percent of your gross monthly income on housing, and no more than 36 percent on all debts. Another useful tool is the idea of a debt-to-income ratio (DTI); a formula whereby an individual can divide all of their monthly debt payments by gross monthly income to arrive at a number that one can measure as a way of managing monthly mortgage payments.

Mr Morello emphasised the need to understand affordability and what’s feasible for each individual when looking to make a purchase, no matter the budget, on a property in 2024.

“It’s pivotal to work out what you can afford. Get your finances in order. Consider all associated costs with buying, and research what concessions and grants are available,” said Mr Morello.

“It’s easy for individuals to begin the process today. Start actively searching potential properties on a weekly basis, and research areas you are interested in. Check weekly sales results, attend inspections and auctions, to get a feel for the process. Just remember, it’s important to be really comfortable in understanding your living expenses, and what the ongoing expenses will be once you have bought a property.

“For example, mortgage repayments, council rates, water, power, owners corp fees, insurances, maintenance costs; if you are buying as an investment, the Land Tax payable on that property which is an ongoing tax. There’s many factors to consider.”

To see what’s possible for your specific circumstances, visit our Finance Portal for specific tools, guides and tips—as well as our own mortgage calculator—to assist you on your property journey.



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35 North Street Windsor

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