At the invitation of the California Preservation Foundation Save Druid Heights co-founders UC Berkeley architectural historian Greg Castillo and Michael Toivonen presented a webinar on Druid Heights in August of 2020. It is now available for viewing on Youtube without a paywall. Neither Greg nor Michael received any funds for their presentations.
Greg’s portion of the webinar covers the context of the architecture of the structures at Druid Heights while Michael’s focuses first on a brief tour of the Druid Heights site as viewed in photos taken during the last decade and then switches to vintage photos of Druid Heights that have been shared with the Save Druid Heights group. Their presentations are followed by a Q &A session. To date this is one of the best means to get a broad view of Druid Heights in the course of just over an hour.
The Marin County California weekly The Pacific Sun has just (1/19/21) published an article on Druid Heights that emphasizes the need for preservation. This is the first traditional media coverage Druid Heights has received for some time, and the first to contact the Save Druid Heights group as part of the author’s research. Besides offering a brief glimpse at the place, the people and the history, this article puts the primary responsibility for stewardship of this historic place, or lack thereof, where it belongs, with the owner of Druid Heights, the National Park Service. Use the link immediately below to read the article.
Along side one of the smaller structures at Druid Heights is an aging airstream trailer. Nothing about its exterior stands out, and when I took this photo of it in 2016 I saw no reason to look closer.
Not looking closer was a big mistake. The photo below taken by Todd Sipes (https://www.toddsipes.com) shows why. The remodel of the trailer was certainly, given the style, designed by Druid Heights resident Roger Somers and represents a major creative flight. This Airstream trailer’s traveling days may have been through once it arrived at Druid Heights but it could move the imagination of those who resided within.
I have subsequently learned that this trailer has been included as a significant structure in the submission of Druid Heights for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as put forward by the National Park Service. The trailer became part of the submission following the submissions review by the California State Historic Preservation who is charged with reviewing all all such submissions for California places, even in cases where the owner is a branch of the Federal Government.
The results are in, meaning we have seen the final determination of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places report for Druid Heights. The final version extended the period of Druid Heights significance through the year 1979, the year that one of Druid Heights significant resident builders and wood workers, Ed Stiles, completed his new wood working shop.
Ed’s shop is one of the most beautiful wood working shops the author of this post has ever seen, and he has visited a few noteworthy wood shops and has a coffee table book full of other examples to compare it to. Ed was a part of what is often called the Studio Furniture Movement, one of the many threads of American culture that run through Druid Heights.
Roger Somers (1926-2001) was the Druid Heights resident most responsible for the radical transformation of the built environment of the former Haapa Family homestead. Here he is, dressed in work clothes including a carpenter’s apron, on the west steps of house called variously Muchado (pronounced much a do), The Big House, The Dragon House and The Twin Peaks House. The date on the print is May 1968.
Roger’s son Tagore describes the 1960s as the most significant era at Druid Heights. It would not have been that without Roger. He brought his many well known musician and artist friends to this house and even rented it to Pulitzer prize winning poet Gary Snyder for a few months at the end of the decade when he was working on a big building project near Lake Tahoe.
HIs partner at the time of this photo and the person holding the camera was Margo St. James, best known for her works as a sex workers rights advocate. Save Druid Heights has been sent this and a number of other photographs from her personal collection. They , like others we have received, give us a view of a rapidly receding time in a place where the creative spirit predominated.
It was late winter or early in the spring of 1954 when Elsa Gidlow and her partner Isabelle Quallo ran into Roger Somers and his toddler son Tagore at a picnic in Berkeley, CA. This was not a first meeting, as at least Elsa, and perhaps Isabelle too had previously encountered Roger and wife Mary Somers at one of Alan Watts’ popular classes at the American Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco.
The chance meeting in Berkeley marked a turning point in all of their lives. Their conversation turned to finding a more secluded off-the-beaten track place to live. Roger said he knew of such a place. A few days later Roger and Mary visited Elsa and Isabelle at their home in Fairfax, Marin County, CA and described a 5 acre homestead outside nearby Mill Valley with two small houses and several out buildings in an isolated setting.
