Author: Michael Toivonen, Co-founder, Save Druid Heights
I gathered a selection of my photographs and wrote what follows with this goal in mind: to make you feel the same fascination for an amazing place, Druid Heights, that I did after my visit there on November 16, 2016. For all of you, and especialy those viewing on your phone, there are 70 photos coming up mixed in with my decriptive text, once you (hopefully!) read through the intro. Enjoy! Of course“Claps” and “Follows” are much appreciated and consider joining the Save Druid Heights Facebook group to fully show your support for preserving the amazing place you are about to pay a “virtual” visit to.
8/29/18 Update: I have put several briefer stories about Druid Heights online since this first one. This is the most complete view. The others can be found by searching Medium using Druid Heights or my name, Michael Toivonen , as your search term.
This is how it began for me: One day in early 2016, by mere chance, I recalled a long forgotten name, Druid Heights. It had been 40 years since I first heard it while at high school in nearby Mill Valley, California in the 1970’s. Beyond the name all I knew at that time was that a writer on eastern religion that I had been reading, Alan Watts, was living there when he died and that a woman named Elsa Gidlow who was, maybe, a poet, still lived there. I had been intrigued but I had never learned more.
When that unusual place name popped into my head one rainy day 40 years later I had my laptop ready to launch a query. I found some newspaper articles and some images. It seemed there was quite a bit more to Druid Heights than what I had vaguely imagined….
By the time of my visit there I had learned that the two principle founders, Elsa Gidlow and Roger Somers, were both creative and productive people whose magnetic personalities were of very different yet quite complimentary sorts, especially in their mutual ability to attract a broad range of significant cultural figures to Druid Heights. Even though Druid Heights physically covers a relatively small area, the two principle founders personality differences meant that there were simultaneously two very different social circles operating there, which served to increase its significance.
Yorkshire, UK born and Quebec, Canada raised Elsa GIdlow’s (1898–1986) formal education had ended when she was a teenager. But by 1954 when she wrote the check for the down payment on 5 acres and some buildings outside Mill Valley, CA. her natural gifts, hard working habits and audacity had taken her far.
She earned earned her living as a journalist and had expressed herself through poetry, most notably her 1923 volume “On a Grey Thread”, the first openly lesbian poetry published by an American writer. She had lived in New York and Paris during the early roaring ’20s and had established herself in San Francisco by the end of that decade. And by the end of her life her autobiography, “Elsa: I Come with My Songs” became the first full length autobiography of an American lesbian.
In California she had become friends with many of the most significant writers and artists of the time. Soon after she moved into her new home at the place she came to call Druid Heights many of those friends, and new ones from near and far, became frequent visitors.
Roger Somers’ (1926–2001) was a visionary builder and craftsman who worked hard and partied just as hard or harder. A gifted amateur musician, his portion of Druid Heights soon became a mecca for the many professional musicians whom he befriended. These were not just local night club players, they were nationally and internationally known musicians whose names are still household words today. Roger also had many friends who were artists and writers and they too came to visit, and to party.
Roger Somers was responsible for the design and construction of the most distinctive buildings at Druid Heights and the alteration of some of the prior owner’s into buildings so different as to be in some cases nearly unrecognizable. His abilities as a builder attracted the younger Ed Stiles to Druid Heights in 1965. Over the years Ed, a talented furniture maker and builder, also made a number of significant contributions to the architecture at Druid Heights. As a person who has done a bit of building and woodworking myself it was the work of Roger and Ed at Druid Heights that, once I learned of it, was initially the strongest draw.
A few months after taking an interest in Druid Heights I contacted an old friend from my high school days who I thought, correctly, might know how to get there. On a sunny weekday morning in the fall I took a hike and arrived at Druid Heights. I spent a few hours there examining the unoccupied buildings as best I could, and luckily I took a lot of photographs. While, to my surprise, I found that the empty buildings weren’t locked some were in such bad shape that entering them did not seem safe. Still, I found more than enough to look at and photograph.
Besides the buildings in bad shape part of Druid Heights was and is still inhabited by people who have life leases on the homes and land they once owned. Their areas are posted with “No Trespassing” signs and I stayed away from them.
