Nitwit Ridge: It Took a Heap of Whimsy to Make a Cliff a Home
For more than 50 years, Art Beal never ceased building and rebuilding his remarkable home, adding levels, creating whimsical rock archways and abalone shell pillars, embedding into the cement walls pots, pans, car bumpers and other odd bits of refuse he collected over the decades.
He eventually grafted nine levels, with two or three rooms to a level, onto the side of a 250-foot rock cliff. His creation was an arresting sight, layer upon layer of beautifully constructed junk connected by serpentine stairways.
After years of ridicule, Beal’s creation--known as Nitwit Ridge--began receiving recognition in the 1970s. What many had earlier derided as an eyesore was reverently referred to as “folk art.” Photographs of his home were included in museum exhibitions and featured in art and architecture books. Beal’s home was named a state Historical Landmark in 1981.
But during the last decade, the conditions of both Beal, 92, and his creation have deteriorated. Beal has suffered several strokes and has been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes. He now is back home, but is too frail to make necessary repairs.
Beal now spends most of his days in bed on an upper floor as the walls around him crumble from dry rot, roofs cave in from termite damage and floors warp from water seepage. The calender on the wall is dated 1970.
“This place used to be so beautiful,” Beal said mournfully, hunched over a cane, surveying his property from a porch.
The terraced gardens where he once tended neat rows of vegetables and fruit trees and watered them from his own springs are now overgrown with weeds and poison oak. He once freely roamed his home’s many levels but now only the bedroom and kitchen on a top level are habitable. The roof over the living and dining rooms has caved in, and Beal’s bathroom has only three walls standing.
After Beal first became sick in the mid-1970s, he borrowed money from an acquaintance. When he could not repay the debt, the man took a lien on Beal’s house and made plans to raze it and sell the property to developers. But several people who admired Nitwit Ridge raised money to reacquire the deed. Now they allow Beal to live on the property, and they are attempting to raise funds for the home’s renovation.
But fund raising has been difficult, and the few volunteers who have attempted to make repairs have been “run off” by Beal, said Steve Rebuck, a co-founder of the Art Beal Foundation.
“The place is very special to him, and he can get pretty ornery if people do things different than he wants,” Rebuck said. “He remembers each stone in that structure and knows every detail about the place.
“He’ll go on for hours if something is moved. The people we’ve had up there to make repairs have only caused problems and friction with him.
“We’re more concerned now about preserving Art than his house. So we’re putting everything on hold. After Art’s gone, that’s another thing.”
Tourists frequently park at the foot of Nitwit Ridge, crane their heads upward and marvel at Beal’s gravity-defying craftsmanship. While studying the architecture and the odd items cemented into the walls--television sets, deer antlers, hubcaps, engine parts--they might see on the top floor the silhouette of an old man passing by a window. On a recent afternoon, the old man walked to his porch, squinted down at a visitor who was examining the masonry below and yelled: “Come on up. Don’t be bashful.”
Wearing a ragged western-style shirt with holes at the elbows, bell-bottom pants and house slippers with no socks, Beal looks like a caricature of the ancient hermit. He has a long white beard, rheumy blue eyes and his long, ash-colored hair swirls atop his head like a stormy sea. Beal, who is alternately crotchety and charming, lucid and distracted, slowly walked around his property, explaining the origins of Nitwit Ridge, grumbling about its condition and frequently stopping to smile slyly and make off-color quips.
“This place is a dump now,” Beal said, spitting a weak stream of tobacco juice on the porch deck. “But at one time . . . ,” he said, the words trailing off as he fixed his eyes on a distant property line. “You can see for yourself what I’ve done here. I don’t have to brag,” he said, lifting his chin. “I been no slouch.”
In 1928, Beal purchased 2 1/2 acres of pine-covered hillside in Cambria for $500 and built the beginnings of Nitwit Ridge--a one-room shack that he calls “the louse cage.” Beal owned a truck, had a hauling business and served for a few years as the Cambria garbage man, so he had access to an abundance of discarded material.
‘Find a Place’
“I had a lot of stuff, but I just didn’t know where to put it all,” Beal recalled. “I finally said to myself: ‘Why don’t you use that noggin for something besides a hat rack.’ So I’d pick up something and find a place for it here. Oh, I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger in a glue factory.”
Beal stooped over and stared at a piece of driftwood he snatched off the beach decades ago. He tapped it with his cane.
“Look at that. What do most people see in that piece of wood?” He asked. “Not much.” He shook his head and muttered imprecations about developers, who he claims have “ruined” Cambria: “Racketeers. Johnny-come-latelys. Pinheads. . . . But I see something in this wood. I see nature and beauty in it. It means something to me.”
Beal’s aggregation of castoff materials is an eccentric counterpoint to the opulent Hearst Castle, just 6 miles to the north, another monument to one man’s vision.
And some of the discarded materials from Hearst Castle have been used by Beal to add levels at Nitwit Ridge. Beal had one of the few trucks in the area during the construction of the castle, and he was employed by contractors to haul materials to the mountaintop site.
But while Hearst was lauded for his artistic and architectural contributions, Beal was considered a crank for much of his life. The name of Nitwit Ridge was given to his home, he said, “right after that second German fracas (World War II).”
“I used to do work for a service station here, and the guy who ran it thought I was a little bit loony. I used to wear an old sea captain’s hat, and one day I come in for some hauling and that guy says: ‘Here’s Capt. Nitwit from Nitwit Ridge.’ I resented it at first, but then I saw the humor in it, and it was OK. So the name ended up sticking.”
The sight of Beal in his truck, with his dog Pudge beside him, scouring the streets of Cambria for materials, was a familiar one to residents. Beal collected shells from the ocean and lumber from the hills, sofas and chairs from the city dump and colorful shards of broken plates from neighbors. He had only one rule: Don’t pay for anything--except cement.
“Beal’s materials seem to fit in with his surroundings,” said Seymour Rosen, director of Spaces, an architectural and cultural preservation organization in Los Angeles. “He has an intuitive feel for architecture. I’m impressed with his sense of beauty, his concern with nature, his humor, his tenacity. He had a dream and he fulfilled it.”
Beal, who was born in Oakland and never knew his father, lost his mother in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As a teen-ager, he worked in vaudeville, and he still recalls dozens of the corny, risque one-liners, which he frequently repeats during the course of an afternoon.
Beal’s sense of humor is reflected in his whimsical architectural style and choice of materials, which includes a number of toilet seats cemented to the walls.
He has a box of yellowed newspaper clippings in his closet that chronicle his numerous careers. During the Depression, he entered marathon swimming races throughout the country, and one Bay Area newspaper described him as a “nationally known distance swimmer.” He has performed on stage in an act with a one-legged bicyclist and stunt dog, and his writings have been included in poetry anthologies. He has been a steel worker and a merchant seaman.
When he moved to Cambria, Beal, who never married, had no idea that his home would be his life’s work and tie him to the area for 60 years.
“It started with a room here and a room there,” Beal said, exhausted from giving a tour of his house and falling into bed. “Pretty soon, it wasn’t just a bunch of rooms anymore, like most places. It started to mean something to me. I couldn’t leave then. I wasn’t just building a place for shelter. I was creating something.”