Soon a visit was paid to that property, the place that Elsa would come to name Druid Heights based on her friendship with UC Berkeley Celtic Studies Professor Ella Young and her appreciation of the novel Wuthering Heights. It was early spring and Elsa in her autobiography relates that the long road in was still muddy from winter’s rains. But after that visit she decided to take a gamble and partner on the property with a young couple she hardly knew.
Roger had the construction skills to renovate the buildings but he and Mary lacked a down payment. They wanted a partner who could supply that. After deciding to take the plunge Elsa went to the bank to take out a mortgage on her Fairfax home to supply the down payment.
She was turned down. It was 1954 and she was an unmarried woman whose income came from her work as a freelance journalist. A few days later she found herself describing her difficulty in securing a loan to a friend, the right friend. Dorothy Erskine assisted her in getting around the road block set up by the bank by giving her a private loan from her own funds. Later in life Elsa was to do the same for others.
What a change the next 14 years brought about. By 1968 the forlorn landscape and buildings of 1954 had been transformed. Roger had done extensive such work on the buildings, so much so on the former Haapa farmhouse as to make it nearly unrecognizable outside and even more so in. Gardens begun by the the Haapa family had been greatly expanded. The Stiles Family had joined the community and Ed Stiles had built what was in ’68 known as The Casa Rondo, and later, after the arrival of Alan and Jano Watts the Mandala House.
By 1979 the last major structure to be erected at Druid Heights, Ed Stiles’ woodworking shop, was finished. Also added during the years between ’68 and ’79 were the circular library built for Alan Watts, the Meditation Hut adjacent to Elsa Gidlow’s house and the guest house adjacent to the Old Chicken Barn aka the Stiles’ house. Each of these buildings typifies different aspects of the unique culture of the era that Druid Heights was both a part of and helped give birth to.
Michael Toivonen, co-founder of Save Druid Heights, is holding a picnic on Sunday September 22nd from noon until 5 pm at Paradise Beach Park, 3450 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, CA and is inviting his friends who favor preserving Druid Heights’ history and architecture for future generations. If that describes you then you are welcome to attend but you will need to follow the steps bellow.
NOTE: The maximum number of guests is 50. There is a chance this could be revised upwards but that info will only be made available to Save Druid Heights Facebook group members.
FIRST: you need to join the Facebook group Save Druid Heights. In lieu of that you could send Michael an email at firstname.lastname@example.org that tells him a little about your interest in Druid Heights and why you are unable to join the Facebook group, the preferred method of joining in with others who feel the same. He will cancel the tickets of anyone who does not follow through on this requirement.
SECOND: once you have either joined and been approved for the Save Druid Heights group or gotten a positive response from me to your email you will need to use the Eventbrite link below to get your name on his guest list, meaning you have signed up for a ticket. Note: those who sign up for the Save Druid Heights Facebook group need to answer a brief questionnaire. You will receive notice of this at signup. This is to prevent abuse of the group, such as by those who want to use it for commercial purposes.
AND CONSIDER THIS: When you sign up for your free ticket to his picnic you will be given the option to add additional guests. Before you do so consider this: He is holding this picnic so his friends who are passionate about Druid Heights can get together. Included amongst those are going to be people connected to Druid Heights who will be able to share some of their experiences there “back in the day”. While it would be nice if the picnic could be wide open that is not possible and since early indications are that it will fill it would be best if those who come are there for the main reason, not just to have a picnic. An option to consider would be for others to go elsewhere in the park while you spend some time with us, and then join your friend or family member for the balance.
IMPORTANT DETAILS ABOUT THE PICNIC: This is not a potluck. You may certainly bring something to share with others but it is up to you.There will be some basic supplies on hand such as non-alcoholic drinks, paper plates, napkins, & etc. There are two barbecue pits and there will be charcoal and fire starting supplies for those who want to use them.
Here is the link to the signup with Eventbrite:
If you were around in the ’70s it was hard to miss the Whole Earth Catalog (or Epilog in this later edition). It was physically big and fascinating to “surf”. It has been compared to the world wide web because the catalog’s listings bear comparison to webpages and while called a catalog you could not could not purchase the items from the publisher. There were also scattered articles unconnected to the listings.
Save Druid Heights member and former Druid Heights resident David Wills was on the staff for this and perhaps other editions. And more than one of the other staff members visited Druid Heights. Maybe others lived there as David did…
Be sure to check out our very active Facebook group, Save Druid Heights. Besides often being more detailed than what gets published here our posts often prompt comments that add new details to posts like this one.
