Photographs by Cara Robbins
It’s a gorgeous, crystal-clear fall day in Los Olivos. Panoramic views of estate vineyards, the San Rafael Mountains and Santa Ynez Valley spill from the hilltop residence at Rancho La Zaca, a hidden 400-acre enclave off of Foxen Canyon Road. Frances Schultz, who lives here with husband Tom Dittmer, is guiding me around the impressive home and property—the epitome of Santa Barbara County wine country life and style.
Schultz has spent the last several years renovating the Modernist ranch dwelling to create a warm, welcoming haven for the family and a steady stream of guests from near and far. “A house will tell you what it needs and what’s right for it,” she says. “But you also have to make it comfortable and livable for you.”
Schultz happens to know a thing or two about how to create an atmosphere of comfort and livability in any type of home. Born and raised in rural North Carolina in the traditional manner of a Southern belle (she was the fifth generation of her family to attend the prestigious St. Mary’s School for girls in Raleigh, North Carolina), she still speaks with a charming drawl. She is a contributing editor to House Beautiful and former editor-at-large for Veranda. She has authored and coauthored several books, including A House in the South, and for six years was the on-air host of the award-winning cable television show Southern Living Presents. She has appeared on The Today Show, CNN’s Open House and The Nate Berkus Show, among many others. She also pens a popular blog at FrancesSchultz.com, filled with witticisms, keen observations and advice.
Schultz experienced a number of personal setbacks in the last decade, including a broken engagement, cancer and a series of devastating losses. She chronicled her struggles in a memoir, The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made a Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness (Skyhorse Publishing, 2015), which is already in its sixth printing. The project began in 2008 with her popular House Beautiful magazine series on the makeover of a house, Bee Cottage, in East Hampton on Long Island. Her tale combines her considerable expertise with life lessons gleaned from her journey to rebuild her life and the rundown cottage. The renovation became a metaphor and a means of personal discovery and healing for Schultz.
During that time, Schultz met Tom Dittmer, a commodities brokerage executive who had retired as Chair of Refco Group in 1999. He purchased Rancho La Zaca in 2006, planning to split his time between the ranch and a pied-a-terre in Manhattan. Schultz and Dittmer met in New York in 2008 via mutual friends and were married in an olive grove at Rancho La Zaca in 2012.
Both Schultz and Dittmer travel quite a bit, but consider Rancho La Zaca their true home base. The contemporary house was originally built for actor James Garner and designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Jacqueline Onassis’s architect on Martha’s Vineyard. When Schultz began to redecorate, she decided to “warm it up, soften it without harming the integrity of the house.”
When asked to summarize her approach, Schultz refers me to a paragraph in The Bee Cottage Story: “Architectural historian Grant Hildebrand talks about ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge,’ concepts he says apply even to the humblest of dwellings. …It has nothing to do with the size of the house, but we humans desire areas that offer possibility, views, and the ‘prospect’ of discovery and expansion; while conversely we also need areas in which we feel protected and safe—‘refuge.’”
On our tour, Schultz says the house “had prospect everywhere, but this place needed refuge—the human spirit needs it.” She therefore designed small spaces dispersed throughout the vast interior, connected by numerous hallways, stairs and steps. “You need a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back,” she laughs, as we wend our way around a glass-walled atrium. The walls, shelves and alcoves here and in many other sections of the home showcase eclectic items Schultz has collected over the years: pressed leaves and flowers, heart-shaped rocks, a rattlesnake rattle, tree conchs picked up on walks in New England and New York. “I love butterflies, birds, birds nests,” she gushes, adding that Dittmer gave her one of the nests as a gift—“much better than all the jewelry in the world.” Pushpins on various burlap bulletin boards hold inspirational notes and photos. “Everything has a story and everything means something to us,” she explains.
More stories and memories—in the form of thank you notes and cards—appear beneath a glass top on a table in the breakfast nook. “It’s a little scrapbook, an evolving collage,” says Schultz, pointing to handwritten lines from Dittmer’s grandchildren, author Fannie Flagg and award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, among others. Schultz recently transformed the formerly stark breakfast room into a cozy spot, which she calls “the happy place.” She plans to replace one of the large windows with a wall so that she can hang an oversize painting. “We’ve got views going on everywhere,” she explains. “People don’t realize that, at night, all these windows are big black holes.”
In the kitchen, Rancho La Zaca’s private chef, Stephanie Valentine, is hard at work planning and preparing for holiday feasts. An alumna of Charlie Trotter’s kitchen, Valentine plays an important role in handling the busy entertainment schedule. “Stephanie’s not just a chef, she’s a moral compass,” quips Schultz, as we pass through on our way to the humongous great room, with ceilings so high “you could land a plane in here,” she laughs. The couple gathers here often with friends and family, sitting near the two massive limestone fireplaces adorned with mantels. “A Southern girl’s gotta have her mantel!” states Schultz, who then points to images of herself and Dittmer’s son and daughter and adds, “A Southern girl’s gotta have her portraits!” The couple replaced the room’s original flagstone floor with warmer textured-wood tiles. “That was Tom’s idea,” says Schultz. “He likes the wooden cobblestones in Havana, and they’re not so noisy [as stone].” Schultz is a puzzle fiend and always sets up challenging jigsaw puzzles on tables in the room. “Everyone visits and works on ’em,” she explains.
Apart from the great room, most other rooms in the home now bear Schultz’s comforting signature style. A room that once was the master bedroom is now a sitting room where the family can watch TV. Two-story his-and-her “wings” connect through here. Schultz’s side includes a pink-and-white bathroom suite “where I read, meditate in the morning. It’s my little haven.” Next door is a room designed to resemble the inside of the genie bottle in television’s famed I Dream of Jeannie series. The upstairs office includes a day bed beneath a canopy that gives, once more, a sense of refuge. “This room has a ridiculously pretty view,” says Schultz, who clearly enjoys connecting with creative muses here. “It’s kind of my crow’s nest, I can see what’s going on.”
Schultz’s redecorating project extends to the outdoors as well. “The entrance walkway had a little bit of a mine shaft feeling,” she recalls. To make it more welcoming, she leveled it, cut off two steps, added “slivers of lawn” and “made a curving thing.” She added two redbud trees to the existing junipers, plus a fountain designed to resemble a trough in the middle of a cow pasture. “It cools things off and adds movement amid all this rock and stone,” says Schultz. It also appears to attract domestic animals and wildlife.
“One morning I looked out of my office window and saw a cow at the trough, and Stella, our lab, likes to get in every now and then.”
The outdoor terraces and infinity pool overlook rolling oak savannah and 28 acres of vineyards with chardonnay, syrah, sangiovese and viognier. Most grapes go to vintner friends, but this year Dittmer has retained a portion to craft a custom chardonnay for Schultz. The property also includes a pond, a cluster of safari tents and a fire ring for overflow guests, a barn, horse pastures and a rodeo ring.
Three years after their marriage in the Rancho La Zaca olive grove terrace, Schultz and Dittmer have successfully transformed their estate into a warm, welcoming place of refuge for everyone who visits. Schultz credits her Southern upbringing as a major reason for her success. “It all comes back to hospitality.”
The story was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.