Design entrepreneur Kristina O’Neal and her husband, real estate developer Adam Gordon, craft a hidden getaway.
At a distance the house appears almost like a mirage: a pristine structure sitting atop rolling hills covered in wild grass, reminiscent of agricultural barns but a bit too geometrically precise. Closer inspection reveals two enormous glass-and-steel hydraulic windows that lift to open the light-filled interior to its surrounding dramatic landscape. As if this scene weren’t magical enough, two picture-perfect miniature donkeys round the corner to greet you, looking for treats.
“They are Sugi and Jinx, our great loves,” Kristina O’Neal says with a laugh, referring to the full-time residents of this Sonoma County house. O’Neal, a founding partner of award-winning design firm AvroKO, known for groundbreaking hospitality projects around the world, and her husband, Adam Gordon, a developer of innovative real estate projects, are longtime Manhattanites who, a decade ago, sought out a piece of land where they could enjoy a different relationship with the physical world. “I think we often want to return to places where we grew up, even if it’s just the feel of a region matching a romanticized memory,” says O’Neal, who is originally from the Bay Area. Gordon has his own reasons for settling in wine country: “I’d been stashing cars here for ages—I’d fly in and drive the winding roads,” he confesses. So, having enough room to store a collection of perfectly restored vintage trucks became part of the equation when the couple started looking for a place to build.
After an extensive search, the duo settled on a 227-acre plot in Knights Valley, a still somewhat-forgotten corner of Sonoma County. Owned by an old San Francisco family who had used it for cattle ranching, it was one of the last tracts that hadn’t been converted to grapevines. Instead of building as soon as they found it, the couple camped there for the first year, divining the perfect location. “We agreed to experience the land—the seasons, the smells and light and the wildlife—before embarking,” Gordon explains. O’Neal adds, “We had been collecting pictures of bare-bones structures from Uruguay that felt both agricultural and soulful.” This became the main inspiration for the home. The couple’s combined years of expertise as designer and builder resulted in a steel-and-glass barn clad in stone that is both embedded in the land and otherworldly. “A stripped-down, almost glass-walled tent of sorts,” says Gordon.
The house is outfitted with seemingly endless sliding glass doors, in addition to two airplane-hangar windows that fully open the living room on one end of the house and the primary bedroom on the other to bring gentle breezes as well as sunlight into the house on beautiful days—whicthis being Northern California after all, is almost always. “The house is 28 feet wide, so we are never more than 14 feet from a window,” Gordon proudly states. The many openings also allow their domesticated donkeys to roam freely, inside and out. “They own the joint,” O’Neal says, only half-jokingly.
In keeping with the principle of living lightly, the house is sparsely but warmly furnished with low-key furniture. A large linen-covered sofa anchors the living space, along with a pair of vintage Pierre Jeanneret chairs. The dining table is made from a Knoll base purchased on eBay, with a custom rosewood top. Unvarnished stools by woodworker Caleb Woodard are used throughout to add warmth and texture—as well as extra seating. Artworks by O’Neal, made using fabrics from deconstructed 19th-century furniture, are hung on the white walls. The few touches of whimsy are to be found in the central entry hall: a flock of wood-and-wool sheep, from a local shop, and a Peel P50, the smallest working pro-duction car. Here, stairs lead to the second level, containing bedrooms for Gordon’s young-adult sons.
As when siting the house, the couple decided to “camp” in the structure for the first year before settling on interior finishes and furnishings—including a makeshift kitchen. By fate or design, Gordon invited their friend, architect Tom Kundig of AD100 firm Olson Kundig, to visit during this time.
O’Neal’s landscape inspiration has taken a different form. “I have been gathering and studying botanicals from the land, and it’s surprising how many medicinal gifts grow here,” O’Neal enthuses. She has partnered with Tessa Perliss, a winemaker with long-standing ties to Napa Valley, to produce a variety of self-care products in limited editions called Authored by the Sun. Launching in early 2022, “the project includes women in agriculture from all over Sonoma and Napa who are contributing herbs, flowers, and other botanicals from their own farms, gardens, and vineyards, and has become a beautiful collective endeavor.”
Far from being a mirage, as it first appears, the Knights Valley house has become a crucible of sustainability and creativity, where O’Neal and Gordon can refocus their energy toward the next phase of their life together. “The ranch gives us a place where it’s impossible not to live this way,” says O’Neal. Gordon adds, “It has been a particular, unshakable fantasy, and we keep falling deeper into the spell.”