Surrounded by flat valley land, two small knolls stand side by side along the Napa River separated by a small swath of flat land. Though only about fifty feet high, the view of the Napa Valley vineyards from the main knoll is like that from a nest perched high, surveying activity in every direction.
Influenced by Palladian villas on a knoll and surrounded by working farms, Willis designed the house, a guesthouse, and pool on the highest knoll, the one farthest from the property entry. On the front knoll, she renovated the small cottage that faced the entry road like an estate gatehouse. Two barns were located in a flat field between the two knolls. she converted the larger barn to a three-paddock horse stable with a tack room and grooming area. The smaller barn housed the tractor, carriages, and farm tools.
The original house on the property faced into a parking area located in the middle of the top of the knoll. On the other side was a workshop, garage and slaughter shed with a walk-in freezer and cooler. She relocated the parking area and rebuilt the workshop and garage into a one-bedroom guesthouse suite with a small kitchen. Sauna and spa rooms and a bath were located on the other side of the guesthouse. Behind the sauna-spa rooms, I built a wine room.
Located between the house and guesthouse, she placed a “Z” shaped pool, square and deep at one end for diving. For swimming laps, the eight feet wide long length cut across the concrete aggregate decking and terminated into a shallow reflecting pond, which in turn cascaded over a six-foot high retaining wall into a fountain below. The visual effect of the pool was quite different when seen from the entry road below. From above, the infinity pool view of the water’s edge seem to merge with the view of green vines of the grapes below that moved like green waves in the summer breezes. Approaching the front porch and entry of the house from the circular stone steps below, one only saw the semi-circular fountain with falling water cascading down the six feet high retaining wall. The pool above was out of sight to the approaching visitor.
In the design of the building form, Willis explored Palladian rules of siting, proportion, symmetry, all while using the wood textures and shingle material of the San Francisco Bay Regional style. The classical symmetry of the exterior gave way to a different interior plan, organized along indoor-outdoor-object “sight lines” in lieu of the classical parti. The interior space was divided into four sections, each composed of rooms of various volumes and differing ceiling heights and varying floor levels (entry-living-media rooms; dining room-kitchen; master bedroom and bath-dressing rooms; bedroom, powder room and hall). The objective was to disorient the mind’s preconceived expectations, so that the senses viscerally could respond directly to that “sensed.”
Like a Palladian style building, the symmetrical exterior façade used classical elements such as Ionic columns and a pediment entry. In a complete reverse, the interior design was organic and possessed a “feeling” akin to that of the Zen Garden, contemplative, peaceful and spiritual. River Run is Willis’ contribution to an architectural dialogue about Napa Valley, to which others-Andrew Batey, Mark Mack, Daniel and Barbara Staufaccher Solomon, Stanley Saitowitz, William Turnbull Michael Graves-have contributed, drawing on elements of the same tradition. An instance of what Kenneth Frampton has termed “critical regionalism” the house draws on several sources for its inspiration: the tradition of the Bay Regional shingle house, based on classical theory and made suitable to the climate and temperament of the inhabitants.
In 1990 Willis sold River Run to US Congresswoman and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and her husband, Paul.