DRUID HEIGHTS: HISTORIC COUNTER-CULTURE MECCA IN A NATIONAL PARK FACES DEATH BY NEGLECT
1954. Cold War. Witch hunts for communists. Bland mass produced housing. The glow of early tv numbing the mind. Wide spread discrimination based on race, sex, gender and romantic preference.
But here and there embers of change are glowing. Senator McCarthy is coming to be seen as out of control. Many of the generation growing up in front of television’s glow are going to turn it off during the next decade. The struggles against discrimination were gaining traction. The pied pipers on the recently arrived LP records are playing changing tunes.
In the spring of the same year, in a well out of sight but close in location near San Francisco, the late middle aged author of the first American volume of openly lesbian poetry decided to take a chance and buy 5 acres, two small houses and some out buildings in partnership with a young couple, a designer and builder of houses who was a talented amateur musician and a dancer, along with their two small children.
Elsa Gidlow (1898–1986) took a gamble. She hardly knew Roger (1926–2001)and Mary Somers (?). They had met at a class taught by Alan Watts (1915–1973) at the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco and later reconnected at a picnic in nearby Berkeley. In casual conversation they learned they had this in common: the desire to live in a quiet and beautiful spot where they could pursue their creative dreams, socialize with their friends from many backgrounds without fear, and diverge from the path of uniformity being followed by so many others. Roger and Mary told Elsa they had found just the place and Elsa was able to raise the down payment.
They made it the place of their dreams, and then some. Now known as Druid Heights, based on Gidlow’s name for her portion of the property, it quickly became a hidden mecca for many a creative heart and mind. While the Somers’ marriage was not to last, both Elsa and Roger spent the rest of their days at the place they had moved to in ’54. The property partnership brought on an unspoken partnership of different spirits whose circles occasionally overlapped, sometimes complimented and often went their own way.
Those circles of friends were peopled with many of significant though less than common avocation. Philosophers, musicians, poets, artists, comedians, legal scholars, composers, whistle blowers, film makers, dancers, novelists, impresarios, spiritual figures, and sex workers rights advocates. Alan Watts, Louis Armstrong, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Catharine MacKinnon, Lou Harrison, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerd Stern, Tom Smothers, Margo St. James, Daniel Ellsberg, Gary Snyder, Tom Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Bill Graham, Steve Miller, Richard Brautigan, John Handy,, James Broughton, Anna Halprin, Charles Mingus, Lama Govinda……and there are more.
If it was just about those people in a beautiful secluded location, that would justify saying that Druid Heights was much more than a few houses in the woods with run of the mill residents. But like most meccas there was also a compelling built environment. When Gidlow and the Somers arrived they had found a broad oval of utilitarian buildings constructed by the prior owners, a Scandinavian family named Haapa. The empty center of that oval was to remain but on its edges Somers, with the help of others, transformed the existing buildings and added new. These structures shouted out against the uniformity of the buildings lived in by most, both then, now, and likely the future.
The roofs of many of those buildings are mold breakers: conical, clown collared, butterflied and saddle shaped. They protect rooms that are imbued with the glow of a unique era, an era that continues to exert a fascination, especially for those too young to have know it first hand. Secret lights, sunken tables, all redwood rooms in the round, shoji screens up the walls and overhead, rolled over edges, hand painted murals, inset piano soundboards, round windows with floating shelves, skylights at the center eyeing the heavens, a crystalin window in a hut meant for quiet contemplation and cabinets of pure fantasy.
And off to one side underneath an ordinary peaked roof, the solid but unpretentious house that was for 32 years the home of America’s first openly lesbian poet, Elsa Gidlow.
That’s a snapshot of the prologue and principle characters of Druid Heights. The epilogue is unwritten. Druid Heights is now owned by the National Park Service. It is increasingly uninhabited. And being unmaintained, it is falling apart.
There are varying scenarios for that epilogue. Two stand out.
In one it is well cared for, allowed to tell its stories and briefly take those who go there and surround themselves with the flowing architecture back to a very different time.
In another it could become a spot at the junction of forest and field with some pieces of concrete, perhaps, poking up through the grass and begging the question “What was here, anything special?” At most, a brief answer might be found on a plaque nearby.
The Druid Heights stories are too many and long for this venue. The structures speak quickly and with force. Scroll down and look.
If in the end you find yourself hoping for the second epilogue scenario then sit back and relax, because that is the current trajectory. But if it is the first you favor then take a look around using the means available to you with your device. There is more that just this story out there and you’ll find there are others hoping for epilogue number one, and trying to make it happen.
A final note: All photos below were all taken by the author on 11/16/16. Since no repairs have been done since then, the buildings shown are in worse shape today. With the exception of the roof of the Mandala House shot from a distance there are no photos of the 3 dwellings and a large workshop that are still occupied out of respect for the privacy of those building’s lease holders. The leaseholders lease rights are for as long as they shall live, with no right of inheritance. You should also know that the National Park Service requests that no one go to Druid Heights because of the fragility of the structures and the dangers they present if entered. On top of that the still inhabited areas are lawfully posted “No Trespassing” by the leaseholders. The author went there naively on 11/16/2016 not knowing the situation, and will not return without first giving notice of his intentions to the National Park Service, and would do so only to further his work to preserve this place, not for personal pleasure.
The Elsa Gidlow House that she came to call Druid Heights
The living room, the Elsa Gidlow House
Under the eucalyptus and behind the broom, the conical roof of the library built for Alan Watts
At a distance and through the trees, the ridges of the clown collared roof of the Mandala House
Amongst spreading live oaks project the twin wings of the butterfly roof of Roger Somers workshop at Druid Heights
The saddle shaped roof of the Twin Peaks House at Druid Heights
Behind semi-translucent panels, secret lights in the kitchen of the Twin Peaks House
The sunken table in the “zendo” room of the Twin Peaks House, with the sliding shoji to the next room part way open
An all redwood room in the round: the library at Druid Heights
Shoji screens up the walls and overhead, the shoji room in the Twin Peaks House
Rolled over edges of the woodwork in the “zendo” room in the Twin Peaks House
Hand painted mural of eucalyptus, the Twin Peaks House
An inset piano soundboard, the Twin Peaks House
A round window with shelves, the shoji room in the Twin Peaks House
Skylight at the center eyeing the heavens, and the eucalyptus, the Library at Druid Heights
A crystalin window into a room meant for quiet contemplation, the meditation hut near the Gidlow House
Cabinets of pure fantasy, the bathroom in the Twin Peaks House