The name John Marsh Davis does not immediately conjure landmark Bay Area design in the manner of renowned architects like Julia Morgan or Bernard Maybeck. But in a career spanning more than 40 years, Davis left an indelible mark on the region with an unmistakable body of work, ranging from celebrated wineries to breathtaking residences tucked away in the forested slopes of Marin. Our studio first encountered Davis’ work when we were engaged by Joseph Phelps Vineyards to create a new hospitality center at its St. Helena winery. An exploration of Davis’ original winery building design at the outset of the project has, over time, evolved into an expanded narrative of his life and work.
John Marsh Davis, Jr. was born in the heartland of Oklahoma in 1931 and received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Oklahoma at Norman, graduating in 1955. After serving four years in the U.S. Navy, he worked as an apprentice at the architecture firm of Reynolds and Morrison in Oklahoma City. Davis moved to Sausalito in 1961, and his practice would grow to include the creation of handcrafted residences in Marin and Sonoma Counties, along with many wineries in Napa. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, and Herb Greene, along with traditional Japanese design, Davis dubbed his work “Forgotten Modern.”
An early photo of Davis in US Navy uniform.
Davis at a site visit.
In his early years, Davis practiced a more classic approach, but over time integrated the grand gestures and unexpected details that would become trademarks of his style. Redwood and fir were among his favorite building materials, celebrated in his trellises, pergolas and extravagant detailing. His work exhibited originality and wit, and he established a reputation for lasting friendships with his clients.
Below, we’ve selected five projects from our ongoing research into Davis’ work that showcase his unique vision and enduring influence on the region. Click on a project to explore in more detail, or scroll through to read about each.
A rendering of the Barbour's entry bridge.
A picture of the Barbour residence indoor/outdoor seating area in the background there is a bridge connecting two buildings. On the left is an outdoor seating area with a wooden table and chairs. On the right is the indoor seating area between the two is a deck with a few steps leading down to the indoor area. The whole back row of the indoor area is windows and a long window seat. the rest of the indoor area is filled with chairs, couches, and tables the back wall is a bookcase next to the bookcase are steps leading up to the bridge.
The Kentfield residence that Davis designed for Nancy and Donald Barbour sits above a ravine on a dramatic, Oak-filled site. The Barbours contacted Davis after seeing one of his residential projects featured in California Home Magazine. Similar to that project (a residence in Sausalito), the Barbour Residence expresses itself as a singular rectangular pavilion. The main public floor is located at the middle, with bedroom floors above and below.
The hillside site created an opportunity for a unique arrival sequence - across a bridge on the south side of the house. In an early sketch, Davis explored the idea of a bridge going over a huge swimming pool. The garden that ultimately replaced the pool was designed by noted California landscape architect Thomas Church.
A sketch of the Barbour Residence's entry bridge.
The entry bridge provides a dramatic view of the East side of the residence. The exterior siding is a version of Redwood board and batten that accentuates the notion of a wood-framed house. The vertical proportions are extended into the two massive sliding doors that connect the garden and living room. Early schemes explored three- and five-bay versions with swinging doors.
The entry experience is one of compression. Arriving in the small vestibule in the southeast corner of the house, one looks down the length of the sliding doors – light flooding in from the East – and is pulled past the adjacent stairwell to the upper level and directly into the main living area. Davis studied this sequence in great detail.
An uninterrupted cadence of West-facing windows (and window bench below) leads from the living room into the kitchen and dining area, while a similar rhythm is established into the music room to the South.
A picture of the living room shows a wall of windows looking out over an outdoor seating area. in the back of the room is a set of steps. The back wall is a bookshelf.
A picture of the kitchen the kitchen table is pushed up against a window bench an island in the middle of the kitchen has a stove the island has counters on its left and right. There is a door in the kitchen that leads to an deck. The style of the kitchen is rustic.
Davis designed homes for entertaining and included details in his projects to enable large gatherings. At the Barbour Residence, he designed three tables that could easily be put together to form a single large table in living room. Fittingly, the Barbours hosted Davis’s 50th birthday celebration here.
Davis was instrumental in the furnishing of the spaces he designed, insisting here on McGuire Campaign chairs and white sofas and Japanese vases. In many of his clients’ homes, exterior patios and decks were furnished with Walter Lamb bronze patio chairs and chaise lounges. Throughout much of his work, Davis also paid great attention to fireplaces, often designing unique hanging grates, as seen here. The Barbour Residence fireplace is of a truly grand scale.
The entry stair on the South side of the house is mirrored by a stair on the North side. Just as the living room extends into the Dining and Music Rooms, here the space extends up to the second floor. This quality of interweaving is accentuated by the horizontal stairs extending into the bookcases. The stairs lead up to the interior bridge, which overlooks the sliding doors and garden beyond. Three bedrooms open to the West off of this bridge.
The South-facing master bedroom deck features dramatic views of Mount Tamalpais. The deck supports dissolve into a Wisteria-clad trellis structure - a signature of many Davis projects. The bracketed treatment of the roof overhangs make this trellis an emphatic part of the house, both celebrating structure and dematerializing the walls holding up the roof, thus making it appear to float.
