The Bay Area is famous for having some of the most notable and strangely unique homes in the United States. And no place in the Bay is weirder than Santa Cruz County, which has historically embraced artists, creators, and those who think outside the box. For many years, our community has celebrated people for freely expressing themselves, so it’s no wonder that we see this present in the homes people design and build.
At Sol Property Advisors, we can’t get enough of uncommon architecture, so we searched far and wide for the most iconic homes in the region. Some are hidden in the mountains, some are close to the city, but all have a story to tell. Read on to learn everything you ever wanted to know about the curves, spires, oddities, and dungeons that dot our hillsides. There’s more to each of them than you’d ever guess.
1. Spaceship House, La Selva Beach
Fast Facts: Built in 1972, 700 square feet, 1 bed, 1 bath
What would it be like to live in a house with no corners or closets? Welcome to the La Selva Beach “Spaceship House.” An unusually sculptural building, it was built by landscape architect Mary Gordon between 1969 and 1972. The 700-square-foot, white-stuccoed curio sits amidst a colorful garden, with the rolling Pacific visible just beyond.
The distinct house has curvy walls and concrete flooring — reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, if on a much smaller scale. It’s warmed by the owner’s selective use of color and texture, mostly by way of bright pillows and a knotty Moroccan rug. While in the single loft bedroom there are “little nooks and crannies and spaces that bring your eye out”— details that work to abstract the room’s modest dimensions. The property also boasts generous patio space and a riot of windows that make the whole house feel uncommonly airy. But we still don’t know what the owners do with their clothes.
2. Court of Mysteries, Westside Santa Cruz
Fast Facts: Built in 1946, 110 square feet, 2 bed, 1 bath
The Kitchen Brothers epitomized the popular saying “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” through their strange architectural designs and mystical leanings more than 50 years before the slogan caught on. Kenneth Kitchen was a bricklayer and Raymond Kitchen was a stonemason, each with their quirky specialties. Kenneth’s was submarine interference and Raymond’s was the construction of large, dome-shaped brick fireplaces.
In 1946, Kenneth Kitchen designed and built the abalone-inlaid brick temple known as the Court of Mysteries on Fair Avenue on Santa Cruz’s Westside. According to neighbors, both brothers built at night by the light of the moon, due to their beliefs in Eastern mythology and also because neither brother obtained building permits.
An arched entryway, known as the Gate of Prophecy, is made of carefully placed bricks inlaid with abalone. At the top of the arch is a cement triangle decorated with a circle of abalone shells. A crescent moon sits at 12 o’clock and the sun at 6. According to an anonymous interviewee from the book The Sidewalk Companion to Santa Cruz Architecture, “Kenneth believed it was possible for [these symbols] to move. When they lined up over a point on axis with the [temple’s] fireplace, it would signal the end of the world, or at least the United States.”
The abalones that decorate the mysterious triangle were collected from the local abalone processing plant’s trash pile. Through the gate is the temple: a low-ceilinged brick building, also inlaid with abalone mosaics. Construction plans show that Kenneth was going to add a second story and dome, but never did. As one story goes, he was building the temple in an effort to win the heart of a local woman. The plan didn’t work, which may be why he ceased building and then disappeared without a trace.
There are many stories that surround the Court of Mysteries, and no one knows for certain which are true. One story says that submerged in the waters of the temple’s brick well, Kenneth installed some sort of mechanism to interfere with the radio signals of German submarines. But this building is still very much a mystery.
3. Submarine House, Los Gatos Mountains
Fast Facts: Built in 1973, 1,927 square feet, 2 bed, 2 bath
What’s it like to live inside a grain silo that used to store hops for Falstaff Brewing Company? Or dismantle it in San Jose, wrangle it across the mountains, and set up shop near Santa Cruz? Only Harry Neal would know. He did that in 1973, transforming the old silo into a unique, circular retreat complete with koi pond, hot tub, and a studio where he once created bronze sculptures. Neal also added the bay window-covered metal tube that juts out from the master bedroom, surely responsible for this house’s nickname. He later tagged Palo Alto architect Bill Logan, known for his abstract Pajaro Dunes, to make further improvements.
But don’t think that you can waltz right up to the house and take a look around. Neal built a fence to keep people and deer off his property. You can, however, take in the view from Mountain Charlie Road next time you’re on a bike ride. Let us know if you, like the cyclists and neighbors that see it every day, agree that it should be called “the submarine.”
4. Howden Castle, Ben Lomond
Fast Facts: Built in 1927, 3,600 square feet, 4 bed, 5 bath
If you’ve driven on Highway 9 through Ben Lomond, chances are you’ve spotted this not-so-modest castle with loads of turrets, parapets, battlements, and more. Construction on Howden Castle was started in 1927 and completed in 1932 by Charles Howden, a Scotland-born stonemason who built it to harken back to the royal abodes of his native country. He fell in love with the land first, claiming it had the best fishing in Ben Lomond.
When the Howden family sold the castle to the Weatherly family, it took on the additional name of “Weatherly Castle,” and Mrs. Weatherly opened it up occasionally for guided, paid tours.
The home appears largely original, but has been upgraded over the years to meet more modern tastes and needs. A feast fit for a king and queen does require some modern kitchen amenities, but you’ll still find the dining hall has been largely untouched.
5. Alba Road Castle, Ben Lomond
Fast Facts: Built in 1980, 5890 square feet, 5 bed, 4 bath
How many castles are there in Ben Lomond, anyway? We only know of Howden and Alba Road, but send us your submissions!
The Alba Road Castle is reminiscent of something you’d find in a French village in the 1700s, But the truth is that it was created on an 11-acre, redwood-filled property in the 1980s. Though the castle is not as old as it looks, it features incredible bygone architectural details, mostly due to the original owner, who built the house after a visit to the Loire Valley. From the completely oak entryway, you’ll be led into a living room defined by its mahogany wainscoting and mantel, floor-to-ceiling library, raised circular stage, and window seat.
In addition to the old-world touches, this castle has a secret theater, wine bar, and wet bar located below the living room, but you’ll only find them if you know what wall-hanging to pull on.
Gordon Rudy, a past listing agent quoted in this 2017 SFGate article, said that the former owner built everything and installed plumbing and electrical, learning those trades (woodworking, too!) at local colleges over a span of 7 years. In addition to being a doctor and builder, the owner was chef, which accounts for the kitchen’s double cooktops, but not for the aquarium in the master bathroom.
6. Mushroom Dome Cabin, Aptos
And what list of quirky Santa Cruz County homes would be complete without a dome house?
Welcome to Kitty Mrache’s Mushroom Dome Cabin, a 100-square-foot geodesic dome you can enjoy yourself — if you book Airbnb’s most popular rental far enough in advance. According to The Hustle, nearly 6,000 people from all over the world have stayed in this tiny cabin since it was first listed on the site in 2009. Tucked away among the Redwoods, this Aptos retreat is cozy, delightful, and close enough to the beach and downtown Santa Cruz. Rustic, but luxe. The pentagon-shaped main floor contains a fold-out futon couch, kitchenette, and bathroom, complete with a Travertine shower and Nature’s Head composting toilet. Upstairs, you’ll find a double bed and enjoy stargazing through the dome. And, just beyond the shaded patio, you’ll have access to all the hiking you could ever want. It’s the perfect place to beta test your plans to join the tiny house movement.
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If you know about any other houses that hold true to the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” motto, send them our way! We’ll be sure to highlight them next time. We love supporting the things that keep Santa Cruz interesting.