The House That Jack Built – The Beauty Ranch

by Mark Richardson

I am … only just now beginning my first feeble attempts at building a house for myself. That is to say, I am chopping down some redwood trees and leaving them in the woods to season against such a time, two or three years hence, when they will be used in building the house.                Jack London Feb. 3, 1911

Feeble is not a word that comes to mind when one thinks of Jack London. He never approached anything in a feeble manner: not his work as a writer, or his adventures as an oyster thief, seaman, world traveler or hobo. In every respect, he was larger than life and the home he was constructing; his Wolf House was no exception; it reflected the outsized nature of the man himself.

For over two years from 1911-1913, London poured his time, money, imagination, and labor into building Wolf House. Already one of the most famous and popular writers in the world, London wanted to create a home that would reflect his stature. He succeeded in having it built, but would never live in it.

On August 22, 1913, just days before London and his wife Charmian were to move into the house, Wolf House mysteriously caught fire and was destroyed. A despondent London planned to rebuild, but he died in 1916, at the age of 40, before progressing beyond even rudimentary planning stages.

Jack London entered my life in high school when my English teacher assigned London’s Call of the Wild as a reading assignment. I was fascinated by the story, but I was even more intrigued by the biography of the author on the jacket cover. Later in the year, while I was ostensibly studying Thoreau and Dickens with the rest of my classmates, I spent my free periods in the library reading London’s novels White Fang and Seawolf. I was hooked, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

It was only in the past few years, however, since I moved to San Francisco, that I became aware of London’s ill-fated dream to build a home in the Sonoma Valley a bucolic area, known for its wineries 60 miles North of San Francisco. It’s a popular fantasy of many Bay Area residents to abandon the City or Silicon Valley, move to wine country and live the life of a country gentleman (or gentlewoman). Few people succeed in making this dream real.

In the early 1900s, London shared this dream, but for him, leaving his native Oakland and moving to the countryside was more than just a simple desire for a less hectic lifestyle. London grew up in a working class family, and as a young man joined the Socialist Party. He was a strong advocate of its philosophy that governments should be created by and representative of the working class people. Although he never completely abandoned the socialist ideals, as he approached the age of 30 London distanced himself from the movement (he would officially resign from the party in 1916). In its place, he created a new, more personal philosophy centered on a return to an agrarian lifestyle and a belief in the healing and restorative powers of the land.

In 1905 London, just recently divorced, married his second wife Charmian Kitterge, a kindred spirit whom London called his mate-wife. The newlyweds purchased a ranch outside Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. Over the next eight years, they would buy six neighboring pieces of land, usually from bankrupt farmers, and eventually own over 1,400 acres. London named it Beauty Ranch. The property was located in the Valley of the Moon; legend has it that the Native Americans who originally lived there named the valley after the oversized moon that would shine on warm summer nights. Also, they said a man sitting on horseback could watch the moon rise seven separate times over the Sonoma Mountains.

London’s property was blessed with natural beauty. Rolling hills, sweeping across the valley, were covered with a wide variety of trees: giant ancient redwoods, firs, pines, maples, live oaks, white oaks, and black oaks. Streams dissected the land, running in and out of multiple canyons and ravines. Wild grapes grew in abundance, and fog from the sea would slowly roll over the mountains and dip into the valley. London would ride on horseback throughout his land, marveling in its beauty.

In keeping with his new philosophy, which centered on what he called scientific farming, London began to cultivate the land, striving to create a self-sufficient farm. He was going to throw out an anchor so big and so heavy that all hell could never get it up again. With the help of local day laborers, he built a barn, a modest home for himself and Charmian and another home for his in-laws. He dug a pond and stocked it with fish, and filled the ranch with an abundance of livestockhorses, colts, cows, chickens, pigs and turkeys. He purchased a plow and began to grow hay and vegetables.

Throughout his life, London would rise each morning and write 1,000 words. This continued at Beauty Ranch; in fact, some of his most popular novels were written there. The revenue generated from his writing was needed because he spent nearly all of his money purchasing new property and shaping the land.

Before beginning work on his home, the erstwhile adventurer raised anchor on his just completed boat, the Snark, in 1909 and set off on one last journey. He and Charmian planned a seven-year around-the-world cruise. The journey would last only two years. The couple visited Hawaii and then sailed through the South Pacific until London caught a tropical disease and ended up in an Australian hospital where he spent months recovering. Worn-down from illness and weary of traveling, the Londons returned home, sold the Snark and now fully committed to the pastoral life.