On a return visit 3 months later I planned to take more photographs. But what I had hoped to do was no longer possible because all the unoccupied buildings were now posted with “Danger: Do Not Enter” signs by the National Park Service, the government agency that owns all of Druid Heights.
In the months following my initial visit I continued trying to learn as much about Druid Heights as I could. And the more I learned the more I came to feel that Druid Heights should be preserved as a unique national historic site. The distinctive buildings of Druid Heights had sheltered so many writers, artists, musicians and spiritual thinkers from the mid 1950s on. Having visited many historic sites over my life I came to believe that the Druid Heights site and story was quite worthy of joining their ranks, and that if it was lost, the loss would be tragic.
Since all the buildings are now off limits I decided to share a glimpse of what I found using the photos I took that fall day, along with some explanatory text. I know a lot more about the history now, over a year later, but I am going to keep the descriptions brief and let the pictures do the talking. I hope that after looking at what I saw on that visit you too are left with the feeling that Druid Heights is a historic site worth saving!
Below is a rough map of the 6 acre Druid Heights site that I was sent after I and others formed the Save Druid Heights group in the summer of 2017. It will help you understand the general layout. The original had some clues to the location of Druid Heights and they have been blacked out.
The Save Druid Heights group that I am a co-founder of does not support unauthorised visits to Druid Heights and we won’t give out directions. At this time going there works against, not for preservation. Become a supporter of preservation, and join the Save Druid Heights Facebook group to learn more and keep up to date on efforts to save this unique place.
As mentioned above, all the unoccupied buildings at Druid Heights are now posted against entry. Those are numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the map below, along with some smaller nearby structures.
Other buildings are still in use or lived in. Those are numbers 5, 6, 7 and the smaller unnumbered structures adjacent to them on the map. As mentioned above those are posted “No Trespassing”. The remaining residents deserve to live in peace and the Park Service does not want anyone entering the unoccupied buildings. Help Save Druid Heights by only making a virtual visits like the one you are on now!
Be sure to refer back to the map above from time to time as you read and view the photos. Druid Heights is a complicated place and it is easy to lose track of where you are on a “visit” like this one.
The date of my visit to Druid Heights was November 16, 2016. By chance I picked a significant date in Druid Heights history to arrive: the 43rd anniversary of the death of Alan Watts (1915–1973).
I had no map then and didn’t know much about the layout. I had been told that there were areas that were still inhabited and that I should avoid those. On arriving on foot I met two others, a man and woman, who were there to perform a ritual meditation in Alan’s Library on the anniversary of his passing. I had originally intended to go there first but on learning of their plans I decided to make it my last stop. I told the them of intentions and they thanked me.
They said I should head on up the road and be sure not to miss what they called “The Dragon House”, which I later learned was also known to others, including the man most responsible for how it looks today, the late Roger Somers, as the Twin peaks House. On the map above it is called the Ranch House since it was the original building from the property’s early days as a small homestead or farm.
Leaving the area of the library I headed towards where I thought I would find the house of Druid Heights co-founder Elsa Gidlow. I had been told that the Dragon House was just beyond it.
I walked up the dirt road and the drive to Elsa’s appeared on my left. Because of it’s steepness the driveway was paved, the only place where I saw asphalt in Druid Heights.
As I came to the top of the drive I saw this small building on my right. On the map this appears as a small red square near the red rectangle of the Gidlow House. In government reports on Druid Heights it is called the meditation hut but I have been told that it was also called the Goddess cabin. As alluded to above, more than one name is the case with several of the buildings at Druid Heights.
I had never seen shingle edges cut into a pattern like this before, so I had to take a closer look
Walking around to the other side I found this beautiful faceted window with a straight through to the other side view.
Leaving the Meditation hut I headed towards a small house ahead on my left. It was hard to really get a sense of it at first because of all the shrubbery and trees surrounding it. I was pretty sure that it had to be Elsa Gidlow’s house.