Center, Druid Heights resident David Wills.
Some of the Whole Earth Catalog staff, with editor Stewart Brand on the left.
The back cover, including words of wisdom well fitting a unique era.
If Druid Heights was open to the public I, and I am sure some of you, would go there on a regular basis. But since it isn’t, looking at photos will have to do for now, and believe me I have enough on file to keep it interesting.
This photo shows a hall way in the house known variously as The Twin Peaks or just The Big House. Save Druid Heights member and former Druid Heights resident Detlef Kotzte answered on being asked who painted it “Esther Roberts, she was a resident of DH for a few years.”
Once again our Facebook group, Save Druid Heights, has provided the answer by connecting us to those who know best those who have lived at or visited Druid Heights.
This is the trail map of near-to-Druid Heights Mt. Tamalpais that would have been used by Druid Heights residents and visitors back in the 1950s on through at least the 1970s and likely later. Former 1970s Druid Heights resident David Wills has confirmed that it most certainly was what he used. This is a vintage 1950’s edition that belonged to the author’s parents.
This would have been the map that Druid Heights visitor and for a time resident in ’69-’70 Gary Snyder used on his hikes there, and perhaps he laid it on the floor at the Marin-An shack just over the hill from Druid Heights to show Jack Kerouac where they would be going before they went on the hike immortalized by Kerouac in “The Dharma Bums”.
There have been some changes over the years but the principle trails are still there. If you hike out to Portrero Meadows (see the map closeup) you will be where Snyder and Kerouac camped in the late spring of ’56 (note: camping on Tamalpais is only allowed in official campgrounds these days and Portrero Meadows isn’t one of those).
The Dharma Bums even describes what they ate the next day for lunch near Stinson Beach, so you could load up on “salami and Ry-Krisp and cheese……and wine”, the latter almost certainly cheap and red, before hitting the trail. The Mill Valley Market still stands at the foot of Tamalpais as it did in the ’50s and you should be able to get what you need there, though they might not have the low grade red……
IT WOULDN’T BE CALLED DRUID HEIGHTS IF ELSA GIDLOW HAD NOT KNOWN ELLA YOUNG
Poet, Irish revolutionary, author of fiction, mythologist, mystic and University of California Berkeley professor Ella Young’s(1867-1956) interest in the Druids, the priests of the British Isles during their Celtic period, was the catalyst for the “Druid” in Druid Heights. Ella and Elsa had first met at the 80th birthday party of poet Charles Erskine Scott Wood in 1932 at his estate, “The Cats”, in Los Gatos, CA.
In her autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs, Elsa Gidlow says of Ella Young:
“My long friendship with Ella I regard as one of life’s enduring benedictions. There are many who are ready enough to share complaints of their struggles for survival; few who will or can present visions of why survival is worthy of effort. I had had intimations of such visions from my own inwardness, reflections of them from poetry. Few people, however, confirmed my sense of life as a heroic adventure calling for qualities of fierce strength, and noble endurance, gentleness toward the weak, and passionate reverence for beauty, in particular the beauty of the living earth-until I met Ella Young”.
The best source of information about her I have found is the Wikipedia entry. She lead quite a life and a good part of it was spent in California. She died not long after Elsa moved to her new home west of Mill Valley, CA in 1954 and by then Young was living in Oceano, San Luis Obispo county, CA. There is no evidence that she ever came to Druid Heights, but she certainly had an influence on it.
While there was a very poor version of this photo, with the caption “Elsa Gidlow 1959” on page 385 of Druid Heights’ Elsa Gidlow’s autobiography ELSA: I COME WITH MY SONGS the original was not in her files that are now housed at the GLBT Historical Society Archive in San Francisco and no other copies were known to exist.
Until now. The group Save Druid Heights was contacted by a friend of former Druid Heights resident Margo St. James, Don Sobjack, who is organizing Margo’s papers following her move into a residence for those with Alzheimer’s. He said that she had photos that were likely taken at Druid Heights, and he sent thumbnails of those photos to group co-founder Michael Toivonen. Michael confirmed that they were indeed taken at Druid Heights. Don soon sent us those photos, which are a very valuable addition to the documentation of the history of Druid Heights.
