A folk art trash palace in the shadow of Hearst Castle
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, July 19, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.
Once upon a time, the California coast was a place where one could live strangely and cheaply, out on the fringes.
There were wild, sacred landscapes, like something out of a Robinson Jeffers poem. Rugged places that still had room for restless eccentrics and searchers and cranks.
In 1919, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst inherited acres upon acres of the most beautiful land California had to offer and began to build one of the great palaces of our time. But this is definitely not a story about William Randolph Hearst, or his castle.
Our story starts nearly a decade later and eight miles down the road from San Simeon, with a trash collector who was once hired to haul materials up to the Hearst Castle construction site.
Back when all of this was still woods, Art Beal purchased an acre and a half of pine-covered Cambria hillside for $500. It was 1928, and he began by building himself a one-room shack with his own two hands. And then he just kept building.
For the next 50 years, Beal constructed Nitt Witt Ridge, a home built almost entirely of found objects and trash. It was a monument to the heights of human ingenuity, or to the depths of folly, depending on whom you asked.
Beal liked to say that he had one rule, and the rule was that you never pay for anything except cement.
Hearst’s castle incorporated the highest traditions of Western art and architecture, and the grandest materials that money could buy. Beal’s castle was a hallucinatory, improbable cascade of car bumpers, endless Busch beer cans, plaster of Paris archways embedded with abalone shells and dolls, rusted car wheels and driftwood.
The decades Beal spent as a garbage collector allowed him to salvage an endless supply of materials for his pentimento pastiche of a living space, which grew like a vine up into the steep hillside — eventually, there were eight or nine levels, each with a room or so apiece. The famous junk house became the focus of adoration and hatred from the surrounding community.
By the 1970s, Cambria was beginning to take on the polished sheen of a quaint vacation town. Nice, new homes were rising around Beal, bringing the kind of neighbors who would publicly call for the “monstrosity” to be bulldozed out of sight.
“They’re all Johnny-come-latelys,” Beal — by then a crotchety town character — would be known to loudly declare, often while shirtless. (This was when he still wore pants; eventually, there would just be an ever present ratty blue bathrobe, even for wandering down Main Street.)
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