It was a formidable challenge. Take one of the most influential examples of residential architecture of the 20th century and update it for 21st-century living, without appearing to leave any noticeable fingerprints.

Architect Michael Barron-Wike succeeded with an interior remodel of one of the late Joseph Esherick's famed "Hedgerow Houses" at The Sea Ranch. His sensitive treatment of the iconic cottage, one of six on a wind-whipped bluff that were used as "Demonstration Houses" to market the new, environmentally sensitive coastal development back in 1965, earned him the approval of his peers.

It recently won the "People's Choice" design award, voted on by members of the American Institute of Architects' Redwood Empire Chapter.

When he took on the challenge, Barron-Wike was all too aware that he was "treading on sacred ground."

The Hedgerow Houses were among the first dwellings built at The Sea Ranch, and are well-recognized and studied by architects across the nation. As a group they were declared to be among "The 25 Most Important Houses in America" by Fine Homebuilding Magazine. On an even more personal level, Barron-Wike had studied under Esherick at UC Berkeley during those early years of the Sea Ranch development in the mid 1960s.

"One of the things he taught us was to never stop examining our work, to continue to evolve what we have done and what others may have done before us. Such was the case for this classic home," Barron-Wike said.

Over the 30 years that Larry and Gladys Marks maintained it as a vacation rental, time took its toll. It smelled of mold and mice, and some design aspects, like the closed-off kitchen and small windows, no longer worked.

"Esherick did an outstanding job on the site design of these clustered houses, but the interior design left much to be desired for today's lifestyles, especially with regards to how the spaces worked with each other," he explained.

Most notably, the house failed to capitalize on the breathtaking views of Black Point, poised at the southern edge of the 10-mile-long seaside enclave.

The Hedgerow Houses were designed and built in 1965 to show off what would come to be known as "The Sea Ranch style," simple timber-frame homes clad in wooden siding or shingles, built low and unobtrusively into the landscape and faintly evoking old farm structures. Such an eco-sensitive development was a radical concept at the time. The homes were intended as affordable weekend retreats for a working class of professionals and teachers.

"We looked for the most hostile building site on the property, thinking if the buildings worked there, then other projects could succeed," Esherick said several years before his death in 1998.

In researching his home through the Esherick archives at U.C. Berkeley, Marks discovered it received the first certificate of occupancy at The Sea Ranch, adding to its historical significance.

Barron-Wike approached the remodel and rebuild with a light and deft hand. It looks much the same from the outside, remaining within the original footprint save for the addition of bay window seats in the living room and upstairs bedroom, to capture views of the surf outside. He retained great elements, like the inglenook or "chimney corner," a snug, low-ceilinged fireplace room with a long windowseat from which one can take in a panoramic view of the bluffs.

The original cedar paneling was removed, re-planed and reinstalled and the pecan floors retained and extended into the kitchen, where a wall was removed to integrate it with the dining room.

Upstairs, Barron-Wike reconfigured the space, raising the roof on a wasted storage room and turning it into a bedroom. He then combined a narrow bathroom and tiny bedroom into a walk-in closet and larger bath.

More and larger double-glazed windows finally welcomed in the views.

Barron-Wike worked closely with the Sea Ranch Design Committee, which still includes founders Dick Whitaker and George Homsey, Esherick's longtime partner, to ensure it remained in the spirit of the original design.

"We spent twice as much for the remodel than we did to buy it," Larry Marks said. "But we wanted it done first-class and we wanted to preserve it for what it is — an iconic Esherick Sea Ranch house."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.