They included this 8×10 inch print of of Elsa Gidlow seated in the shoji room in The Twin Peaks House at Druid Heights. Unlike the poor reproduction seen in the book, this copy reveals many details of the room’s decor and construction, details of Gidlow’s apparel and hints at but leaves us still guessing at what book she was holding in her lap as shafts of the setting sun’s rays illuminate her and the room.
What you see here is a photo of the image taken just after it arrived by mail. It had evidently not been previously stored flat. We plan to get professional reproductions of this photo to give to appropriate archives. For the time being the original will stay in the collection of Save Druid Heights with the hope that it can eventually be placed in a new archive at the Druid Heights Historic site.
Below are what the author considers the “take-away” paragraphs of his medium.com story with the above title. You can access the full version of this story at: https://medium.com/@savedruidheights/druid-heights-an-early-counter-cultural-mecca-in-a-national-park-sliding-towards-oblivion-c806803695c2
“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.”
TIME TO REMIND: TWO NATIONAL PARK SERVICE TALKS IN MILL VALLEY, CA NEXT WEEK RELATED TO DRUID HEIGHTS
—MONDAY THE 2ND: GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA SUPERINTENDENT LAURA JOSS AND OTHER NPS PERSONNEL TO GIVE AN UPDATE ON THE MUIR WOODS UNIT (DRUID HEIGHTS IS INSIDE THE MUIR WOODS UNIT BOUNDARY)
—WEDNESDAY THE 5TH: GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA HISTORIAN KRISTIN BARON AND OTHER NPS PERSONNEL TO DISCUSS DRUID HEIGHTS HISTORY AND CHALLENGES
I plan to attend both and I know at least one other group member who is planning to come on Monday night: Gerd Stern
—Monday 12/3 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm at Old Mill Elementary School, 352 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941, USA there will be a meeting to discuss many aspects of the Muir Woods unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). Druid Heights is part of that administrative unit. The main speaker will be Laura Joss, Superintendent of the entire GGNRA. One of the main topics will be the parking and traffic situation. I know that some local residents fear that preservation of Druid Heights could cause an increase in traffic. Given the newly instituted restrictions on visitation to the area by restricting parking that would seem to have been dealt with. This meeting should add further clarity.
—Wednesday 12/5 from 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM in the Mill Valley Public Library – Creekside Room, 375 Throckmorton Ave, Mill Valley, California. To assure your getting a seat you need to register for this event. In my experience with past events if it fills up there may be seat available because of no-shows. There were still seats available as of Saturday 12/1 at 11am. Here is the link to use to register:
From the description :
Kristin Baron tells the history of Druid Heights, a secluded artist community in the Marin Headlands near Muir Woods. From the 1950s through to the late 1970s, this hidden enclave fostered creative and innovative architecture, art, poetry, philosophy and music. She will share some of GGNRA’s efforts toward protecting this fragile site as well as highlighting the challenges of interpreting a non-traditional resource.
UPDATE: THE GERD STERN 90TH EVENT AT THE BEAT MUSEUM IN SAN FRANCISCO THIS SUNDAY THE 2ND AT 7 PM WILL INCLUDE GERD AND I DISCUSSING HIS DRUID HEIGHTS DAYS.
When I was at the Beat Museum a couple of weeks ago museum director and our group member Jerry Cimino asked me if I would be interested in joining the discussion with Gerd on 12/2 at 7pm.
In an email yesterday Gerd wrote “If you will be at The Beat Museum on Sunday the 2nd I could mention that you were with us (on the May 24th visit to Druid heights) and we could talk about Druid Heights?”.
I will most definitely be there. And if you want to see one of the last of the Beat Generation who was at many of the major events, who built an important work of art in Roger Somers’ shop and with Roger’s help at Druid Heights and was a good friend of Roger’s this is a rare opportunity. I will guess that there will be an opportunity for you to ask questions.
Besides those of you who like me weren’t there “back in the day”, I will say, without naming them, I have good reason to believe that there are people who either are members of or follow this group who live in the SF Bay area and were at Druid Heights in the early ’60s when Gerd was. It would be great to see and meet you at this event!
Below, Gerd Stern on the left and Jerry Cimino on the right, The Beat Museum, December 27, 2014, Taken from this Youtube video: