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A large room with windows on the walls and ceiling. There are many pieces of art and framed artwork in the room. There is a chair, a day bed, and a dollhouse. The room looks out towards an outside sitting area.

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California dreamin’

A journalist from Mississippi and a photographer from Brooklyn spend four decades making a Santa Barbara tract house their home

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.

The homeowners, a man and a woman stand smiling under a tree. There is a dog standing in front of them.
Cissy, Richard, and Vito at home in their garden in Santa Barbara.

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.

A peach painted wall with a work of art hanging on it. The work of art consists of animal horns, hair, and a pink genie veil.
A sculpture by folk artist J.J.Aarons hangs in the bathroom. The veil is part of a genie Halloween costume purchased at a garage sale.
The corner of a room with a long pole that has many shelves. On the shelves are colorful bowls.
A storage solution dubbed the Bowl Pole, built “proudly” by Richard, fits snugly into a corner in the living room, near the kitchen.
The exterior view of the dining room which is a greenhouse with walls and ceilings comprised of windows. There are string lights hanging outside the door and a tree sits next to one of the outer walls.
The Lord & Burnham Greenhouse was the first addition that Richard and Cissy added to their home. It housed the couple’s dining room for many years (the better to look out at the stars, says Cissy) and now serves as a living room.

“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.

In the foreground is a wooden table with multiple yellow painted chairs. In the distance is a blue painted wall with many framed works of art. Light fixtures and art hang from the ceiling.
The walls of the couple’s home are covered in artwork and objects from their travels, a mix that Richard says resembles “an odd bazaar.” The sideboard was salvaged from a furniture store going out of business and painted by Penny Cortright. Pieces on the wall include work by David Kilpatrick, Petra Cortright, Marc Horowitz, Nicholas Africano, and the Guerrilla Girls.

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.

The corner of a room with a painted white wall that has many framed works of art hanging on it. There is a tall floor lamp next to a couch.
In the study, a floor lamp by R.M. Fischer sits in front of artwork by (clockwise from top) Ellen Rothenberg, Katy McCarthy, Sam Scharf (the vent, which is trompe l’oeil), and Richard.
A bathroom with white tiles, a white bathtub and peach walls. There are two framed photographs hanging above the tub.
Two of Richard’s photographs hang in the bathroom, which is painted with Sherwin Williams Blushing.

“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.

A bedroom with yellow painted walls. On the walls  are multiple framed works of art. In the center of the room is a bed with colorful red patterned bed linens. There are multiple tables around the room.
Richard and Cissy’s bedroom is painted in Behr Premiere Plus Marigold. Their comforter is from Ikea. Two of their most-prized artworks hang above the bed: Lexa Nova portraits of their daughter at age 4 and their son at age 9. “I always say if I was blind and the house was burning down, I would take these paintings,” says Cissy. “The artist perfectly captured them and they are sealed in my memory.”
Stairs leading up to a structure which houses an outdoor bedroom. The stairs are flanked by flowering shrubbery.
Richard and Cissy often sleep in their outdoor bedroom, built and decorated by Richard, which is screened in on the sides and top. It has electricity for lights (to do crossword puzzles), a clock, and an electric blanket.

“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.”

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