Sonoma couple revamps home featured in 'American Graffiti'

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


In the movie classic American Graffiti, cool dude John Milner played by Paul Le Mat finally sheds the annoying kid Carol (McKenzie Phillips), who has been riding shotgun in his hot rod all evening, crimping his style.

She pops out of the iconic yellow ’32 Ford coupe and heads up the walkway to her house, a classic bungalow, then disappears behind the front door.

When the film not long ago played at Sonoma’s old Sebastiani Theatre, the crowd cheered when that house appeared on the screen. To longtime Sonomans it’s a familiar address, a fixture on Second Street East since 1909.

When Cherie and Keith Hughes bought what some people call “The American Graffiti House,” they didn’t know of its movie past. And if you watched the movie now you can still recognize it. It doesn’t appear to have changed much since then-fledgling director George Lucas filmed the movie 45 years old.

But not unlike a house on a film studio back lot, that classic Craftsman face is a facade. Behind the door — the same front door McKenzie Phillips entered in the movie — is an elegantly modern home with open floor plan designed for entertaining.

Pulling it off was no easy feat. The house sits within the historic overlay district, where strict guidelines apply to protect the character of the old neighborhood.

That didn’t discourage the Hughes’ from taking on the challenge not only of navigating Sonoma’s strict design review process, but of restoring a home that structurally needed a lot of work.

For one thing, it didn’t have a real foundation. And once some of the walls were open it became clear that earlier remodels had left some timbers in precarious shape.

The Hughes in 2000 bought a property with vineyards in the foothills above Glen Ellen. They dove happily into the life of grapegrowers and winemakers, learning from others and establishing Hughes Family Vineyards. But in recent years they yearned to move into town.

“We were very, very happy to find this home. We lived up in Bennett Valley but we were really involved with Sonoma. We were constantly driving up and down the hill. And when we had the opportunity to buy this house, because of the location, we were thrilled to do so,” said Cherie, a retired child psychologist who now is co-president of the board of directors of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

The house sits on Second Street East, which is, like D Street in Petaluma and McDonald Avenue in Santa Rosa, Sonoma’s grand old residential street, lined with charming vintage homes and only a short walk to the Sonoma Plaza.

The property had another great selling point. It sits on half an acre, with a barn in back and room for a pool and guest house in a converted chicken coop.

The couple assembled a crack team of architects and designers and engineers to restore what was salvageable from the original house — including its welcoming face with big porch and Craftsman pillars — while also modernizing it for the comforts of 21st century living.

The house is a featured attraction on the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s Great Places, Great Spaces program. Designed as a fundraiser for the museum, the program is what organizers describe as a “series of journeys to local destinations filled with art, architecture, design and epicurean excellence.”

Four properties are featured on the fall lineup. Each evening offers cocktails, dinner or a party at various private homes throughout the Sonoma Valley. The Hughes family will host dinner in a progressive evening Sept. 20 that also includes cocktails at a restored 1930s home farther down the block owned by art patrons Kimberly and Simon Blattner. The evening will conclude with dessert at the home of Suzanne Brangham, the powerhouse developer who built such places as Ramekins, The General’s Daughter and MacArthur Place in Sonoma. Her home also is on Second Street East so people can walk to each residence.

That opening “Triple Treat” is sold out. But there are two more events with tickets still available — one a home with views and filled with art above Lovall Valley in October and, in November, a dinner party in a home that has been beautifully redesigned to accommodate a wheelchair, although you wouldn’t know it. Visit for details and tickets. A new lineup of home events will post for the new year so Hughes urges people to watch the museum website. Some tickets sell fast.

There is some disagreement among the city’s architectural historian and the specialist Juliana Inman from Napa retained by the Hughes. Inman found the house charming but not significant because nothing notable happened there. A city-recommended consultant however, said it is important from Sonoma’s point of view because it was built by Ralph Murphy, a contractor who built many Craftsman homes in Sonoma in the early part of the 20th century.

It was built around 1909 and Murphy himself lived there with his mother for a couple of years before selling it to town pharmacist Lloyd Simpson and his wife Mabel. The kept it for a couple of generations.

“We didn’t want to change the facade,” Hughes said. “We didn’t add any windows to the old house. We respected as much as we could.”

It helped that their architect was Luke Wade of Wade Design Architects of San Anselmo, who had done such a pitch-perfect job restoring the old Williams-Sonoma on Broadway.

“We had seen his work and he’s so incredibly brilliant and engaging,” Cherie said. “He’s a holistic architect and not just into pretty design.”

Among his ideas was the set of powder-coated aluminum louvers installed over their patio. He studied the pattern of the sun throughout the year, placing them in a way to provide perfect dappled shade no matter what time of year.

Cherie said part of the reason for the renovation was to enable them to “age in place.” So although there are rooms upstairs, they created a luxurious master suite on the main floor, deep in the back.

The couple kept the original old parlor in front, a cozy spot with the original fireplace and the front porch is equipped with a swing “so we can watch the world go by,” Cherie said.

But beyond that front room the house is a vision of open modernity, with crisp interiors by Jennifer Macdonald of Jennifer Robin Interiors in Marin County. Concerned about making the home as sustainable as possible, they used reclaimed materials when possible, including reclaimed wood that went into some furnishings.

An old barn in back proved to be beyond repair. But they built a new one just like it to serve as a garage, and kept the old wisteria that had been growing on the old barn. An old chicken coop out back was turned into a guest cottage, equipped with a battery-powered unit that feeds off their solar electric system to provide an off-the-grid refuge if they ever need it.

Cherie loves the garden. One of her prized rescues is an old metal elevator that had once been installed on the outside of the house. After rescuing it from the barn, she had it painted and turned it into a garden shed for landscape supplies.

The couple are major art enthusiasts and supporters of the arts. Two places in the house feature hidden televisions behind fine artwork. These devices feature a painting that, via a remote control, will flip, revealing a television on the other side.

The couple like to entertain. And they love the small-group intimacy of the “Great Spaces, Great Places” event.

“It’s really a sense of being with a group of nice, art-minded people. It’s interesting the way it becomes very friendly, warm and fun. It turns out to be more about the people and the food served,” she said. “All the people enjoy the art and architecture and just tend to become good friends for the night even though they didn’t know each other before. It’s a fun way to support the museum.”

Please read our commenting policy
  • No profanity, abuse, racism or hate speech
  • No personal attacks on other commenters
  • No spam or off-topic posts
  • Comments including URLs and media may be held for moderation
Send a letter to the editor
*** The system is currently unable to accept new posts (we're working on it) ***

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine