This Man Lives Alone on a Dreamy Ranch with Redwoods
The architect Charles Bello has spent the past 52 years restoring forests from logging and protecting the land on his 400-acre Bello Ranch in Northern California. Here's what he's learned along the way.
A large meadow greets visitors to Bello Ranch. Originally littered with detritus left by decades of logging, the meadow now supports healthy new-growth redwoods in isolated clusters.
In 1968, Charles Bello, now 87, bought 240 acres of redwoods in Northern California’s Mendocino County with his wife, Vanna Rae. Seeking a simpler way of life, they spent all their savings and borrowed money from their parents to be able to afford the $45,000 price. Fifty-two years later, Charles, a civil engineer and an architect who apprenticed under famed modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, is a widower, and his two grown sons have moved away. He lives alone among the redwoods and deer now, working on wood sculptures and building fanciful guesthouses on the property for occasional visitors to stay in. Guest fees contribute to the Redwood Forest Institute, a nonprofit organization that Charles and Vanna Rae established in 1997, which serves to restore giant redwood forests by purchasing and managing forest lands, preserve existing forests, educate the public about the importance of redwoods, and provide safe and beautiful recreation opportunities among the trees. Charles hopes it will also allow for the transition of his caretaking role to a group of new, like-minded stewards. “What I would like to see for the future of the farm is to find three highly motivated, middle-aged couples who are interested in settling down on this land as their permanent home, seeking to live the alternative lifestyle that this place has to offer: off-the-grid isolation, self-sustaining in food production, power, and finances,” says Charles.
He considers life at Bello Ranch an example for others and worries that, without major societal changes, our quality of life on earth will decline dramatically in the coming decades. I visited him in February and again in March to interview him about his life’s work, the lessons he’s learned, and his prescriptions for an ailing human race.
An A-frame house was the first structure Charles and Vanna Rae built, in the summer of 1968. Charles’s parents, his brother, Vanna Rae’s sister, and her husband all lent a hand. It took them five and a half days to construct it on a $2,800 budget. The rooms attached to the left side of the house were a later addition. In the summer, grapevines over the large windows provide shade and temperature control.
Charles and Vanna Rae moved onto the property in May of 1968. Vanna Rae gave birth to their first son, Mark, in August. Their second son, Mike, was born two years later. They bought a neighboring 150 acres in 1978 for $30,000, and the family lived in the A-frame until 1982, raising goats and chickens, growing fruits and vegetables, and running a Christmas tree farm to generate income.
“What’s really interesting about our example here, what we represent, is what two people can do over time. We came on bare land—no roads, no bridges, no water—I mean just a bare piece of land with nothing! It took us 19 years to pay off the [loan from my parents by selling] Christmas trees, and here it is 50 years later, and we have four houses and all kinds of stuff.”
The Grove House was the second house Charles and Vanna Rae built on their property, in 1982.
Charles and Vanna Rae designed and built their second house about 300 feet from their original A-frame. They lived in this house for another ten years, until the trees grew tall enough to block their views of the sky.
Charles began building spec homes in high school in the 1940s. Over his junior- and senior-year summer vacations, he constructed three houses and a small office building in downtown Healdsburg, California. After serving in the Korean War as a cartographer, he worked as a civil engineer in Berkeley and then apprenticed under architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles. But Charles’s impulses pulled him away from steady employment. For him, sitting “at a desk all day on a drawing board just wasn’t my cup of tea. I never was comfortable. I wanted to go back to nature, farming, and gardening.”
He married Vanna Rae Dove in 1965, and they spent time in New Zealand, where Charles built another spec house. By 1968, the concept of creating their own homestead apart from mainstream civilization crystallized, and after months of searching, they bought the land that would become Bello Ranch.
An exterior view of the Glass House
The Glass House is the third and most dramatic residence that Charles and Vanna Rae built. It’s one of 19 structures that now stand on the property. Solar panels provide electricity, and a dug-in greenhouse below the living area shelters potatoes, lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, and other foods.
