May 10, 2008

Bizarre Historical Landmarks of California: Nit Wit Ridge

When driving through Cambria, CA, I came across a sign pointing to a California State historical site called "Nitt Witt Ridge". What?

I had to find out what that was. I drove up a steep hill and there it was: Nitt Witt** Ridge in all its bizarre glory.

Since I can't find the appropriate words to describe this place, I will quote from a brochure I picked up by the front gate:
"Art Beal, [also known as Captain Nit Wit or der Tinkerpaw], born in Oakland of Irish and Native American parentage, spent much of his childhood in orphanages.

He built a three-level fantasy environment from collected materials in Cambria, which locals call the Poor Man's Hearst Castle. This has a literal basis, as some construction material was scavenged from the Hearst estate. It helped that Beal was a local trash hauler, and had trouble discarding things...With a pickax and shovel, he hollowed out a 2.5 acre hillside in Cambria, using collected trash as landfill, to create an intricate network of terraced gardens, buildings, ornamental stone arches, fountains and walkways."

Unfortunately, the house was fenced off and closed to the public, so I didn't get to see the interior. But the exterior alone is pretty cool. Beal used found materials, both natural and manmade, to both construct and decorate his "castle", using beer cans, car parts, abalone shells, old stoves, toilets, and other unusual elements. Beal began construction of his house in 1928, and built it up over the next 5o years. Beal died in 1992 at the age of 96, and the house is now listed as a California Historical Landmark, considered representative of "one of California's remarkable folk art environments".

one of many toilets

I especially like the contrast between Nit Wit Ridge "- built from local scrap, over a 51-year-period, by a single trash hauler"- and the Hearst Castle, "only six miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway, made from expensive artifacts collected from around the world by a wealthy publisher, who hired architect Julia Morgan and a small army of construction workers, all of whom labored for 28 years to build an estate on 127 acres with 41 fireplaces, 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms", in addition to two pools, and a zoo filled with exotic animals shipped in from all over the world.

The brochure would have it that "history makes all things equal: today, both Nit Wit Ridge and the Hearst Castle are state historical landmarks".

However, the Hearst Castle clearly still benefits from the advantages that money brings: compare its fancy new visitors center, gift shop, and online tour reservation system to the dilapidated, fenced-off and clearly less frequently visited Nit Wit Ridge. You can still take tours, however, if you arrange it in advance.

**"Nitt Witt" and "Nit Wit" both seem to be acceptable spellings.

Abalone shells inlaid in the stairs


Steph F. said...

That looks really fun! I may have to go sometime.

Love your blog! I'm an anthropology student that lives in L.A. when I'm not in school, and I love to cook. It's pretty amazing that you write about all these things.

Steph said...

My husband and I were in the area over the weekend and happened upon the place and had no idea the story behind it--now we know! Thanks.

Xao said...

ive been there and taken the tour. beal also worked on hearst castle and some of the items in his home were stolen during his labors and used to build his home, which is terraced in the mountain side. a 3 story monolith with its own quirks and turns that make it an amazing place. he also has a book of poetry available in the san luis library.

Judy Nichols said...

I watched this on Californias Gold this A.M. and so facinated I wanted to read more about it, but it looks as Huell Howser did a pretty great job. This is something everyone needs to do at least once in their life. Unfortunately only kids attempt it, and parents take it down, The Captian sure had a great imagination, and one that could carry many at one time, sturdy!!

Anonymous said...

As a child, I actually visited with Arthur Beal, and had dinner at Nit Wit Ridge. Arthur picked my family up at the bottom of the hill, and if I remember correctly, he picked us up in an old hearse. My mother and Arthur cooked dinner, and we had a giant zucchini from Arthur's garden stuffed with rice cheese and possibly ground meat of some sort. The meal was great, but to a twelve year old child, the house was definitely the star of the night. I can still hear Arthur's voice in my head---"Well shush!" an exclamation I heard many times that evening.

David Middlecamp said...

Our paper used one word, Nitwit, as the accepted spelling but anarchy is a part of the story. No reason to expect anything standardized about Art Beal. Photos from the vault has a post outlining the life of Der Tinkerpaw for those who want to know more with a link back to you.

Teresa said...

It was July 1977 when my husband and I were on our honeymoon. Traveling down the CA coast we picked up a hitchhiker. We mentioned we were going to visit Hearst Castle but he said he knew of a house more fascinating, built by an old man the locals called Capt Nit Wit/Mr. Tinkerpaw. He gave us directions and lo and behold, we saw what was the original shanty built among the trees. Now 35 years later, I am reminiscing with friends and decided to google Nit Witt....cannot express how delighted I am to see what it has become!

Rita K said...

I met Art Beal (though I always called him Dr. Tinkerpaw…not DER Tinkerpaw) on a road trip with my boyfriend when I was in my mid teens (1970-ish). We were lost. And there in the middle of that wild forested nothingness was Nitwit Ridge. He was working in his vegetable garden. When he saw us he came at us threateningly with his shovel or pitchfork (I can't remember which) yelling for us "rubberneckers" to "get the hell out!!!" We couldn't move. It took time to process what we were seeing. He yelled some more but all we could do was stare. "Well if you're just gonna stand there stepping on your jaws then come in and get something to eat." I don't remember what he fixed us. I don't remember what we talked about. I just remembered being mesmerized. That rumbled mess of a 'mansion' had so many beautiful things sculpted and inlaid into it, contrasting with the junk he collected to build it. It was wonderful. And he was wonderful.

I returned several times over the next few years. His living room was still intact then. On one occasion he was nursing an injured Condor in that room. “It’s more like a nest. Makes it feel more at home”. His “Honeymoon Suite” only had 3 walls. He said the 4th wall was "Nature. What better way to celebrate a honeymoon. Not that I ever got to...or wanted to. But just in case." That was the room I stayed in. It, like the rest of his house, had never been cleaned. "Nature's artwork". He viciously lashed out at me after coming home from mushroom hunting. I cleaned his kitchen and windows while he was gone. "YOU DESTROYED NATURE'S ARTWORK!!! DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY YEARS THAT TOOK?!?!" He was devastated, or at least acted like he was. When the soup was ready he forgave me. But he insisted I take the first sip, laughing at my apprehension the whole time.

He is a precious memory.