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By: Lynette Evans
In 1986, internationally acclaimed textile designer Barbara Beckmann (above) and her husband Jon bought a mid-century modern home that rambled up a wooded hillside above California's Sonoma Valley.
It is a spectacular 3,000-square-foot house on four acres, organic and in keeping with its setting, with equally spectacular views that include not only the tree-studded immediate surroundings but long views from the iconic redwood hot tub outside the front door (below) across the valley to Mt. Tamalpais.
Though they still own a condo in San Francisco, the couple moved permanently into the house above the historic town of Sonoma in 1994, and in 2000, Barbara moved her textile workrooms from San Francisco's design district to the Wine Country.
"We did extensive remodeling and many of our friends in the design community spent lots of dinners and weekends there," says Barbara, who treasures the Sonoma community for its tradition of nurturing artists like herself. At 72, she has no plans to retire, "so long as I can do what I love."
The remodel included widening the house and adding a design studio for Barbara and home office for Jon, both light- and art-filled spaces, like the hallway (at right) that led to Barbara's workroom.
Jon, 75, retired after 21 years as the publisher of Sierra Club Books, and has written several books since retiring, including "Safe Passages: Highways, Wildlife, and Habitat Connectivity" with Anthony P. Clevenger, Marcel Huijser and Jodi Hilty (Island Press, 2010).
But when Jon (at right) developed heart disease and had trouble walking, the couple found themselves making changes to their long-time home -- installing a railing on the 11-step stairway to his home office and a grab bar in the shower. A portable raised toilet seat with arm rests, canes and a walker supplemented Jon's movements about the house, but it became necessary for the couple to exchange home offices -- with Barbara taking over Jon's hillside lair and him moving into the main-floor office she had maintained next to her home studio.
Still, the couple's bedroom was two steps below the main level, and as he became more dependent on a wheelchair, Jon, who loves to cook and is the author of "After Dinner Drinks" (Chronicle Books, 1999), also became more frustrated with the kitchen arrangement that included among its designer features a microwave oven built into a wall at eye level -- eye level for a standing person, not a seated one.
Building a driveway to the house level would have meant tearing out many of the lovely trees, and would have cost three-quarters of a million dollars to boot. So the Beckmanns decided to sell their well-loved home and move down into the town of Sonoma -- to "the flatlands," as Barbara and her neighbors call it.
That was almost impossible. As a Realtor friend told Barbara, there are few single-story houses in the area where houses are built as much to capture views as to shelter their occupants. Tony Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties are home to some of the wealthiest Californians, and as if rich people can't get old or become infirm, builders of spec homes and even clients of custom homes often shun the idea of building for accessibility.
So finding a single-story house that could be adapted to their needs was not easy, and the Beckmanns decided to rent a house a few blocks from the Plaza -- a house that, although in some ways isn't much friendlier to Jon's condition than their old home, is single-story and easier to navigate indoors and out. It is also close enough to the Sonoma Plaza that Jon can scoot over in his electric wheelchair to join friends for lunch, and Barbara has relocated her workroom to an industrial building a few blocks away.
The house has a rustic summer cottage feel. Natural wood floors offer Jon a smooth surface for his wheelchair, which he has needed even more since breaking his hip in a fall shortly after the couple moved in. This precipitated him moving a hospital bed into the dining room, from which he can move easily to the bathroom, kitchen and shaded back porch.
The yard backs up to its own tiny vineyard so that the Beckmanns get to enjoy the Wine Country ambience but without the work because, as Barbara gaily notes, "someone else takes care of" the vines. A guest house attached to the garage is home to Jon's caregiver.
"It's great," Barbara says of renting rather than owning: "the pool person comes one day, the gardener another." Because the house is a rental, she is looking for a portable poolside lift chair so that Jon, who loves to swim, can do his physical therapy in the pool this summer.
Although the microwave oven is still too high for a seated person to access, the kitchen does have a lower wall oven that Jon can use and a pantry behind French doors that puts foodstuffs and wine within reach.
A central island gives the kitchen a second sink and Jon not only has dishes and cups within reach on the lower shelves, but he has a series of "grabbers" in various lengths to help him pick up items from the floor or get them from upper shelves.
Although the bathroom is not large, Jon was able to remove the door to accommodate his wheelchair, and a bath transfer chair resides in the tub when not in use.
Barbara has taken the one-step-down family room as her office, and she has private backyard views from there and the master bedroom.
Because the house came furnished, the Beckmanns have brought some of their artwork and linens. The quilt that hung on the hallway wall in the old house now covers the entry window in the new house, Barbara's collection of art pieces now fill a built-in bookcase in the hallway, much as they had in the old studio alcove, and the couple's much-loved paintings have moved house but give the new spaces the feel that this is truly the Beckmann's home.
The white wicker rocker that resided in the couple's former bedroom sits in the new living room, but much of their furniture is being used by a friend who stages houses for sale, thus saving the couple the cost of storage.
A good house is hard to find, a truly accessible house nearly impossible. The Beckmanns haven't decided their next move and how that move can better accommodate Jon's physical challenges and the couple's changing needs as they age.
After the years of maintaining their hillside home, they're enjoying letting others take care of the outdoor maintenance and the freedom they have to move about the house and the neighborhood. The changes they have made to the house -- metal threshold and stair ramps, etc. -- are not permanent fixtures, but they have given Jon the freedom to move about and both of them the opportunity to contemplate what they will require in a future permanent home.
Not many homes are built accessible to everyone's needs. Even "universal design" isn't really universal, given that people's needs are as individual as they are. The lesson here, as most people will find, is that some houses are "friendlier" than others, but even the most thoughtfully designed home may need some tweaking to accommodate the people who live there.
I didn't ask Barbara if she's read Ciji Ware's "Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matters Most" (Springboard Press, 2007), in which the writer who moved with her husband from a 4,200-square-foot house to a 1,300-square-foot condo on Sausalito's waterfront, says: "paring down to only the possessions we loved and actually used had ultimately brought us relief ... and even elation," but it's obvious that the Beckmanns knew it instinctively. And they've found, as well, that the good vibes a house gives off can be as important as wide doorways.