By JULIA FLYNN SILER
Nan Tucker McEvoy, a scion of a prominent publishing family who previously owned the San Francisco Chronicle, had modest ambitions when she first began looking for a ranch in Northern California. “She started out with the idea of getting a little place in the country for her grandchildren to play,” explains her son, Nion McEvoy. “But then, she kind of got carried away.”
The McEvoy Ranch, which sits on 550 acres of rolling hills about 8 miles from downtown Petaluma, is the exuberant result. What was once a dairy farm is now a playful family retreat with scattered structures filled with paintings by Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and other leading California artists. It displays its owners’ sense of whimsy, particularly in a remarkable Chinese-style dining pavilion, and is furnished with pieces that reflect the family’s long history in San Francisco.
It is also a working olive farm that Ms. McEvoy, 93, and Nion, 60, her only child, own together. There are 15 buildings—including the family’s home, a guesthouse, a “Victorian” used for parties and a separate kitchen for staff meals and entertaining—two chicken coops, groves of 18,000 olive trees and a frantoia, or traditional olive press, from Italy. The ranch sells its award-winning olive oil, honey from its beehives and other products at the San Francisco Ferry Building and elsewhere.
The first clue that the ranch might be a little out-of-the-ordinary is its entrance: a stone gate with a plump bronze rabbit on top. At the main home, which was built in the early 1990s, a small red wagon, with “San Francisco Chronicle” lettered onto its side and planted with a small olive tree, sits outside the kitchen door.
Within the five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot home, a grand staircase leads toward a chandelier made from an old birch tree that once grew on the property. The entry hall leads to the dining room, overlooking one of several ponds on the property and the waterfall that flows into it during the rainy season.
Toward the house and built into the pond is a swimming pool with a hot-tub that looks, from the deck, just like an olive in a martini glass. As landscape architect Patrick Brennan explains, the pool was set inside the pond so that one could jump from the warm pool into the cool pond full of water plants, snakes and tadpoles. Mr. Brennan says the spirit behind it was “Let’s play!”
Ms. McEvoy’s focus on her grandchildren, now grown, is evident elsewhere in the house. Above the stove are fanciful drawings on glazed ceramic tiles made by them in 1998. Ms. McEvoy’s son accompanied his daughter Helen at her debut at the Cotillion Club of San Francisco in late 2011, an event founded by his grandmother, Phyllis de Young.
Ms. McEvoy also inherited some of the most striking pieces of furniture in the home, including a Belgian parquet inlay breakfront from the 17th century and two chinoiserie figures that now flank the entrance to the dining room.
The living room has a constantly rotating series of contemporary artworks: Ms. McEvoy contributed $10 million to the rebuilding of San Francisco’s de Young Museum, and she has been a longtime supporter of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Outside through a wooded garden stands a Chinese dining pavilion, inspired by Ms. McEvoy’s tours of Chinese gardens in Shanghai and elsewhere in 1998. It isn’t unusual in itself, but the surprise here is the appearance of three giant copper lizards crawling on the roof, a theme echoed by the pavilion’s lizard-shaped door handles. Both were drawn from Ms. McEvoy’s grandchildren’s fascination with lizards on the ranch. Inside, the ceiling is painted a cerulean blue and Venetian lanterns hang from it, while dragonlike light fixtures spring from the wall.
Drew Kelly for The Wall Street JournalThe swimming pool and hot tub are built into a fresh-water pond, so one can jump from one body of water into another.
Across from the pavilion is a new house used for staff yoga classes and parties called the “Victorian,” modeled after the Victorian home that once stood on the ranch. On a whim, Wayne Thiebaud painted a cake, sandwich with pickle and pastry on the outside of the media cabinet.
Ms. McEvoy is the granddaughter of Michael de Young, who in 1865 co-founded the newspaper that would become the San Francisco Chronicle. After living in Washington, D.C., for many years, Ms. McEvoy served as chairman of the board of the San Francisco Chronicle from 1981 to 1995. A family schism forced her off the board by imposing age limits. Four years later, the paper was sold to Hearst, its longtime rival, for $660 million. Hearst still owns the Chronicle.
After the trauma of the sale, which Ms. McEvoy opposed, she poured even more of her considerable energy and fortune into the ranch, which she bought in 1990 for $3 million. Restaurant designer and vintner Pat Kuleto’s 602-acre ranch in St. Helena, Calif., which has 60 acres of planted vineyards, is listed for $17.5 million.
Although the McEvoy ranch is a business, it is also a private and very personal retreat. Over lunch, ranch staffers laugh when they learn that Ms. McEvoy’s beloved show poodle, Robbie, had recently leaned up against the Richard Diebenkorn painting that hangs in her bedroom.
The subject of Robbie came up again, as Nion learned that a dog image might land on the ranch’s new wine label. “Oh, God,” her son joked. “I should never miss those staff meetings!”