Robertson Residence

Project Number:
January 1, 1960
Abbot and Roxana Robertson (c/o Gerry Working)
St. Helena, California
Project Name:
Robertson Residence

In 1960, Roxanna and Abbott Robertson asked Beverly Willis to design a country home for them in California’s Napa Valley. The floor plan of the western ranch–style house would contain four bedrooms and three baths. The site selected by the Robertsons was located at the top of a hill on their 60-acre parcel, which would allow the house to take advantage of sweeping views of the valley below. The entrance to the house would be approached by a circular driveway with spaces for parking.

This house is the first ever designed by Beverly Willis. She had previously provided design services to the family, and they were confident in her ability to design the house.

More importantly, the Robertsons’ choice was motivated by their knowledge of Willis’s deep commitment to function: this would be critical to the success of the design. Because Abbott Robertson suffered from multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair to get around, Willis organized the house on a single level. She also widened standard door openings, lowered door knobs and light switches, created partial wheelchair space under the kitchen cabinets, lowered kitchen and bath counter heights, and created a wheel-in shower. While all of these features are in common use today, they were important innovations at the time. (Unfortunately, handicapped-accessible lavatories, door latches, and fixtures were not available: national guidelines for accommodating the needs of the handicapped would come later, in the 1970s.)

A planned space called the Great Room functions as the center of the house. Its sloped ceiling, 20 feet high at its highest, covers a combined living and dining area. V-shaped, the house plan forms two wings. One contains multiple rooms for the private use of the parents, and the other contains the kitchen, guest bedrooms, and rooms for the children.

The soaring ceiling of the Great Room is finished in wood, supported by exposed wood–laminated beams. With its oversized fireplace, bookcases, and large chandelier, the room feels a bit like a hunting lodge. The interior walls in the Great Room are covered with resawn, stained wood planks oriented vertically. The dark floor is of stained, polished oak. The two attached wings have painted walls and 8-foot-high ceilings.

The exterior walls of the house are covered with vertical grain wood in a natural finish. Redwood trim is stained a dark walnut. The roof is covered in cedar shingles: like an eagle with wings spread, it appears ready to take flight.

The front facades of the two wings are lined with windows that face onto the circular drive. They frame the front door to form a natural entryway for visitors arriving by car. A hallway leading to all of the rooms runs alongside the exterior front wall, providing privacy while also mitigating noise to the bedrooms.

Warmed by the afternoon sun, the rooms on the western side of the house have large, sliding double glass doors that open out to the brick patio and swimming pool. Large ceramic tiles line the patio and pool. Moss penetrates the brick square openings of the patio, forming a pattern of green and brick. Willis also designed and made a small, 2 by 4–foot sand cast sculpture for the patio.

Beyond the deck, wonderful views of the Napa Valley unfold.