On their return to Beauty Ranch in 1911, Jack and Charmian began in earnest to make plans to build Wolf House. To oversee the design, they hired Albert Farr, a prominent San Francisco architect. London and Farr communicated through an almost daily exchange of letters, with London describing his vision for the home and Farr putting it down on paper. London wanted a home that would not just accommodate him and Charmian, but would allow them to comfortably entertain what London called the sailors, soldiers of fortune and Klondikers he had befriended during his youthful adventures. The plans were continually altered until the home was completed, a result of London’s ongoing changing of the design.

Farr and London selected a picturesque setting for the home: an open grove on top of a hill surrounded by redwoods and with a view of the valley below. Wolf House was to be massive, over 15,000 square feet, and built to accommodate Jack and Charmains particular needs. The four-story high home had 26 rooms and nine fireplaces. London’s second-floor workshop was 19 x 40 feet and resided directly over a library of exactly the same size (where London would store the myriad of books he had collected). A spiral staircase connected the two rooms. The living room, the centerpiece of the home, was 18 x 58 feet, two stories high and circled by a balcony made of redwood. As a special touch, they included a music hall for Charmian’s Steinway grand piano.

The home was built in an unusual U-shape around a large central courtyard. The courtyard held a tidal pool fed by cold water from a nearby mountain stream, which would contain black bass and trout. Adventuresome guests could choose to take a refreshing dip or try to catch their evening meal.

Always personally involved in the construction, London supervised a team of stonemasons, carpenters and laborers. He wanted to build a house that would be standing act of God permitting, for a thousand years and took steps to ensure its survival. To protect against earthquakes, Wolf House was built on a single giant slab of concrete that could support a 40-foot high building and would move the entire house as the earth shifted. He designed steel straps to reinforce the walls against seismic shock. In an attempt to prevent the home’s destruction by fire, he had the wood treated with preservatives, and compartmentalized the building with double-thick concrete walls.

The home was built almost entirely with materials from the ranch, specifically redwood trees, volcanic rocks, blue slate and concrete. Getting material to the house was difficult and time consuming. Workers quarried huge volcanic stones and slowly hauled them by wagon to the construction site. The stones, large and small, were stacked one on top of another and cemented into place with no attempt to shape them, giving the building a rough, jagged exterior. Redwood trees, taken from throughout the ranch, were cured, transported across the rivers, over canyons and ravines, and secured into place.

All of the furniture was specially made for the home, which was to be equipped with all the modern comforts of the day hot water, heating, electricity, refrigeration, central vacuum system, laundry and milk storage rooms and a wine cellar. When Wolf House was finished, the total cost was between $60,000 and $80,000 – an enormous amount at the time. London was broke, but his home was completed. All that was left was to install the electrical lighting and move in the furniture.

The night of the fire, the last construction workers left the home at 6:00 p.m. The first sign of smoke was detected after midnight. Soon the entire house was in flames, and because of its remote location, little could be done to put out the blaze. On that August night when Wolf House lay in ruins, London was crushed, but defiant. Assuming the fire was the started by an arsonist, he exclaimed: I would rather be the man whose house burned than the man who burned it.

Despite the crushing blow, London continued to work on Beauty Ranch. He built two separate grain silos, planted a forest of eucalyptus trees, and constructed a pigpen palace that was the envy of (and source of playful ridicule for) his neighbors.

London promised friends and family that he would have Wolf House rebuilt. On July 14, 1914, almost a year after the fire, London wrote a letter to Farr stating his intentions: If all goes well I expect to start on the rebuilding of Wolf House next year. As it is, all the logs are cut down and are handled to the house, into where they are residing in preparation for the rebuilding. Despite his intentions, a lack of money and failing health prevented London from progressing. On November 22, 1916, he died at the age of 40 of gastrointestinal poisoning.

After his death, Charmian continued to live on Beauty Ranch. In honor of her husband, she built a new house less than a mile from Wolf House, naming it the House of Happy Walls and lived there until her death in 1955.