Hand drawings of the first floor and loft floor plans. The date in the corner of these sketches is 4/4/66.
Davis built the Calle del Sierra Residence, in Stinson Beach, for himself. Facing directly onto the beach, the project was a dramatic event for this small oceanfront community that was just beginning to see the development of vacation homes in the Sea Drift subdivision to the North.
The house is defined by its two-story hipped roof form that hovers over the ground floor. Glass corners on this ground floor accentuate the sense of the roof floating above. Large two-story dormers on the South, West, and North sides anchor the roof mass. The fireplace achieves the same grounding effect on the East side.
The house is essentially a single large room on two levels, which open onto a walled garden. Davis designed the entry at the side of the residence and orients inhabitants to the location of the stair. Straight ahead lies the grand North/South axis of the house, with its tall doors opening at both ends onto the garden. The living room is framed by the three-story structure of groups of 4–10x10s, while the dining area, with oceanfront views to the west and Inglenook fireplace to the north, completes the space.
A view of the house from the beach you are able to see the area by the beach has a tall cement wall inside the cement wall you can see a courtyard that has a few trees.
The second and third floor sleeping hold sleeping lofts against the wall with the middle open looking down onto the entry level. All four sides of the second level pictured are used for sleeping. There are stairs leading up to the second floor sleeping area and then ladders leading up to the third floor.
Exposed paired rafters hold up the open second and third level spaces and create an eccentric tour de force of wood structure and open sleeping lofts, accessed by a ship ladder. The house is at once monumental and relatively small in size, with each space opening into the next and the emphasis on both the axial and the diagonal. The importance of the diagonal is revealed to the individual at the stair and in the kitchen – the axial experiences seem intended for the large groups of guests.
A picture from the 60s of the Barnett Residence's front entry way. The entry way is two huge glass doors reaching all the way up to the roof. The front entrance is surround by a large wooden deck. There is a gravel driveway leading up to the front entrance the sides of the driveway are lined with trees and bushes.
Barnett Residence exhibits many of Davis’ classic themes. It is one of his first projects in the Napa Valley, constructed in the same year as Robert Mondavi Winery was built – the seminal event from which the emergence of the “new” Napa Valley is often dated. Here Davis constructed a 60’ long living space as a great trellised pavilion, with a grand deck looking out across the vines. The bedroom and kitchen are modest, plywood-clad volumes on the uphill side of the site.
Like many of Davis’ homes, Barnett Residence was designed for entertaining and enjoying life in the “newly discovered” Napa Valley. Davis would find Napa fertile ground for his work and for a while maintained an office in the Valley. Barnett Residence shows Davis’ fascination with and debt to Japanese wood joinery, seen also in his early Sausalito house, as well as in the work of Bernard Maybeck, who reinterpreted the grand baronial halls of Europe in a singularly California way.
BCV has been engaged by the current owners of the Barnett Residence to expand the property and adapt it for more contemporary uses, while maintaining the signature style of Davis’ work.
A picture of Rutherford Hill part of Souverain Winery this building looks like a large upscale barn. The front of the building has lots of glass windows on all three levels there are exposed wooden beams between each window. The roof is slanted with the bottom turning into terraces with flowers growing up and along the terraces.
Fred Holmes, the owner of Souverain Winery, was introduced to Davis by Bud Mueller, Holmes’s attorney and an investor in the winery. At Souverain, Davis took themes from his residential work and explored them at the much larger scale of a quasi-industrial complex. At first glance, Souverain Winery is unmistakably a large barn. Davis was quoted in the Napa Valley Register as saying that the barn design “was used to make it relate with the county’s past history.”
Northwest and Southwest elevation drawings of the Souverain winery.
A photograph of the barn-inspired structure during construction. Much of the structural elements are completed, with the lower rows of shingles being fitted to the gambrel roof.
Like other Davis designs, the power of the single unifying roof form is present. Upon closer inspection, though, the almost archetypical form reveals itself to be more complicated. The barn is nestled into the hillside, while the roof both floats above the ground and is tied to it by a structure of buttresses on the West flank. These buttresses seem to be resisting the thrust of the earth on the uphill side of the building. The roof is not a simple Gambrel but a series of layered planes. Between the buttresses the plane of the roof is extended above a side passage by a trellis which dematerializes the plane of the roof and accentuates it at the same time.
A closer look at the courtyard and seating area by the front entrance. The seating area is nice metal tables and chairs with potted plants placed around the courtyard.
A view of an entrance into the winery shows a pathway lined with bushes and flowers leading up to the door on the left side of the path is a big grassy area. On the right side are more flowers and stairs up to a seating area.
Visitor reception and tasting areas, with offices above, inhabit the North end of the building, while winemaking functions occupy the remaining portion. Four small gabled dormers add richness by accentuating the shift in roof slope and aligning with service doors below. Attic vents included in the same location were eliminated in the final design, giving greater drama to the length of the building.
