Rossmoor is an age-restricted, master-planned community of 6,615 apartments and 63 houses, with a population of more than 9,600, built on approximately 2,220 acres in the Tice Valley section of the East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek. It was among the first of a great wave of large-scale planned communities and so-called new towns built in the United States beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and one of the few to have been conceived by a single architect, prompting House and Home magazine to refer to it in 1964 as “a harmony of land planning and architecture that is unprecedented.”
The project was developed by Southern California builder Ross Cortese, who had entered the field of community building—doing the work of both land development and construction at a large scale—in the early 1950s. By 1956 he was at work on Rossmoor (originally the Walled City of Rossmoor) in Orange County, a tract of 3,500 detached houses that was likely the first gated community intended for families of moderate means in the United States.
Then, in 1960, he pioneered another new community type: the mass-market, new town-in-town for older families and retirees, at Leisure World in Seal Beach, also in Orange County. Builder Del Webb had announced plans for the first master-planned community for “active retirees” in 1959: Sun City, Arizona. The site was far beyond the metropolitan edge of Phoenix, however, and most of the dwellings were single-family houses. The result was a sort of Levittown for the elderly.
At Seal Beach, Cortese adapted the idea for a large city, building 6,750 apartments along with an unrivaled set of community facilities, including universal medical care on site (a major innovation before introduction of Medicare). At completion in 1962, Leisure World was one of the largest apartment complexes in the world and the largest to operate on an owner-occupied basis.
While still underway, Cortese began planning other similar complexes. The first two, which proceeded simultaneously, were in Walnut Creek and Laguna Hills, in southern Orange County. (Others were in New Jersey, Maryland, and Arizona.) When the Seal Beach project proved a huge sales success beginning in 1961, he proceeded with the others.
The one arena in which Seal Beach had failed was in its critical reception. Many Americans were uneasy with the idea of sequestering the elderly, even if on a voluntary basis. Leisure World’s design offered little comfort. Its approximately 550 identical one-story residential buildings, which were arranged by Cortese’s in-house design team in compact groups, on an all but flat site, recalled for some an internment camp. To address these concerns, Cortese, who had previously worked with Cliff May, began to prioritize design. For Laguna Hills he instructed his in-house staff to create a more whimsical language, with community buildings alluding to Spanish missions. For Walnut Creek, he sought a local architect with an impeccable reputation: Charles Warren Callister.
Callister had studied at the University of Texas and come to San Francisco after World War II, drawn by his love for the city’s built and natural beauty, and the area’s strong regional tradition in architecture. His sophisticated private houses and churches quickly earned him a reputation as one of the most talented or innovative practitioners of the Second Bay Area Tradition, alongside more senior figures like William Wurster. Eager to put his ideas to work on a much larger scale—and promised considerable rein at the project, including strong say on the site plan—Callister agreed to the commission.
Tice Valley was quite literally a valley, with dramatic hills along the east and west sides sloping up from a valley floor. Cortese optioned it from the Dollar family (of Dollar Steamship Lines), who had bought it in 1930 as a vacation property and built two houses on it.
The site plan, which Callister later claimed credit for, was devised with the aid of Mott and Hayden, one of the country’s leading land planners. Principal Seward Mott, a landscape architect, had served as the head of the Land Planning Division of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) for many years. Additional work was done by Southern California landscape architect Dreyton, Inc., which worked with many production builders in the region in the 1960s.
The plan called for a population of 18,000, housed in 10,000 apartments (most one-story, a few in multistory “town house” plans) marketed as “manors.” These, along with five recreation centers, were arranged on the hillsides overlooking a golf course placed on the valley floor (today one-and-a-half courses, with a total of 27 holes). One of the clubhouses (Clubhouse No. 2, today called Dollar Clubhouse, on Stanley Dollar Drive) was created by renovating the older of the two houses on the property. The other house was converted into a medical center (later, it also became a clubhouse, before being demolished). Just outside the main gate, on Rossmoor Parkway south of Tice Valley Boulevard, the plan imagined a shopping center, motel, churches, gas stations, and other facilities.
In a series of moves that would later become signatures of Callister’s work, the plan tread very lightly on the land. (Following Rossmoor, most of his practice shifted to large-scale community design.) As a result of its capaciousness, the community felt and functioned more like a large, decentralized subdivision than an apartment complex. The Gateway Clubhouse, which housed the greatest number of activities, including meetings spaces for homeowner groups, served as an anchor. But the real focus was the land itself: the green valley and rugged, often golden, hills rising up beyond. Roads were aligned with natural contours of the hills. Scraping and terracing were used only in a few spots, where essential to prevent rockslides. Existing trees were preserved, along with a run-down but charming fence enclosing the property’s orchard.
