Tucked away in this exclusive coastal enclave where redwood decks, vaulted ceilings and skylights seem standard features for most homes, there remains a sprawling folk art compound made entirely out of junk.
Nitt Witt Ridge has always rubbed a large number of people the wrong way here at the north end of San Luis Obispo County. Animosity toward the poor man’s castle built from abalone shells, toilet seats, children’s toys, artillery shells and more, was strong when its creator, the eccentric Art Beal, was alive.
But now some of the neighbors are getting rankled all over again, as the new owners carry out an increasingly aggressive plan to make Nitt Witt Ridge a stopping point for coastal travelers.
Stacey and Michael O’Malley, former residents of Los Alamitos who purchased Nitt Witt Ridge in 1999, have had to maneuver delicately around the shoals of public concern, as they promote private appointment-only tours at the site.
The couple must proceed cautiously because the property was judged unsuitable for a public park and is not zoned for business. It’s too close to neighbors’ homes, with not enough parking, and was manufactured of such an unstable hodgepodge of materials that the safety of visitors could not be assured by the county.
So the O’Malleys have tried to open their property--a state historic landmark--on a modest scale to visitors who call ahead. They make a little money from donations and by selling T-shirts and postcards. The tours avoid county restrictions because they are considered unpaid tours of private property.
But the owners also must answer complaints about traffic along the steep slope of Hillcrest Drive, even though the closest neighbors admit few of the looky-loos ever get out of their cars. And the couple have opened a downtown Cambria office, after protests that they were accepting money on-site and violating zoning rules.
“It’s costing us $500 a month in rent downtown just to see any money out of this,” said Michael O’Malley.
Critics expressed more displeasure over the more public profile of Nitt Witt Ridge after the state installed a sign on California 1 giving directions to the landmark. The sign was soon cut down by unknown vandals. It has been reinstalled, and visitors to Cambria can now follow the state landmark signs to the site.
And complaints were heard when the O’Malleys briefly specified a suggested donation--$5 for kids and $10 for adults--that some saw as an invasion of commerce into a residential area.
But the O’Malleys have also attracted supporters. A neighbor sold them the home directly above Nitt Witt Ridge, for less than market value, so the couple could move out of the pop-up tent trailer, where they had lived with their son and daughter.
“We were able to refinance and pay for what we’ve done here,” O’Malley said. “We think of it as Beal sort of taking care of us so we could take care of his dream.”
The opposition to Nitt Witt Ridge is well-established, many relatively old-timers note, dating back to the days when the cantankerous Beal was seen around town in his blue bathrobe.
Beal, an iconoclastic jack-of-all-trades, collected garbage in Cambria for many years. He built Nitt Witt Ridge with the junk that he hauled to the property from the 1930s through the ‘50s.
He picked the best of the trash to use in his walls and building. There are pillars made of car rims that were filled with concrete and then covered with rocks and abalone shells. A fountain on the highest terrace was made from a succession of sinks and a bathtub.
Dubbed Nitwit Ridge by locals decades ago, Beal took to calling himself Capt. Nitt Witt in his later years. He lived on the site from 1928 until 1989, when he was placed in a Morro Bay nursing home. He managed to escape once to hitchhike back to Nitt Witt Ridge. By the time died in 1992 at age 96, he had been interviewed by journalists from around the world.
But what was appreciated by out-of-towners didn’t always warm hearts closer to home.
“It probably has to do with a basic aspect of folk art,” said Kathe Tanner, a member of the Cambria Historical Society and a writer for the Cambrian newspaper. “It would be wonderful to drive somewhere and look at it, but people don’t really want to see it at 7:30 a.m. each day when they get up to get their newspaper.”
Since their purchase in 1999, the O’Malleys have cleaned up the site dramatically. O’Malley stresses they’ve tried to do nothing to harm Nitt Witt Ridge’s quirky individuality. They’ve cleaned out the terraced gardens where beer cans and lightbulbs are built into the stone fences and stuck stones back into the walls above the concrete deer that guards the entrance.
Inside the house, the original canned goods left behind by Beal have been put back on shelves. A kitchen cabinet built out of an old radio is still there. Beal’s coats hang neatly in the closet.
O’Malley never met Beal. He and his wife had decided to move out of the Los Angeles area, and they encountered Nitt Witt Ridge by accident when looking for places to buy in the Cambria area. Now, O’Malley’s tours are delivered in a rapid-fire cadence full of Beal trivia.
The closest neighbors are thrilled with what the O’Malleys have done. Charlotte and Ken MacLean knew Beal for almost 20 years.
“They’ve restored the walkways. They’ve put on a roof. They repaired the windows. I didn’t think that two people could do that much work,” said Charlotte MacLean.
“Granted, even when Art was alive, there were people who wanted to see this place just slide off the hill,” said MacLean, as she walked through her own private entrance into one of the gardens at Nitt Witt Ridge. “People in this town were offended by him. But that’s part of being an eccentric.”
Recognized as Folk Art
Steve McMasters, an environmental planner with the county, said his agency is responsible for making sure that any improvements made at Nitt Witt Ridge are historically accurate. The 2.5-acre property is a state-recognized “folk art environment,” in the same category as the Watts Towers and Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village in Simi Valley.
McMasters said most contact between county officials and the O’Malleys has been over worries from neighbors that a business is being established in a residential neighborhood.
In a very good week, O’Malley shows 100 people through the site. He is carrying a $4-million liability policy at the county’s insistence.
He says the whole effort has been financially draining. He tries to sell postcards for up to $10, and T-shirts for up to $25 out of the downtown office. There is no mandatory fee for the tour, although the O’Malleys have joined the Cambria Chamber of Commerce so visitors can learn more about their tours.
Competing With Hearst
In an area that bills itself as Castle Country, a staging ground for tourists bound for nearby Hearst Castle, Beal’s creation often becomes a secondary attraction.
“I know this sounds like I’m blowing hot air, but they always say they like this more,” O’Malley said of the tourists who come to Nitt Witt Ridge. “They get some sense of what [Beal] was actually like.”
Beal was the son of a Klamath River Indian woman and an Irishman. His mother died in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and he never knew his father. At various stages of his life, he was a long-distance swimmer, a plumber and an abalone diver. He never married.
O’Malley found a letter on the property in which Beal asked the U.S. Patent Office to patent his “human torch” act, in which Beal would set his skin on fire.
Richard Guy Wilson, a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia who has studied folk art environments, said places like Nitt Witt Ridge are difficult to categorize.
“When you say folk art, you are implying it’s somehow from the common man,” he said in a telephone interview. “Aren’t these individuals transcending that?”
MacLean said Michael O’Malley has been able to keep Nitt Witt Ridge alive for the public in a way the county and state could not.
“I get the feeling Michael is a soul mate of Capt. Nitt Witt,” MacLean said. “He really feels a need to maintain his dream.”