One block from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, California, lies the tract of modest homes that make up the Marine Terrace neighborhood, built in 1954 for veterans of the Korean War. Originally, each structure was a two- or three-bedroom house with one bathroom and a single or double garage. At the time, they cost between $15,000 and $16,000, depending on the size of the garage.
Since 1979, one such home has belonged to Richard and Cissy Ross. Richard, a photographer originally from Brooklyn, and Cissy, a former journalist and editor who hails from Mississippi, have made the house theirs over the last 40 years. In the past four decades, they’ve expanded the house, raised two kids, amassed an expansive art collection, and cultivated an ever-evolving garden.
“When we bought the house, my parents said, ‘You’re crazy; you shouldn’t buy a house in Southern California. Prices are as high as they’ll ever be and you’re going to lose your shirt,’” Richard recalls. “I was a young lecturer at [UC Santa Barbara] at the time. It cost me a year’s salary for a down payment and we were scared shitless.”
The smaller homes of Marine Terrace, all eclectic and mostly two stories, stand in stark contrast with those that line Shoreline Avenue, right along the beach.“It’s very unusual that you would have modest homes built this close to the ocean,” says Cissy.
Originally 750 square feet with two bedrooms, the Ross home has grown to include an artist’s studio, a master bedroom, and an additional bathroom; the garage was converted into a guest room with a bathroom, and the couple added a Lord and Burnham greenhouse. Richard did most of the building himself, and the couple left the front of the home unchanged in favor of building off the back. Ross explains that he had a revelation that architecture is an organic, living thing, which has made him less concerned with perfection.
“You don’t really know what it is until you’re living it and doing it—and it’s okay,” says Richard. “People make mistakes. I built a studio and it had a lovely atrium and a spiral staircase, and then when we had kids the spiral staircase was scary... we wound up filling in the atrium because we needed the second story.”
“It’s the little house that could,” Cissy says with a laugh. “We made every mistake, but we’re old enough now that we know what to do and what not to do.”
The first addition was the greenhouse, which housed the couple’s dining room for many years (the better to look out at the stars, says Cissy). Now that the couple’s children are grown, the greenhouse serves as a living room and the dining area is further inside. For the Rosses, the center of the house has always been their monumental dining table.
“We had a little property we were working with up in Oregon, and during the recession we had to move some stuff and make a decision about old-growth wood on the second floor,” Richard says. “We chose to spend a lot of money to keep that [wood]. There was a section that we ended up having to cut out and replace. We had it shipped down from Oregon, and I planed and joined it and it became a dining room table that seats about 14 people.” The chairs were recently painted bright yellow in homage to chairs in Monet’s dining room at Giverny.
The couple got rid of the front door early on, opting to instead have visitors come up the driveway to enter through the expansive garden that Cissy has cultivated over the years. (Recently, though, the couple reinstalled a front door and poured a new concrete pathway, due to a number of delivery people continuing to leave things where it would have been. “Everything changes all the time,” Richard remarks.)
The living room and kitchen both look out onto the garden, which, Cissy says, was a dirt pile when they moved in. They made terraces out of the dirt from the just-built studio’s foundation and added some plants. However, a friend beginning a career in landscape design wanted an example to show prospective clients, so they let him take the reins.
“He taught us how to put in an irrigation system,” says Cissy, noting they planted flora like lavender and artichokes. “That garden evolved over time. In the last two years, I’ve had the whole garden in the back redone because we’re in a real critical water situation here.” She adds that, because of this, while it looks very floral—with the likes of white heliotrope bushes, purple trumpet vines, purple bearded irises, and dwarf fruit trees—nothing takes too much water.
Inside, the floors are largely inch-thick parquet original to the home. Most houses in the tract have taken up these floors, says Cissy, but she and Richard resurfaced and revarnished theirs.
The walls are covered in artwork and objects from the family’s travels—a mix that Richard says resembles “an odd bazaar”—a patchwork of objects that reminds the couple of traveling across the globe with their (now-grown) children.
“It’s the house of an artist and a poet and writer, made with a sense of fun, joy, and living, not trying to comply with everybody else’s standards,” says Richard. “There’s nothing in our house that’s about the artifact that has auction value.”
Pieces that are “very important” appear beside “stuff we got at a garage sale,” adds Cissy. The couple’s collection includes work by Sally Mann, Harry Callahan, Ralph Gibson, Mary Ellen Mark, Ann Hamilton, and Enrique Martinez Celaya, among many others.
A Burmese violin; a hand-written poem by their daughter, Leela; scissors that were Richard’s grandfather’s, who was a tailor; a family portrait by Cissy; a rescued mannequin; ubiquitous LA filming directional signs: family heirlooms mingle with fine art, folk art, and salvaged objects, mounted on several colorful walls.
There are so many things that you can touch, feel, and smell that signify importance in the couple’s lives and history, says Richard. “I’m a kid that grew up in Brooklyn, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with my sister while my parents had a pull-out in the living room,” Richard says. “I don’t know how I got here, but I love this part of the country and I love this modest little house that we really created. It is as much an act of our creation than anything else.”