At the same time, the plan was not overly naturalistic. To help keep the older tenants oriented, the street plan adhered, where terrain allowed, to a loose grid structured by Rossmoor Parkway and Tice Creek Drive, which ran southeast from the main gate, flanking the golf course, and Golden Rain Drive, serving sections to the northwest. The pattern was also intended to reference San Francisco, as a way to ease the transition from the city to life in the new enclave.
The housing was organized in ten villages, loosely following Neighborhood Unit principles. Each, which Callister assigned a slightly different, site-tested color scheme, was broken up into a series of “neighborhoods” and, in turn, inward-facing courts. Within each court, as exemplified by one at the northwest corner of Tice Creek Drive and Fairlawn Court, Callister placed taller buildings, mostly of three stories with eight units, upslope from, and, in some cases, perpendicular to, one-story buildings with four units. (There were also some two-unit and sixteen-unit buildings, as well as six-story apartment houses). Separate utility buildings with laundry also faced each court. The purpose of the courts was to enhance a sense of community by making tenants more aware of one another, and to reduce feelings of isolation. At the same time, Callister ensured privacy, with apartments in multistory buildings given balconies and those in the fourplexes (and duplexes) arranged around atriums or enclosed terraces, some opening up off living rooms, others off bedrooms.
To accommodate the physical limitations of tenants without adding the expense of elevators, Callister sited the three-story buildings so that entrances could be placed midway between the top two stories on the uphill side, with stairs leading up and down. Ground floors were reserved for parking, accessed from the downhill side and serving the next structure down, offering all residents access to their cars at grade. On the interior, outlets and shelving were arranged to minimize the need to bend down or reach high up.
Callister had long embraced the Bay Region traditions of redwood craftsmanship and references to Japan. Although production housing budgets did not allow him the kinds of innovative structural systems and high-quality materials that defined his previous work, his buildings at Rossmoor—including the community centers, Lutheran church, and Rossmoor shopping center—clearly recalled them. Design elements throughout the complex included vertical board siding, slender hexagonal columns with unornamented block capitals, and oversize windows and exterior panels bordered with contrasting trim that recalled sliding panels. Particularly important to Rossmoor’s visual unity were evocative rooflines, including a mixture of hipped forms with deep overhangs clad in rough-hewn shingles, and, in the case of some of the one-story residential buildings, flat forms are punctuated by exaggerated telescoping pavilions that floated over clerestory windows.
Callister carried some of this theming into the interiors of community buildings, including at the Gateway Clubhouse. Residential interiors, by contrast, with the exception of wood-veneer accent walls in dining areas, were generically up-to-date with open plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, and acoustic “popcorn” ceilings.
Like Cortese’s Southern California complexes, Rossmoor was organized on a for-sale basis and financed with loans insured by FHA, under its limited-equity cooperative program. With approval from FHA and from the city of Walnut Creek, which annexed the property at Cortese’s request, construction began in 1963. Sales were strong. Like many developers in the late 1960s, however, especially those working on large-scale phased projects (let alone several), Cortese soon faced financial problems. After finishing just a third of the project—3,368 apartments, mainly on the west side of the valley along Tice Creek Drive and Golden Rain Road—rapid inflation of interest rates and construction costs forced him to stop work in late 1967. After a good deal of litigation, consultants for Cortese formed a new corporation, Terra California, which bought it from him.
Terra California continued to follow Callister’s plan, and to build his houses, for some time. But evolving tastes and economic realities—along with a downzoning by Walnut Creek, which reduced the number of permissible units to approximately 6,700—led the new firm to hire another architectural firm, Hayes Smith Trockey and Blair, and landscape architect, Robert Royston, and build new kinds of units, mainly more luxurious row types with individual private garages. In the 1980s, production builders UDC Homes and Shea Homes were brought in to build the project out, mainly with undistinguished town houses, along with the small group of standard-issue detached houses and a serviced apartment house, all of which harmonized with the original sections only in their muted color palette.
Apart from these deviations from Callister’s plan and several updates to the clubhouses and shopping center, in the early twenty-first century Rossmoor remained true to its original spirit: a cohesive and cloistered leisure world in an increasingly congested and unaffordable Bay Region.
Lane, Barbara Miller. Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Lasner, Matthew Gordon. High Life: Condo Living in the Suburban Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.
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