Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tor House & Garden, Carmel

The main event of my three day visit to Monterey with my mother in June was to visit the Tor House on the Carmel peninsula. To prepare for our trip I had reviewed the list of potential HALS sites our chapter members had assembled, and the brief description of the Tor site sounded intriguing. When my mother confirmed that she had never been there, which is unusual because she takes lots of trips to visit places throughout the state, that became our premier destination.

One thing to know about the California coastline is that it is frequently inundated with fog. When I called to make our reservations they reminded me to dress warmly. Well, I think we must have picked the best day of the year to visit Tor House because it was absolutely spectacular. The view from the top of Hawk Tower was stunning.

A little history: The property was owned and built by Robinson Jeffers who lived on the property with his wife Una. According to Wikipedia, “Jeffers was an American poet, known for his work about the central California coast. Most of Jeffers' poetry was written in classic narrative and epic form, but today he is also known for his short verse, and considered an icon of the environmental movement.” After they married in 1913 the Jeffers had planned to move to England but the outbreak of WWI prevented them from doing so. A friend suggested they spend time in Carmel where they rented a small, wooden cottage in town in 1914. They took long walks out to the beach and found themselves attracted to the small knoll with the tor stones and expansive view of the ocean and Point Lobos beyond.

They purchased the property and hired M.J. Murphy contractor to build their home. Jeffers hired himself out as a laborer to the mason, which is how he learned the trade. They moved in to Tor House in 1919 when their twin sons Garth and Donnan were three years old.

Originally the property encompassed 16 lots on Carmel Point. A stone wall defines a courtyard space that also connects the Tor House, Hawk Tower, the dining room, and the rumpus room/office. The original wall, built by Robinson Jeffers, was about 30” high on all sides with columns at the gates. Jeffers placed Native American stone mortars on top of these columns and at the corner of the wall on the ocean side. The wall height on the ocean side was raised to approximately 6 feet, by one of the Jeffers twin sons, in order to provide more privacy. Brick paths between the buildings and a colorful, perennial garden have been added. Jeffers built a stone path between the Tor House and Hawk Tower that remains.

The stone used and the style of construction is the same as what was used to construct the buildings and structures in the compound. It is a rough Santa Lucia granite. It is clear where the son raised the height of the wall on the ocean side of the compound because he used smaller stones – there is a distinct change in texture in the wall here. There is one simple wooden picket gate in the wall that leads to a path on the ocean side of Tor House. This was known as the “sea gate” and the other gate, on the opposite side of the courtyard was the “moor gate”.

Just inside the gate, in the garden at the southwest corner of the compound there is a stone pedestal set on a stone foundation, with a sundial on it. This was Robinson Jeffers first solo effort of masonry construction.

The entire complex of buildings and garden is strongly tied to the landscape. Robinson and Una Jeffers chose to build their home at this site because it was located on a small knoll with a circle of stones known as a Tor. They instructed their contractor to anchor their new home to one of the Tor stones and they designed the home with a window that looks out towards the ocean with the tor stone in the foreground. Another element of the landscape is a stone bench, made from a single slab of granite that is integrated into the Tor stone and house.

In addition to his passion for poetry and masonry Robinson Jeffers planted some 2000 trees on and around his property – Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus globules. Some of these remain today lining Ocean Avenue, and in the neighborhood that has developed. Other plantings on the property appear to be modern additions though there has been an attempt to maintain the character of the original landscape on the downhill parcel where wildflowers and oat grass grow. The oat grass is a remnant of the feed given to the pony that pulled the stone up from the beach. Una Jeffers recorded 45 species of wildflowers found at the site. There is also a yew tree (Taxus baccata) within the courtyard that could date to the Jeffers.

The docent who led our two-hour tour had been a long time volunteer at the site. He knew a tremendous amount about the Jeffers, the site, their home and all of the many treasures on display – many gifts from artistic friends and colleagues. Tor House was definitely the highlight of a wonderful mini-vacation and HALS adventure.


  1. I follow your blog for a long time and must tell you that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers. Keep it up.

  2. Monica,

    Nice to hear from you and get some feedback on my blog. It is good to know that you are enjoying learning more about some of our state's historic landscapes. Keep reading and tell your colleagues.