How was the home destroyed? Arson was suspected at the time – either a disgruntled construction worker, or a socialist, angry that London had abandoned the cause. We’ll never know for sure, but in 1995 a multidisciplinary team of experts in fire investigation led by Bob Anderson, a noted California forensic expert, spent four days going through the remains of Wolf House. They studied pieces of charred wood and tried to determine where the fire originated and how it progressed. The team reviewed the plans of the home, interviewed witnesses and created a computer reconstruction of its design.

Although arson can’t be completely ruled out, they concluded that the cause was spontaneous combustion. The August night of the fire was reported to be one of the hottest in memory. The construction crew had spent the day polishing the woodwork, and it’s suspected they left behind linseed oil stained ragsin either the living room or dining room, which ignited in the heat, sparked the woodwork and consumed the entire home.

Sadly, there are no pictures of the finished Wolf House. The Londons were planning to have photographs made the day they were to move in. For over 60 years, no blueprints were thought to have survived, either. However, in 1978, two researchers uncovered original blueprints and building contracts while shifting through files at the Sonoma County register’s office. I think I know how an archaeologist feels when he discovers a lost city, Virginia Garnot of the Sonoma County Records Inventory Project said at the time.

The files provided a wealth of information, and for the first time it was possible to get a clear idea of how the home would have looked if it had survived. David Danz, a Sonoma resident and fan of London, used the plans as inspiration: I thought if I ever made it rich one day I would have liked to rebuild the house and live in it. Instead, he built a model of Wolf House. Danz used the same materials that were used in the construction of the home to build his replica, including lava rock from the Wolf House ruins. The model provides the best depiction of how the house would have looked, capturing the size and beauty of the home. You can see the lava rocks on the lower half of the building, redwood siding on the top floors and a red tile roof.

Danz completed the model on August 22, 1994 – 81 years to the day Wolf House was destroyed. I asked him if the timing was planned and he said no, but he has an explanation. While at the ruins getting measurements, he had a feeling that he wasn’t alone, that London’s spirit was there and helped him with the project. Danz, along with other Glen Ellen residents who are frequent visitors to Beauty Ranch, believe Jack London’s spirit still lives on and roams his land.

I recently made the one-hour drive north from San Francisco to Glen Ellen. Much as the residents of Stratford on Avon rejoice in the legacy of their bard, so the city of Glen Ellen embraces its adopted son. The Jack London Village in Glen Ellen includes a Valley of the Moon museum with a comprehensive history of the region. Across the street is the Jack London Bookstore and Research Center, created by noted London biographers Russ and Winnie Kingman, and now managed Gay Lynn Weir. Here, customers can purchase one of the 50 books London wrote, view pictures of London and Charmian on their Beauty Ranch and learn more about the life of one of America’s most famous authors.

In 1960, five years after Charmian’s death, London’s nephew Irving Shepard donated part of Beauty Ranch to California. The state now operates the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park. At the park, visitors can go to the House of Happy Walls, now a museum, and see the furniture the Londons had built specially for Wolf House. There they can also see David Danz’s Wolf House model.

The park also provides over 10 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, which traverse through mixed forest, oak woodlands and meadows. You can hike past the grain silos, pig palace, the lake London had constructed and a grove of eucalyptus tree grove he planted. But the most popular attraction in the park is the Wolf House ruins.

London believed that all of us need a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of nature something which we all need only the most of us don’t know it. As I walk the half-mile from the park entrance, down a slight grade and through the woods to the Wolf House ruins, I feel the stress leave my body and better understand what London meant.

I view at what is left of Wolf House alone. Only the lava rock, now partially covered with moss, remains – a skeletal reminder of London’s grand dream. Redwood trees circle the home, a fence separates people from the ruins and sunlight shines down. The remaining structure provides a surprisingly good perspective on how the house would have looked if it had survived. You can see the chimney towers, windows and doorways, and the area where the tidal pool would have been. Five architectural drawings and a complete floor plan are placed at different areas surrounding the home, depicting where the rooms were located.

A quarter mile from the ruins is a large red bolder that marks the spot where London and Charmian’s ashes are interred. I rest my arms on the fence that protects their gravesite, look down and try, like Danz, to sense the presence of London. No luck. The master may or may not be roaming his grounds, but Wolf House, a triumph of London’s own creative energies and imagination, definitely lives on in the imagination of literature lovers and would-be adventurers like myself.

Mark Richardson, freelance writer, Palo Alto, Calif.

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