It was obviously older than what I could see of the library that I had viewed through the bushes earlier as well as the meditation hut. I later learned that is was built in 1943 for the one of the daughters of the prior owners of the property, Alfons and Selma Haapa. It is only around 800 square feet, so many might call it a cottage, not a house. But while small in size and simple in design it appeared to be well built and on a full concrete perimeter foundation.
Next I headed west towards the likely rotten beyond repair deck on the that side. Hidden beneath the leaves and weeds near it is a concrete patio.
At the other end of the house there was evidence of a very close call: a tree had fallen and just missed it by a couple of feet.
To the left of where the tree had just missed the Gidlow house was a large picture window looking into a bedroom. Here I was greeted with my first view of the very conventional interior.
Now I headed towards the front door of the house. I have to say I was rather shocked to find it unlocked. That being the case, and there then being no signs against doing so, I went in.
Once inside I turned to the left and found myself in the kitchen. The sink appeared to be part of an old one piece prefabricated unit. Behind me when I took this photo were some cabinets that I later learned Roger had built soon after Elsa moved in.
The living room was very fairly spacious for such a small house. The fireplace was well crafted, and looked to be from when the house was built in 1943. The now empty book shelves on the left appeared to be a somewhat later addition which I later learned was the case. Like the kitchen cabinets Roger had built them to house Elsa’s collection of books soon after she moved in. The day I of my visit there were a couple of books on the built-in sofa but they looked to have been left by recent visitors.
Now it was time to find the “Dragon House” as the people at the library had called it, or the Ranch House as it is called on the map. Walking through brush growing between trees I saw the profile of a very unusual roof towering above me up ahead.
As I got closer I saw a rather strange window. The glass was square but immediately behind it was what appeared to be a wall with a large circular opening. Jutting out from the sides of the circular opening were thin boards that seemed to form a couple of shelves.
Walking along the west side of the Twin Peaks, Dragon or Ranch house (take your pick!) looking for an entry I found myself on a masonry path with some very unusual designs in it.
If you look on the left side of the sadly decaying deck you can make out the pathway shown in the previous photo. I learned later that the lower “spears” seen here supported a wisteria vine until a few years ago. If you enlarge the photo the chains running back to the wall that help support them become visible. Luckily this house has a fairly wide roof overhang, a feature which really helps preserve a building from water damage as long as the roof is intact.
Since Elsa Gidlow’s house had been open it seemed possible the Twin Peaks would be too. Before checking that out I walked away towards the east to get a better look at it. That hadn’t been possible from the other side because of all the brush. Besides getting a better view of the distinctive roof line, I noticed a very unusual pattern made by using different colors of asphalt shingles on the roof. I have looked at many an unusual house over my 59 years both in person, in books and online but I don’t recall ever seeing anything like the Twin Peaks house roof.
Here is a closeup. I am sure glad I had just bought a decent new Nikon point and shoot camera! I do not conside myself much of a photographer but it helped make up for my short comings.
Now I went back towards the Twin Peaks House. It was obvious that I should not try to approach the doors that appeared to go into what was likely the living room because I would need to walk over the rotten deck to do so. It looked like there were other doors long the east side. To get to them I found myslf walking on another stretch of very unusual path way.
Now on my left was an unusual window and it looked like the kitchen was inside. It was unusual because where was the support for the roof? Shouldn’t there be a post at the corner? How the roof is supported there is still a mystery…
Walking further down the path I was moving towards what you see above. I have to say that by this point my lower jaw felt like it was hanging pretty low…..what a place, and I hadn't even gone in!
I wasn’t sure what I was seeing ahead of me, but it did appear that on the right was a partly open door with a recessed yellow panel shaped like a guitar. On the way towards it the opening seen to the left appeared to have been into a storage area, but given the attention to detail it must not have been for ordinary objects……I headed past it and fully opened the door.
This is the view that greeted me. I had entered the bathroom room and was getting my first glimpse of some of Druid Heights co-founder Roger Somers’ signature interior cabinetry. Note that the middle alcove has a pivoting mirror. I later learned from his son Tagore that the majority of the remodel of the Twin Peaks house was completed by around 1962.
