Some time ago,  we took a trip down the California Coast during which we explored some of the countless arts & crafts cottages in and around the oceanside artist community of Carmel. The highlight of our time there was getting to take a tour of Tor House – the handcrafted stone cottage of poet Robinson Jeffers. Special thanks to Tor House Foundation President Vince Huth for taking the time to give us a personal tour of this amazing home and property!
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Robinson Jeffers and his new bride Una moved to Carmel in 1914. The couple lived for a few years in a small log cabin until, with the help of a small family inheritance, Jeffers purchased a large plot of oceanfront property on the outskirts of town. Jeffers hired himself out to local contractor M.J. Murphy and the two men began construction on Tor House in 1918. Murphy was well-known for his stonemasonry skills as his company had built many of the early homes and businesses in and around Carmel. Working as an apprentice to Murphy, Jeffers learned the art of “making stone love stone” – a skill that he would continue to hone over the course of the next 40 years…


Jeffers (above right) was inspired by the stone cottages and towers he had seen while traveling through England and set out to build Tor House in the same vein. The name “Tor House” comes from the old Celtic word “tor” meaning a rocky outcropping typically found at the crest of a hill. Using granite boulders hauled up from the beach below, Jeffers and Murphy built the modest home (pictured below) on the crest of a bluff with commanding views up and down the coast and across the bay to Pebble Beach. In certain parts of the home, the two men even incorporated large partially exposed boulders into the foundation that were entombed in the hill itself.


Initially, the home consisted of a living room, a small kitchen and a single bathroom, with a first-floor guest bedroom and two more bedrooms in the attic loft above. The entry to the home is through a paneled door (above at left) which opens into the cozy living room (pictured below).


As you enter the home, bookshelves and a tiny desk space, referred to as “Una’s Alcove”, are situated on your immediate right. A steep set of stairs (above center) leads through a hatch to the attic above where Jeffers is believed to have done most of his writing. Presently the attic is being restored, and Jeffers’ writing desk has been relocated to a room in Hawk Tower – more on that later…


At the far end of the living room is a large window that looks out over the ocean (below). A Steinway baby grand piano and a two comfortable chairs surround the fireplace (above).


Off the living room is a small guest bedroom with two generously sized windows that provide more ocean views. The bed in the guestroom (pictured below) is actually the place where Robinson Jeffers passed away of natural causes on January 20, 1962. Jeffers outlived his wife Una by 12 years, who died in 1950 after a long struggle with cancer. Following her death, Jeffers fell into a deep depression and the few pieces he wrote were all dedicated to her in one way or another.


Off of the entryway there is a small reading room (below left) that is lined with Jeffers own personal collection of books. Adjacent to the library is the home’s only bathroom (below right) and the corner of the house where the original primitive kitchen once sat. This is what comprised the home in its original incarnation.


 In 1930, the dining room – added on to the northeastern corner – was completed. The room is rather grand considering the context of the rest of the home. There’s a vaulted ceiling complete with a minstrel gallery loft (below left) at one end and a floor-to-ceiling fireplace and chimney (below right) at the other.


Jeffers was popular among his poet and artist brethren and this dining room table (pictured below) was where Robinson and Una would often entertain guests including the likes of Ansel Adams, Dylan Thomas, Sinclair Lewis and Charlie Chaplin.


Behind the bench pictured above on the left, is another view of the windswept coastline (below).


The beams supporting the kitchen loft are inscribed with a number of quotes including the one below which was my particular favorite, “Time and I against any two.”


Time is something that was always in abundant supply for Jeffers and was likely his greatest asset. Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, aside from his constant work adding on to Tor House, Jeffers wrote hundreds of poems – many of them set against the backdrop of the California coastline that he so loved.


While Robinson wrote, Una tended to her own English garden (above and below). The couple had traveled throughout England and Ireland and were inspired by the British Isles’ rugged beauty. Una had been enamoured with the ancient towers of the region since childhood, and in 1920, Robinson decided to build Una her own tower just steps away from Tor House (below).

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Again boulders were hauled up from the beaches below, but this time, Robinson built the structure completely on his own. And what a structure it is! As you enter the 4-story tower, the first room you encounter is a small study that now houses the desk and chair where Jeffers did nearly all of his writing (below left). One of the best things about this tour is that you’re able to actually sit at his desk! Through the chair and desk’s hand-worn patina, you can, for a moment, step inside the mind of Jeffers and feel the creative juices flowing…


There are two ways to ascend to “Una’s Room” on the second floor. One is via the outdoor staircase that leads to the parapet, the other is the “secret staircase” that is so narrow (not more than 12 inches wide at its tightest!) that you have put your left shoulder forward first in order to navigate through. Una’s Room is cozy with warm woodwork and ample shelving filled with books and other pieces from her own collection. A short hallway (above right) leads to a well-lit oriel window with superb ocean views.


Another steep staircase leads to the open terrace that comprises the entire 3rd floor. The chimney from the fireplaces below is on one end and an even steeper set of stairs at the other end leads to the top floor of the great Hawk Tower. The 360° view from the top of the tower is exquisite. Not only is Carmel Point right there in front of you, but Point Lobos is well-within view off to the South (below left), with Pebble Beach off in the distance to the North..


No one knew the sheer beauty of Tor House and Hawk Tower better than the man who built them and lived on the property for over 40 years. So perhaps I should let his poetry speak for itself. Here is the aptly named poem Tor House written by Jeffers in 1938…

If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
perhaps of my planted forest a few may stand yet,
dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress,
haggard with storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite,
my fingers had the art to make stone love stone,
you will find some remnant.

But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel River-valley,
These four will remain in the change of names.
You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably Here,
but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind with the mad wings and the day moon.

—Robinson Jeffers


Tor House and Hawk Tower are open for tours on every Friday and Saturday from 10am to 3pm. The tours are limited to a maximum of 6 people so the experience is more intimate than typical tours of famous houses, plus as I mentioned before, there are no velvet ropes, so you can walk throughout the entire house and property and get the full experience.

If you’ve ever visited, leave a comment below and tell me about your time there, and if you find yourself in Carmel and want to have a unique experience, don’t hesitate to visit Tor House – I promise you’ll love it!!

All text and photographs (except the black and white ones) © The Craftsman Bungalow.

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