Just before Memorial Day, your intrepid urban adventurers stepped outside of their asphalt-coated comfort zone for a lightning 40-hour road trip to explore some notable, rural Central Californian attractions. This is the second of several blog posts sharing scenes from the road.
After shaking off the eerie quiet of La Purisima Mission, we took the slow route up the central valley, hitting a few thrift shops in Santa Maria and enjoying an al fresco Mexican lunch in weedy Nipomo. Late afternoon found us rolling into drizzly, seaside Cambria, where Michael O’Malley was waiting for us at Nitt Witt Ridge, the uninhabited home and folk art environment for which he and wife Stacy serve as caretakers.
Michael came bounding down the steps when he heard our car pull up, and threw open the gates with a big welcoming grin. With a warning to walk carefully, and be prepared to duck under low beams, he led us up the abalone shell-risered steps, holding tight to metal stair rails that once doubled as Nitt Witt Ridge’s water pipes — some of them with electrical light fixtures frighteningly entwined.
But there is no longer any flowing water at Nitt Witt Ridge. The water meter, a valuable commodity in a community that actively limits growth, was sold off to a developer years ago, and the old jerry-rigged electric system has been (wisely) switched off. Today, Nitt Witt Ridge exists outside of the modern era, best visited by daylight, and if you want a glass of water or (its builder’s favorite tipple) cheap American beer, you’d better bring your own.
During our hour-long exploration of the property that Art Beal designed, built and decorated over the course of 50+ years, Michael shared myths and facts about the eccentric builder, known variously as Der Tinkerpaw or Captain Nitt Witt. Although Michael never met the old curmudgeon, he’s made it his business to gather stories (and a rather mean-spirited vintage “Real People” TV clip) to enliven the experience of visiting a place that was once synonymous with its maker.
When Michael bought the place a few years after Art’s death, many rooms were stuffed high with junk, and looters had made off with whatever valuables remained. Left behind were Art’s real treasures, little bits of junk he accumulated in his decades as Cambria’s garbage man and occasional hauler for William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon castle. Bits of salvaged paper, cloth, ceramic and metal are stacked in every cubby, and open dresser drawers reveal Art’s personal archives, news clippings and photos fading under dust. Inside the kitchen cupboards repurposed from radio cabinets destined for Cambria’s dump, murky canned foods float in jars. Art’s clothes still hang in the closet. Dust is everywhere. You feel Art, and art, all around. It’s wonderful.
Out in the garden, stacks of cemented metal car wheel rims made for sturdy columns, and an open air puttering workshop was bedecked with climbing nasturtium. A little prodding of the seemingly solid earth at the top of the property has revealed Der Tinkerpaw’s ingenious methods: instead of driving out to the dump with the community’s garbage, as his contract dictated, plenty of junk ended up in the gully above Art’s main house, followed by loads of dirt, until a comfortable garden area with exceptional views was constructed on what was once thin air. A recycled fountain of couple of old sinks spilling into a bath made for an open air washtub.
At the top of the property a visitor reaches a ramshackle fence with a conventional wooden shack ruin behind it. This is the old house, where it was said Art once lived with a woman named Gloria. One day she ran off with the contents of his bank account, and he let the place rot. There may be something to this sad legend: Michael has crept inside and found a lady’s shoe and other evidence of habitation.
Art Beal lived a long life, but despite his best intentions, did not die in the home he built. The narrative is muddy, but it seems a small loan obtained for medical services in the 1970s went unpaid, and the lender sought to take Art’s land. Some do-gooders formed a foundation to save Nitt Witt Ridge, but Captain Nitt Witt didn’t cotton to interfering kids or their newfangled ideas. Art became senile, and often ran around naked and hollered at passersby. Complaints were made about self-neglect, social workers started sniffing around, and eventually Art was forced to go into a nursing home. He died there in 1992, and a few years later Michael and Stacy came along and were compelled to take up the mantle of maintaining the strange house on the hill.
Although Nitt Witt Ridge is a California Historical Landmark, the city of Cambria hasn’t made it easy for Michael and Stacy to make a go of their tourist attraction. Some community members disliked Der Tinkerpaw during his lifetime, and that animosity has continued after his death. Large houses have sprung up all around the structure, and while Art’s was there first, some seem to have built their homes with the expectation that Nitt Witt Ridge would be absorbed by the elements or demolished. While neither has happened, thanks to Michael and Stacy’s devotion, small indignities are trotted out to discourage them.
So this landmark example of California vernacular architecture cannot be visited by tour buses, a modest fee cannot officially be charged for Michael’s delightful tour (though you are welcome to tip), and we were denied the opportunity to purchase a commemorative Nitt Witt Ridge t-shirt or tea cosy. To which we say phooey on Cambria. Art Beal’s spirit, and his incredible home, will outlive such petty prejudices. We highly recommend a visit to Nitt Witt Ridge if you’re visiting the Central Coast. Call Michael at 805-927-2690 to book a private tour, and tell him Esotouric sent you. (2018 Update – Nitt Witt Ridge is for sale!)
For more photos from Nitt Witt Ridge, click this link. Up next: Cambria’s unique community cemetery.