If you wondered why it was so bright inside here is the answer: a very large skylight.
As I went further in I found the sink and toilet and more built in storage.
Medium.com does not seem to be able to handle vertical aspect photos. Or at least I could not make them work. In most cases cropping them close to square is no problem. But here it doesn’t work because too much would be lost, so I split it in half. I took this photo with the sink and toilet in the previous image on my right looking back towards the door I came in through also on the right at the far end of the room. Don’t miss the tiled shower at the far end, the recessed ceiling light panels and then the boards on the floor in the foreground of the lower of the two images.
Looking down at the two boards on the floor I saw hinges. Quite curious, I reached down and lifting the edge. Under the boards I found another surprising feature of the Twin Peaks house bathroom: an old fashioned tub set into the floor.
I should have used the flash on this one but didn’t realize that until too late, meaning back home. The toilet is just is on the left, the drawers visible in the photo above showing the toilet and sink are on the right and we are looking into the kitchen. Notice how the pattern in the slate floor is much like that outside in the pathway. More than half the floors in the Twin Peaks house are slate.
Moving forward I found myself on the other side of that kitchen window. The ceiling looks low, and it is. It is higher over the center between the counters. The ceiling appears to be full of hidden light fixtures behind fiberglass panels. I was later told that it is.
I was ready to leave the kitchen, and I turned to look through an opening with a recessed sliding door towards what looked like the living room with a woodstove in the corner.
Leaving the kitchen and turning to my right I was greeted with this view from the middle of the room. I was to later learn that Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder helped Roger in the late ’50s on the remodel of the simple 1926 Haapa “Ranch house” into what you see here and then lived in it for over a year in the late ’60s. And that is just the “tip of the iceberg” of history that went down in this house. The sliding doors beyond the sunken table can close it off from the room beyond. Take a close look on the right and you will see a very narrow hall way heading off to a small back room. I did not, unfortunately, take photos of that room. The room was pretty plain, but the hall leading to it was not…..
Meanwhile, I turned around to my left. Remember the woodstove we saw from the kitchen? Just to the left of it the harp-like sound board of a piano is mounted in the wall. It can be strummed or plucked. Or made to resonate by throwing gravel at it which Roger Somers’ son Tagore says his father did a few times in the midst of parties to get people’s attention.
Here is that hallway. I had to clip this shot to make it fit, and I had to lie on the floor to take it. On the right is a hand painted mural show casing the Eucalyptus of Druid Heights and on the ceiling are more of Roger’s custom recessed lights.
After checking out that narrow hall and the room at its end I went back into the living room and through the open shoji doors into a room completely paneled with shoji. To make them more durable Roger used fiberglass panels instead of rice paper. Now I was getting a good look at the round window I had seen earlier from outside.
The woodwork around in and around this window is simple, but the effect is simply amazing.
Turning to my left after looking out the round window I saw that the wall shoji were slid aside revealing a closet in a dark corner. Something was inside there but I had not thought to bring a flashlight. I did have the camera flash so I took a photo and this is what it revealed. Remember all the recessed lights we have seen? And there are also many we haven’t.
I was later told that in the late ‘50s/early ’60s you could not drive over to Home Depot, or in those days in Mill Valley Goodman’s Building Supply, and buy a box of dimmer switches if that was the effect you wanted. Roger either built himself or had built this is custom control panel for all the Twin Peaks house lights.
Now I was ready to leave the Twin Peaks House. Well actually I really wasn’t but I felt that I should. The next several photos are taken in the open areas between the Twin Peaks or Ranch House and what is called Faye’s House on the map above. I will add descriptions to the extent I can, but my knowledge was and still is very limited about what is in the next few images.
There are still surviving remnants of the landscaping, like these Iris-like flowers. Several plants were in bloom completely out of season, as if it were spring. I was later told that this is not uncommon in areas that experience a lot of summer fog. Fall comes, and after a little rain and with overall decreased cloud cover they think it is spring.
Plum Blossoms. 10 days before Thanksgiving!
Remnants of an outdoor table.
