Inside a Sublime St. Helena Home That Celebrates Indoor-Outdoor Living

Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects create a serene getaway for a pair of East Coast transplants.Down a winding road in St. Helena, a sublime spot atop a hill with lake views captured the hearts of sophisticated empty nesters looking to unplug. The East Coast couple—the wife a constant traveler, the husband eager to learn the winemaking process—turned to award-winning architecture and design firm Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects (BGK) to create a trio of buildings to complement their newly acquired home. The design team—founder Howard Backen, Edmund Juncker and Julie Hawkins—devised three modern barn structures that enable the homeowners to hit the reset button and that serve as a magical gathering place for family.

Tasked with creating spaces that felt intimate, had a strong sense of place which blended with the landscape, the team designed a guesthouse, a bathhouse and a fitness building sited to take full advantage of the views. The architecture, minimal and lyrical, showcases superb materials: custom-finished Douglas fir, blackened steel, poured-concrete floors and gleaming glass. The outcome is refined rustic; a series of structures in harmony with the natural surroundings.

The guesthouse, with 18-foot vaulted ceilings and oversized, retractable steel-and-glass doors, has spectacular views of the pool and the lake. “When the doors are open, you have this enveloping sense of indoor-outdoor living that is remarkable,” says Hawkins. The main gathering space, the living room, is centered around a concrete and custom plaster finish fireplace surround; his-and-hers offices double as sleeping areas for guests; and a small kitchenette with open shelving is masked behind 10-foot-high sliding barn doors.

Hawkins worked closely with the clients to create easy and comfortable interiors. “Napa and St. Helena have a sensibility of such elegant simplicity,” says Hawkins. “But underlying the minimal décor, each detail is thought out, and there are multiple layers.” The outside material palette was brought indoors to create continuity and warmth: Beamed ceilings are wire-rubbed Douglas fir; the walls are v-goove board and plaster; and the floors are poured integral-color concrete. For the furnishings, she introduced textural materials like linen, jute and reclaimed wood.

The same material narrative carries over to the sister buildings. The bathhouse features a custom vanity of reclaimed oak with concrete countertops, and the concrete tile was custom-made to match. Illuminated dropped-tray ceilings cast a soft glow that highlights the warm tones of the Douglas fir. The sliding steel and glass doors fully retract here as well, connecting the space with the neighboring landscape of moss-covered stones and woods.

The smallest structure of the group has just as much charm: The 500-square-foot fitness building, with its pitched roof, board-and-batten exterior and black barn lamps, is equal parts rustic and urban. Just steps from the pool’s edge, it offers an easy transition to a post-workout dip.

For the outdoor spaces, BGK enlisted St. Helena–based Claudia Schmidt Landscape Design, who created a setting that connects seamlessly with the larger vista of silvery olive trees and the hills beyond. Inviting paths bordered with sage lead to and from the property, while, around the pool, jasmine grows on airy steel trellises, and wisteria adds a fragrant scent to the air. Thousands of narcissus bulbs were planted amidst native shrubs and bloom in abundance each spring.

The homeowners now share their sanctuary with family and friends who revel in the restorative setting. Whether gathering around the table in the al fresco dining area, taking in the lake-view sunsets from the terrace or sitting poolside with a glass of their own vintage, the owners simultaneously unplug and recharge in their sublime wine country setting.

A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of SFC&G (San Francisco Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: The Gathering Place.