From early photographs, it is easy to see why Davis added a trellis, one of his signature elements. The trellis provides both a sense of scale and a mediating space at the building entry. The top of the trellis floats above the retaining wall to the East – pulling the two sides into a kind of equilibrium. This horizontal is contrasted by the two grouped supporting columns that align with the significant front door of the winery.
View of the Joseph Phelps winery at dusk. The interior is well lit and exudes a warm, golden light. The winery is a timber structure with a board and board and baton siding and a large gabled roof with wooden shingles. A timber bridge structure akin to the railroad bridges built across the Western United States stretches from the winery over the driveway into the hillside.
Joseph Phelps was a successful contractor in Colorado who had a passion for wine. In the late 1960’s, Phelps was simultaneously running one of the largest construction companies in the U.S., Hensel Phelps Construction, and beginning to make wine for himself, when he won the bid to build Souverain Winery (now Rutherford Hill) located a few miles outside of St. Helena. It was through this connection, facilitated by Bud Mueller, that Phelps met John Marsh Davis. The first property that Phelps purchased was on the southwest corner of Zinfandel Lane and the Silverado Trail, where a stone bridge on Zinfandel Lane crosses the Napa River.
Stonebridge was the name for the proposed winery that Joe Phelps asked Davis to design. The first scheme is an interesting synthesis of elements from Davis’ work on the Souverain projects with a significant, character defining addition: a large bridge-like element at the top ridge of the roof which projected out over the building entry like the prow of a ship, aligned with the historical stone bridge.
The first version of Stonebridge Winery. Shows an elongated building that has a second floor that extends beyond the first floor. The extending part of the second floor is supported by a large pillar.
An elevation of the second version of Stonebridge Winery. This image is titled west elevation and shows two sections connected by a covered bridge.
The production facility is articulated as a stone building with large wood doors covered by a large Gambrel roof – a version of Souverain Rutherford. The roof slope is less barn-like – with its shallow slope it provides the counterpoint to the dramatic rooftop bridge which housed tasting rooms and offices. This bridge would end up being realized in a different form in the Joseph Phelps winery as it was ultimately built.
Subsequent to developing the masonry scheme, Davis designed a wood structure for the site based around a courtyard. This scheme is clearly for the flat site along the Silverado Trail, but it has many elements that would ultimately find their way into the Joseph Phelps Winery. The basic parti has two main wings, each with a head building mass that is linked by a bridge. In this way, the bridge of the first Stonebridge scheme is given real meaning as a connecting element and creates a gateway into a landscaped courtyard.
In the early 1970s, Phelps acquired the Spring Valley Ranch to the Northeast of the Stonebridge site and decided to build his winery (and later, his home) here. Phelps wanted a winery that would reveal itself to the visitor after a procession up onto a ridge overlooking the small valley. The parti is in many respects a synthesis of the prior schemes for this dramatically different site.
A site plan of the property where they would build the winery
A black and white aerial picture of the early buildings on the property. There is a long driveway leading up to the building all along the driveway are vineyards. In this aerial photo you can see the building based off the earlier sketch of the two buildings connected by a bridge.
A 120’ trellis extends from the hillside through the break between the two barns, inviting the visitor in and suggesting a westward procession out to property’s expansive views. Redwood Forest on the hill above gives way to the mighty oaks over¬looking the valley – the heart of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Originally the North Building was wine production and the South barrel aging.
The exterior of the building is sheathed in Redwood board and batten. The building itself is an ingenious mixture of Redwood and Douglas Fir – where most of the structural members (except the trellises) are Fir and paneling is Redwood. Phelps tells of using salvaged virgin Redwood for the project that he obtained while building a new highway bridge in Sonoma. He set up a special shop onsite to build all the doors and windows (custom doors that feature diagonal infill are Fir with Redwood accent trim.) Phelps’ son Bill, now the winery’s Executive Chairman, worked on the construction crew.
Phelps added to and modified the winery over the years, including projects he did on his own – the oval room and expansion of the North Building – and, with Davis, the new sales room and tasting facility in the South Building. Completed in 1989, the tasting facility reflects the later period of Davis’s work in its use of highly finished redwood paneling, which also references his fascination with the work of the Greene brothers.
Eventually, production was moved into a facility closer to the Silverado Trail. The Phelps Family commissioned BCV and Don Brandenburger to renovate the building to create an expansive new visitor center and second floor offices. A new path leads guests from the parking area through the Redwood island to the great trellis, where a stair takes them on axis through to the entry, thus heightening the original arrival experience.
A picture of the tasting room at the winery. The tasting room walls are exposed wood with chairs and couches with large wooden tables. There is a window at the very back that overlooks a big green field. The elaborate barn structure is used as an integral feature of the interior's finish.
A picture of a different area of the tasting room. This view shows leather couches next vast wooden wine barrels that are used in the wine making process. Windows line the other wall introducing an abundance of natural light. The rafters are exposed, with wooden chandeliers hanging from them.
The interior reception rooms explore the difference between the East and West sides of the building – a theme central to Davis’s work. At the heart of the visitor center is a great gallery hall defined by trusses. You can read more about BCV’s renovation of the winery here.