An old, probably 1990s, Audi sedan with 2005 stickers. I subsequently learned that the last time anyone lived in any of the now unoccupied buildings was around 2006. I guess this got abandoned…..
Not far from the Audi sedan there is an area that looked to have once been a fenced in garden, I will guess for vegetables. Tipped down into it was an old Honda motorcycle.
A small shed whose purpose was and is unknown.
After wandering around seeing the things above in the center open but getting overgrown area of Druid Heights I headed towards a very overgrown building that is known as Faye’s house.
Portions of it have there own names: the music room, Roger’s workshop, the jazz workshop and the horse stall. I didn’t know any of these on my visit and so I will not attempt an explanation. Faye’s house is the largest building in Druid Heights, and with the exception of some very small buildings that I didn’t try to take pictures of, it is in the worst shape.
It was obvious to me as some one who has done a bit of building myself that it was several buildings of varying levels of quality of construction joined together by additions, and that some of those were very poorly built. It had obviously not been maintained and repaired for quite awhile and that, combined with the “weak links” and falling trees had made entering it something that seemed like a pretty bad idea. So I didn’t. What follows are a number of photos of the exterior and a couple taken through open doors.
Approaching Faye’s house from the west. It is really hard to get an idea of how big it is because of all the trees and shrubs combined with its rambling form. Part of it is two stories high, with the lower portion being possible because of the sloping site.
Taken standing on the same spot as the prior photo but turned to my left.
This photo taken from downslope on the north side best gives you a sense of what a big rambling place Faye’s house is. That said, I think that only if all the trees were gone cold you get a true approximation. While I was there another historic structure came to mind: The Winchester “Mystery House: in San Jose, CA that was the product of endless additions….the same process was also apparent at Faye’s house.
Back to the uphill side I moved in closer and looked in through an opening. The camera flash is providing the light. To the left is Roger’s workshop. The roof is collapsing on this added on shed because a Live Oak tree has fallen on to it.
The roof line over Roger’s Workshop. Sorry about how dark the photo is. The just visible high windows let in a lot of light but the center is lower so it is a very difficult design to keep water proof even if well maintained. He may have copied it from the workshop of well know nearby Bolinas, CA furniture maker Art “Espenet “ Carpenter, whose workshop with a similar roof line was built in 1957. At least at Art’s when the roof leaked it was falling onto a concrete floor. I worked for one of Art’s former apprentices in Bolinas in 1980 and got to see that shop at the time.
Walking around Faye’s house on the south side you pass a low brick wall. It was obviously part of a much older building that had been incorporated into Faye’s house. The roofing material was just cheap rolled roofing but someone had taken the trouble to cut the scalloped edge.
I have subsequently seen photos taken by others of the interior of Faye’s house and there are many hand crafted details that must have taken a lot of effort to create. We will post photos of as many of those as possible over time on the Save Druid Heights Facebook group page.
After passing the brick wall this came into view. I will guess that there was once a kitchen inside but that is only a guess. As with other buildings at Druid Heights rotten decks often stand in the way of getting a closer look.
From the same vantage point as the last photo I turned and looked back to the north west. That was when it hit me that part of Faye’s house was built with a Live Oak inside and then coming out through roof. The propane tank on the left services one of the still occupied nearby homes, called on the map The Old Chicken Barn.
I did not crop the photo so it is distorted. I believe this is of what was known as the music room. Between this view and the earlier one I get the feeling that a lot of junk was left here by the last inhabitants. There are also a lot of wood rats at Druid Heights and you would be amazed how much a wood rat can move, so the junk has likely been spread around by them. Though in such a sad state, I am sharing this shot because of the piano soundboard in the wall.
Now I was ready to leave the viscinity of Faye’s house. Because it was in such poor condition it was rather depressing. But it strengthened my feeling that Elsa’s House, the Meditation Hut and the Twin Peaks house should be preserved before they suffer a similar fate. Since they are much smaller and better constructed it would be much easier to accomplish that. Given my earlier view through the trees and brush I guessed that I would find that the library was also savable, and I did. The still occupied buildings at Druid Heights appeared, at least from a distance, to still be in decent shape.
