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March 9, 2011 / Linda Hartong

Tor House And Hawk Tower

In 1914, Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una, settled in Carmel, drawn to the rugged coastline that reminded them of Great Britain. “It was evident that we had come, without knowing it,” Jeffers later wrote, “to our inevitable place.” That year they bought five acres of land on a cliff at Carmel Point that encompassed a dramatic outcropping of rock—a tor in Scottish Gaelic. Una wanted a house modeled on a Tudor barn, so the couple hired a stonemason; Jeffers signed on as his apprentice, working until “my fingers had the art to make stone love stone.”

This dream home of the poet Robinson Jeffers—a cramped stone cottage with low ceilings, minuscule windows, and heavy, somber furnishings—seems all wrong. Why block out that view? Why so small? So dark? Yet five minutes into a tour of Tor House, you find it hard to imagine a more magical dwelling. It was built to withstand the often cold winds off the Pacific. The low ceilings helped retain the heat from the fireplace.

To get beyond that fence, take a docent-led tour of the house , garden and tower. So lets start down the garden path

 

Looking to the right you will see the house . This is the first structure that Jeffers would build on the five acres of land he purchased on Carmel Point for $500.00.

 

I have taken three tours and each one was very different.  My favorite tour was the first one I took. My mother and father, then in their early 80’s, came with me. Our docent carried a book of Jeffers poetry with her and read appropriate poems as we went.

 

It was here,along the side of the house ,that the Jeffers buried the bull dogs that were always part of the family. And it was time  to stop for a poem .  He writes in “first person “as the dog. Be prepared to cry.

The House Dog’s Grave (Haig, an English bulldog)

    • I’ve changed my ways a little; I cannot now
      Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
      Except in a kind of dream; and you, if you dream a moment, You see me there.So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
      Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
      And you’d soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
      The marks of my drinking-pan. 

      I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
      On the warm stone,
      Nor at the foot of your bed; no, all the night through
      I lie alone.
      But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
      Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
      And where you sit to read–and I fear often grieving for me–
      Every night your lamplight lies on my place……

      Robinson Jeffers, 1941

       

      Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

The guide was also very knowledgeable about Una’s garden .

The photo above shows a small window to the right of the front door. It was here that Una placed her desk . As she worked , she  looked out on the door yard garden and kept an eye out for visitors. She was very strict about protecting Jeffers’ privacy when he was working.

This photo is by Sandra Gray . For more shots of the interior of Tor House click on her flickr set Inside Tor House (Set: 52)

Though they entertained a string of distinguished guests at Tor House, from Ansel Adams to Charlie Chaplin, the Jefferses—for philosophical reasons— embraced a strenuously modest lifestyle. They relied for decades on driftwood for heating and candles for light, and their decor was sober and minimal. Now, as then, a few Oriental rugs cover the red-wood floors. A 1905 Steinway baby grand—their lone luxury—dominates a living room the size of a contemporary closet. The whole effect might have been claustrophobic. Instead, it is intensely cozy, like a Hobbit house or one of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit holes.

In 1920, the poet-builder began his work on Hawk Tower — a retreat for his wife and a magic place for his twin sons. It was completed in less than four years, a remarkable feat since Jeffers built the tower entirely by himself! He utilized wooden planks and a block and tackle system to move the stones and to set them in place.The tower’s ground floor features a space designated for writing and a winding stairway  leads to a marvelous lookout over the Pacific Ocean.

 

The docent led the three of us through this door warning us about the steep stairs and tight space inside.

At this point we all became slightly apprehensive about whether my Dad and his “football” knee could make it up and down the stairs.  We did get to the top and we did see a wonderful view and we did give a huge sigh of relief when we got down. It was not easy. I do not recommend going up the stairs if you are claustrophobic or “weak kneed”.

 

I found Unicorns everywhere. They were Una’s favorite Muse.

According to a Western tradition, when God commanded that Adam and Eve should name all of the animals of the Earth, the first one given a name was the unicorn. Because of that, God gave that creature a special blessing and touched it on the tip of its horn. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command and were banished from the Garden of Eden, the unicorn was given the choice to follow Adam and Eve into the world or remaining in paradise. The unicorn chose to follow them into the world of pestilence, war, pain, and death. The unicorn was blessed forever after for his compassion. The unicorn chose the difficult human path out of love.

Tor House is a reliquary. The Jeffers collected tiny artifacts and relics from around the world and built them into walls, niches, and floors. Their many friends added to their collections .

As you walk out the gate, be sure to notice the horse shoes over the garage door,

 

You will notice they are hung this way so their luck does not run out.

 

Now owned and maintained by the Tor House Foundation, it is possible to take tours of the house and tower several times a month.  It is well worth your time if you are visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea on a weekend.

Docent-led tours of Tor House, Hawk Tower and the old-world gardens are conducted hourly every Friday and Saturday. The first tour begins at 10 a.m. and the final tour at 3 p.m. Each tour is limited to a maximum of six people. For safety reasons, children under 12 years of age are not allowed.

No where I have felt the spirit of Carmel more than I have in this magical place.

 

 

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are copyright (c) Linda Hartong. All rights reserved.

You may not use any image on this site without my written consent. If you are interested in using a photo from my website for any purpose, please send me a quick message and let me know which photo(s) you are interested in.

 

5 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Miss Bloomers / Mar 9 2011 12:32 pm

    I will definitely have to take a tour next trip..I’ve seen pictures before but didn’t know any of the history. Thanks for sharing…and yes that poem is a tear jerker!

  2. jeanette sclar / Mar 9 2011 3:58 pm

    Absolutely arresting poem…anyone who has ever had the pleasure of a pet certainly feels those emotions deeply.
    Your tours are so tangible!

  3. ~Sheila~ / Mar 9 2011 7:04 pm

    I have just spent a wonder-filled hour looking at your blog. It makes me want to visit soon. I had heard of Carmel, but this brings it to life. Thank you. I shall be a regular visitor!

  4. Jonni / Apr 20 2012 2:10 am

    Was you original tourguide a small, white-haired woman named Barbara? She was my dear friend and loved being a tourguide at Tor House, often reciting poetry along the way.

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