Rocker's old house vaults Williams into the spotlight
Tiny Williams, Oregon, has long been a place to get lost. When gold miners left in the 1860s, homesteaders quietly rolled in. They started cattle ranches and dairy farms on this speck of land pressed up against the Siskiyou Mountains in what is now the Applegate Valley wine country.
A century later, hippies and counterculture seekers set up communes and lived off the land and home-based businesses. Today, residents in the unincorporated community say they are still surrounded by artists, musicians and alternative thinkers who came to escape the pace of city life.
Surprisingly, the most famous place in this old gold-mining town is a Midcentury Modern house owned by blues-rock musician Steve Miller from 1976-1986. His ranch, which he retreated to during a decade of prolific writing and performing, has suddenly vaulted isolated Williams into the spotlight.
On May 18, the wood-and-glass, two-story house, hidden off Water Gap Road from Highway 238 between Grants Pass and Medford, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Earning the title required that the house be a significant piece in American history, architecture, archaeology or engineering.
That means Miller, who owned the property when he released mega 1970s' hits like "Fly Like an Eagle" and who built a recording studio and a massive barn to park his tour bus and entertain pals like Boz Scaggs, really had nothing to do with earning the coveted designation.
He wasn't the first to seek privacy and solitude in Williams.
Art collectors and archaeologists Sarah ("Sallie") and Bill Lippincott discovered the remote region in the southern part of the state decades before. The wealthy couple bought the former homestead in 1948 after bringing national attention to Navajo art.
The Lippincotts had owned a trading post, called Wide Ruins, on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Their famous friends, like photographer Ansel Adams and modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, would visit, and collectors would buy rugs made by Navajo weavers.
Sallie Wagner Lippincott, an artist herself, is credited with helping the weavers develop new, natural vegetal dyes.
She lived 70 of her 93 years in the Southwest before dying in Sante Fe in 2006. In her 1997 memoir, "Wide Ruins: Memories from a Navajo Trading Post," she said she and her husband found temporary serenity on their 800-acre Oregon ranch.
The couple asked architect Winfield Scott Wellington of Berkeley, California, to design a split-level house with clear Douglas fir interior paneling, beamed ceilings and floors made from trees felled from the property.
The Lippincotts brought in Arizona sandstone to be used for fireplaces in the living room and kitchen.
The main level of the house is on the second floor to capture the best views of the man-made pond and the mountains. The first floor has a partial daylight basement used as an entry hall and guest rooms.
Enter through the modest front door and take switchback stairs to reach the double-height living room where folding French glass doors once opened to a 60-foot-long deck. Now there are glass panels.
Connecting the living room with the bedroom wing is a gallery designed for the couple's impressive art collection.
They lived in a small house they had built nearby until the main residence was completed in 1951.
The William J. & Sarah Wagner Lippincott House is considered one of the finest examples of post-World War II Contemporary or Modern style architectural design in Southern Oregon and a rare example in Josephine County, according to National Register documents.
"It retains high integrity in design, use of materials, feeling and location so as to effectively relate its original interior and exterior character and the associations that make it significant," wrote historic preservation consultant George Kramer in the nomination application.
The house and the surrounding three acres that include the smaller guest house is the first property to earn the National Register designation in Williams, "a side valley off of nowhere," says Lou Ann Allen, a former Williams resident and volunteer who spent a year working to get the house on the National Register, which is maintained by the National Park Service.
The Lippincott House is one of 59 individual historic properties on the list from Josephine County and the only Modern residence. In 2013, it was almost destroyed by the Pacific fire that scorched 500 acres and came within 10 feet of the wooden house.
The Lippincotts lived only a few years here before returning to the Southwest. In the early 1950s, they put the former Messinger homestead up for sale.
In 1954, the property was purchased by Edwin N. and Bonnie Lippert, who raised cattle and added huge reservoirs.
When they wanted to sell the property a decade later, a four-page sales brochure described the house on a tree-covered hill as appealing to people "with imagination, taste and discrimination." Another selling point was that the private lake, stocked with trout and blue gill, could be "used for irrigation, boating, swimming and fishing."
In 1967, a California developer bought and subdivided some of the land. He built houses and planned for a golf course that never materialized.
The remaining 420 acres of the original property were bought in 1976 by Miller, whose Steve Miller Band has sold more than 40 million records over 40 years, and is still on tour (Aug. 4 at McMenamins Edgefield in Troutdale).
Back then, Miller was always on the road and rarely in Williams. But that didn't halt the fun, say neighbors Joe and Suzi Ginet.
"It was pretty exciting for this small community when he purchased the property," says Suzi Ginet, who, with her husband, grows grapes and makes French-style red wines at their Plaisance Ranch off Water Gap Road. "We had a lot of fun days swimming in the lake, using Steve's boats, fishing in the pond. We met Boz Scaggs there one afternoon. Steve had a lot of really cool souvenirs."
In 1982, Miller told People magazine, "When I first moved, people thought it was Sin City come to the country. Now I'm just the singer in the valley."
During his ownership, he built a 9,000-square-foot, cedar-lined pole barn on the other side of the pond. Called the Cedar Center, it has a towering glass door that rolled up so the tour bus could park inside.
The bus sat on top of an oak floor installed so the roadies could play indoor basketball. A two-story guest apartment has windows that look across the basketball hoop.
The mezzanine held the transmitting equipment and a photographer's dark room was tucked under the stairs.
In the back of the hall is an expensive recording studio that Miller could never use. Despite ample acoustical padding, it couldn't shake the incessant vibrations from the Webco lumber mill a half-mile away.
Since 2009, the recording studio has been leased by Grammy Award-winner Dennis Dragon, son of Hollywood Bowl symphony conductor Carmen Dragon and brother of "Captain" Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille. Dennis Dragon says he traded his hectic Los Angeles life for calmer Williams.
As for the future of the property, in 1999, a donation allowed nonprofit foundation Pacifica: A Garden in the Siskiyous to purchase the land and buildings, including the Lippincott house.
In 2012, Forestfarm Nursery, a large mail-order business for hardy plants, was donated to Pacifica as a basis for botanical and nature gardens, which are still to be developed. Forestfarm at Pacifica offers over 5,000 kinds of plants to gardeners across the country and sales benefit Pacifica.
Having the National Register designation, says Ray Prag, who founded Forestfarm Nursery with his wife, Peg, "was just a sigh of satisfaction that we had taken another step toward preserving the property and its buildings."
He is hoping the designation will also qualify the house for grants. "As a nonprofit, Pacifica is chronically short of money to accomplish the things we would like to," he says.
Today, the property at 14615 Water Gap Road is a community center with art shows and nature center with habitats supporting different types of plants and birds. A three-tiered amphitheater, called Madrone Grove, can seat 200 people.
The public is welcome to hike, practice catch-and-release fishing and picnic. People can visit the property or rent the Miller barn or the Lippincott "Pond" House for reunions, weddings, conferences and workshops.
Recently, members of traveling bands stayed in the bedrooms and art gallery, now set up with single, dormitory-like beds.
Here, they could sit on the deck and be inspired by the setting, like many other artists and free spirits who intentionally get lost here.