Now it was time to head back towards the library. As I walked down the dirt road on my left I could see the roof of what is called the Mandala house. Using my camera’s zoom I got a closer look.
I later learned that the multiple peaks and valleys of part of the roof were modeled by Roger Somers on a clown’s collar, and that he had once said that “Some people live inside a square box. I live inside a clown’s head”. Note the “No Trespassing” sign on the tree trunk on the left.
So now I was back at the library. It had taken quite a bit longer than I had somehow imagined it would and the people I had met earlier were nowhere to be seen.
Alan Watts’ library is in the heart of the Druid Heights Eucalyptus grove and was also surrounded by French broom on the uphill side. The Tibetan prayer flags I will guess have been added by people like those I had run into earlier.
Using the handmade handle I opened the door and I got my first look at the interior of the library….
Over the threshold….. What an inspiring place for a writer like Alan Watts!
Turning to my left, I saw the biggest bank of book shelves. There was another set behind me as I took the picture. I later learned that Alan’s desk sat in front of the light colored nook in the shelves. The railing of the loft was certainly designed if not built by Roger Somers.
There was only one book in the library. It was laying on the shelves on the right side of the room as you entered. It was not one of Alan’s, as I later learned that they all went to the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. It would not, however, be a surprise if he had owned a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”
Just visible on the right side of the photo above of the shelves around where Alan’s desk stood is the white edge of the electric wall heater seen here and the edge of the combination shelves and step ladder up into the loft. Seen below are the built hand holds in the higher shelves to make climbing up possible.
A view across the carpeted loft floor taken from the top of the step ladder. I have come to recognize since that visit that long narrow windows were a favorite design element of Roger Somers.
Just through this opening at the rear of the library are a tiny kitchen and bath.
The Library has a very wide roof over hang and at some point the rear portion was made into the “worlds narrowest kitchen” on the right side of the opening from the main room and the “world’s narrowest bathroom” on the left. I may be exageratingin my description, but not by much!
The main problem with adding these, besides practicality and building codes is that the edge of the building now has no roof overhang. This can work but maintenance and repair becomes critical, and that stopped happening over 10 years ago.
The Library Bathroom. The mattress is in the loft in some older photos I have seen. Toilet just visible on the lower left.
The view out the back window set between the added kitchen and bath. I believe the deck was extended out when the kitchen and bath were built. Below is the remains of an early wooden hot tub.
I later learned that combining a wooden tub with heat and water filtration was the invention of Druid Heights resident Ed Stiles. He is said to have built 40–50 of them in the original workshop at Druid Heights. When Ed moved to Druid Heights in 1965 he brought a full compliment of heavy duty woodworking machinery which greatly increased the shop’s capacity to churn out quality work.
The original outer walls of the Library building, unlike the the kitchen/bath addition, were constructed like a giant redwood tank of 20' diameter.
The view from the vicinity of the hot tub up showing the problem area of the roof edge where the addition was made.
The following photos are of some of the custom made handles for the library doors and the fancy Soss hinges that make a door that is a partial arc in a curving wall work. In the photo of the hinges you can also get a better idea of how the building was constructed.
Immediately above the door in the fourth photo is one of the steel bands that hold the building together. Also be sure to look at the underside of the roof. It takes a lot of taper cut boards to build the roof in a round building!
Besides the history and the architecture there is another reason to save this building: the wood it was built with. Since there are no knots in any of the lumber that I could see this building displays the irony of many buildings from this period that were intended to make a stronger connection between the inhabitants and the natural world: they were constructed from old growth timber that is only found in huge trees, the same trees of which there are now very few remaining, and that environmentalists worked so hard in the 20th century to save from the logger’s saw.
I will end up with a view of the skylight in the library as seen from where Alan’s desk was located. If you have gotten this far I hope your are now convinced as I was when at the end of my visit: Druid Heights is a place that deserves preservation for future generations! Join the Facebook group Save Druid Heights to see more of this amazing place, learn more of the history and help save this historic site owned by the people of the United States in form of the National Park Service.
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