Construction began in 1991 and was completed in 1992, as Charles and Vanna Rae continued to farm and manage the property. They built the house with timber milled on-site and mostly salvaged materials. The home’s unique parabolic roof was designed to compliment the ridgeline views outside the massive windows. Charles had previously experimented with this type of roof on some of his spec homes, most notably on a 1965 house in Santa Rosa, California, with five parabolas, still standing at 1610 Manzanita Avenue.
“I can’t believe, as I look back, how we were able to do these things. It just seems unrealistic, and yet they’re here, so it got done,” he says.
The view from the living-room couch inside the Glass House
Charles’s principles of living in harmony with nature are fully expressed in the Glass House. Everything was designed with the surrounding environment in mind. Even the furniture has been constructed and placed in concert with the surroundings.
“I wanted to see the sky, so I came up here one day, and I sat on a box, and I looked up, and there’s a line that I scribed in my mind’s eye, and within 20 seconds, I had the whole house designed. This was to be a living sculpture—it’s a piece of sculpture we live in—and so every decision made in this house was not convenience or comfort, it was all to create the atmosphere of an artistic expression. Ninety percent of what makes this house is not the house itself but what you’re seeing outside, so it gives you a place to enjoy nature in a very intimate and very close way.”
Charles holds a young branch torn from a B-100 Douglas fir clone that he developed on his Christmas tree farm. With guidance from famed forest geneticist Bill Libby, he successfully cultivated what he calls a “superior” Christmas tree.
“One out of 20,000 Douglas trees turned out far superior as a Christmas tree than all the others. The needles were twice as dense, the color a dark blue-green, the underside of the needles is silver, the branches grow out of the trunk at a more vertical angle, thus able to hold the weight of more ornaments without sagging,” says Charles, who recalls growing about a thousand of these B-100 Christmas trees over the years. “They were a real hit with the public.”
Charles’s mill, where he produces all of the lumber for the buildings on his property. The original mill he built was powered by the rear axle of a 1965 Ford Galaxy.
“The original intent was to build everything temporary. I never thought we’d get into permanent things. And all these temporary buildings were meant to be the first phase, and that was what we were to accomplish in our lifetime,” says Charles. “Well, the children left, and we went and built a shop, a permanent building there, and we built this house here, and we just keep going. There’s no end to it! I’ve got glamping sites now that I’m working on, and, I don’t know, I’m going to need help to finish those now, because my body just won’t function. And I keep pushing it and pushing it, but I’m coming to the end of being able to do this.”
Charles sands a redwood ring before applying varnish.
Today Charles divides his days between constructing small guesthouses around the property, taking on the occasional furniture commission, and trying to secure the legacy of Bello Ranch. Vanna Rae died on October 10, 2010.
“The question is, what’s going to happen in the future?” says Charles. “Now we’ve been here 52 years, we put a lifetime, the best years of our lives we spent with the idea of doing something beneficial for future generations, and, you know, was it worth the effort? Can it continue?”
Charles’s gallery holds his wood sculptures and is built of locally milled redwood and salvaged glass.
The land Charles and Vanna Rae bought in 1965 had been extensively logged. Through his nonprofit, the Redwood Forest Institute, Charles has designated specific redwood trees that will someday again be considered old-growth.
“I’ve selected 1,000 trees that can never be cut for 2,000 years,” he says. “So let’s not just look short-term, let’s look at what’s gonna happen in the long run.”
Charles walks along the lawn in front of the Glass House to collect laundry drying on a line.
Finding qualified help to live and work on the property has been a huge challenge. And Charles’s nonprofit has struggled to maintain board membership. “The board needs to take over, and I’m trying to get them to meet these people who want to become a part of this and trying to get them to make the decision of whether they’re the right ones or not,” he says. “I’ve tried 15 or 20 people, and none of them have worked out.”