The Houses that Jack London Built

At the author's California ranch, curators dismantled one museum to create another.

The view from London's ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif. London's cottage has been restored and will open to the public.

Credit: Jack London State Historical Park

"I ride over my beautiful ranch. … The air is wine. Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive."—Jack London

The hard-living, peripatetic writer Jack London, who died in 1916, lived his last, peaceful days in a small cottage built in 1862 on his 800-acre ranch in the rolling, wooded hills of California's Sonoma Valley.

The modest, 3,000-square-foot cottage doesn't seem to fit the image of London, a bold former sailor who was the highest paid author of his day. Nor did it suit London's view of himself: in 1910, he began building a mansion nearby called Wolf House, an audacious attempt to create his own posthumous mark: "My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years." The act of God came brutally quick, and Wolf House burned down in 1913, days before London was to move in.

Every year, 65,000 visitors to Jack London State Historical Park in Glen Ellen, Calif., can view the ruin, tour the empty cottage, and roam a quirky museum in another house on the ranch, which has 10 buildings, including silos, a barn, and a "pig palace."

London's silos

Credit: Alvis Hendley

In 2005, park curators moved the author's belongings from one of his houses to another a half a mile away. By next year, the cottage will be filled with London's belongings, recreated as it looked when London died.

The work of moving London's possessions to the cottage began three years ago after the park received a major capital outlay grant of 1.5 million (including an earlier, earthquake retrofit completed in the 1990s) to restore the cottage. In 1990, the Jack London Historical Park had adopted a policy to make restoration of the cottage to its 1916 appearance a high priority. After all, the cottage is where Jack London actually lived and wrote, and thus is one of the most significant historic structures in the park.

But since 1963, London paraphernalia—including his desk, Dictaphone, and bed—has been on display in the "House of Happy Walls," which London's second wife, Charmian, built in 1919, three years after Jack died. Before Charmain died in 1955, she directed that the house be used as a memorial to Jack.

In the "House of Happy Walls" are recreations of the writer's study, bedroom, and "unpacking room" nestled in small alcoves and protected by Plexiglas barriers. Like dioramas in natural-history museums, these displays show London's original habitat, fossilized under glass.

Since the museum was created more than 40 years ago, it is itself historic. The objects, such as London's pressed, yellowing shirts, are old, and so are the displays. Informational labels are printed in 1960s era fonts, and they, too, are yellowing.

Yet, says Carol Dodge, district curator of the California State Parks, "It's tough to make changes because people want to come and see exactly what they saw when they were children."

Recreating the cottage as it looked 90 years ago requires painstaking, sometimes impossible research. "We have photographs," Dodge says, "but there's a problem with relying on historic photographs: You only see one half a room."

In 2003, the park commissioned an "interpretative and furnishings plan" to help it curate the cottage. The report, more than 500 pages long, is filled with reminiscences from London's family and friends. Researchers pored through memoirs, biographies, and letters, scouring for details. "Jack had to have a bowl of dried fish by his bed at night," reports his manservant, Nakata.

The rangers, researchers, and curators are trying to get everything right, down to re-planting morning glories on the North Porch. To recapture the past, they have to eradicate some of the present: A comment in the park's furnishings plan notes that "there seem to be no current plans to deal with the woodpecker drilling in the walls."

The first phase of the move is to conserve large objects currently in storage: London's roll-top desk, his Dictaphone, covered with "years and years of grime," and two Korean chests. The curators couldn't find the antlers that hung on the walls, so they're using some from another state park's collection.

They're working hard to recreate the small sliver of time that Jack and Charmian lived in the house. Milo Shephard, Jack's greatnephew, notes: "London … was in Glen Ellen for five years, from 1911-1916, and during those five years he was six months on the cruise of the Derrigo, he was twice in the Hawaiian Islands for six months, he was down in Vera Cruz, he was traveling."

Dodge is trying to gather all the research to furnish the cottage right, so in 10 or 20 years, the next curator doesn't have to do it all over again. "We always have our eyes open for photographs-if we see something in a corner, we scan it, zoom in, and make it larger." 

The ruin of Wolf House

Credit: Alvis Hendley

Meanwhile, the moss keeps growing on the stones of Wolf House, which will remain a ruin. During his brief time on the ranch, London poured enormous energy and $80,000 of pre-World War I dollars into building the 15,000-square-foot Wolf House, half a mile away from the cottage, nestled amongst redwoods and the eucalyptus trees London himself planted.

Wolf House was designed by San Francisco architect Albert Farr. Set on floating concrete slabs to protect it from earthquakes, it was built from locally quarried stone and redwood trees. It was topped by a Spanish tile roof, encircled a reflecting pool stocked with local fish, and contained a enormous dining area that could accommodate 50 guests, a men-only gaming room, and London's study, a sleeping tower overlooking the mountains. He never lived there, and it can't be recreated, but it is a breathtaking, thriving memorial.

Most writers seek to leave a legacy of words. Not Jack London. He cared little for what he wrote; he published so he could raise money for Wolf House and Beauty Ranch, his farm, where he used organic techniques before their time. He wanted to "to leave the land better for my having been." Any visitor to Jack London State Historic Park would agree that he succeeded.

This story was originally published on Preservation Online on Feb. 18, 2005.  

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