ONE MAN’S CASTLE

An icon to life outside the box—way outside the box—Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria provides a striking counterpoint to nearby Hearst Castle.

 

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By Kathy Chin Leong
Photos by Gary and Pierre Silva

 

In 1919, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst transformed a 250,000-acre dude ranch in San Simeon, California into a little vacation hideaway now known as Hearst Castle. These days, the 61-bedroom compound of mansions and guest houses is the must-see tourist attraction of the Central Coast, luring visitors from far stretches of the globe. Yet, less than 15 minutes away, in the quaint art colony of Cambria, sits another castle: a 2.5-acre recycled junk menagerie known as Nitt Witt Ridge. Think of it as Hearst Castle’s ugly duckling cousin. Or a beautiful swan, depending on your point of view.

Miraculously bonded with cement, flour, and baking soda, the hillside abode is made completely of driftwood, abalone shells, electrical wires, and whatever trash or treasures collector Art Beal—the eccentric, white-bearded founder—discovered in his garbage heap or on the beach years ago. Beal is long gone, but his icon to folk art lives on, thanks to current owner Michael O’Malley, who purchased the abandoned property in 1999 and gives tours to curious visitors. There is no website for Nitt Witt Ridge, but people from around the world find out about it anyway, mostly by word of mouth. Friends bring their friends, says O’Malley: “Sometimes I even get whole tour buses. It gets crowded, but everyone has a
good time.”

From the street, Nitt Witt Ridge—official California Historical Landmark No. 939—looks like a condemned property. Against the steep hillside, the naked structure unabashedly exposes layers of bare wood, rafters, and chunks of cement. There are no obvious paint colors, but lots of steps and arches buttressed with rainbow-tinged abalone shells. A life-sized fake deer with huge antlers and bulging eyes peers out onto the street, looking perpetually shocked. “There is a feeling in there really,” says O’Malley, “a feeling that is childlike and nice.”

Nitt Witt Ridge takes some time to find, as it is on a residential slope above Main Street. There are no ticket booths. No parking lots. No gift shops. Tourists park across the street from the house off a narrow dirt road.  A rusty chain hooked across two wooden posts guards the entrance. This is where visitors wait for the tour.

And the 45-minute tour is, well, unforgettable. Mike O’Malley, who came up from Los Angeles in 1999, is a character himself. Wearing a beatnik cap, sporting long mahogany tresses and a T-shirt that reads NIT WIT RIDGE, O’Malley greets waiting guests as he ambles down the steps from  the old structure. “When I saw it was up for sale for $42,000, I knew we had to buy it,” he says.
According to O’Malley, the property was abandoned ever since 1989 when the state sent the elderly Beal to a rest home after he allegedly threw a peanut butter jar at his caretaker. “His last wish was that he would be buried here and become food for the turkey vultures, and his ashes are on the premises, so I guess he’s still here.”

A friendly, no-nonsense chap with a mellow voice, O’Malley leads visitors up winding staircases embedded with Busch beer cans lined up meticulously like little soldiers, through cement archways stuffed with kitschy five-and-dime ceramic squirrels. He enjoys unraveling the story of  Art Beal, a crazy, moody fellow who lived in the house for over 50 years and would shake his fist when people drove buy and yet offer to take college students or nice-looking women on tours in exchange for a six-pack of beer. Wearing his signature baby blue bathrobe and who knows what else, the white-haired and white bearded Beal was also called Der Tinkerpaw, “because he tinkered with his paws,” says O’Malley.

“I’ve had people come up here who tell me they met him before, and I collect more stories,” he says. Tourists say they like it because “things in this place remind them of their past, or things their grandparents used to have.” Yep. Things such as discarded beer can pull tabs or the Blue Chip stamp book in the kitchen are heirlooms of the past, O’Malley acknowledges. “My grandparents were people like Art. Today, those older people are just fading away.”

Beal loved to take whatever he could and transform it into art. As legend goes, he died a bachelor in 1992 at the age of 96 in a rest home near Cambria. He had wanted to stay at Nitt Witt Ridge until he died, but authorities forced him to leave the tinderbox, which was just waiting to go up in flames. According to O’Malley, the old man ran heat and electricity, but there was always a gas leak or two and exposed electrical wires throughout the house. Surprisingly, it never had a fire.

To give visitors a sense of who Beal was, O’Malley sits them down in the home theater. It is actually the dining room, a cement slab floor with rows of folding chairs and two small TV/VCRs mounted on the walls. He puts on a videotape, and tourists see the feisty Beal on film. During the four-minute show, spectators learn Beal loved poetry and wrote a book of poems that is now housed at the Cambria Library. He would often wander into downtown Cambria wearing nothing but his blue bathrobe. He took a shower maybe once a year. At the same time, he was fastidious about cooking.

Food in his old kitchen still remains on display, yet there is no stench from the cooking oil and jarred peaches, and the decades worth of rusted canned food has not exploded. “He was very proud of his zipper collection in the kitchen,” says O’Malley. “People really like seeing that.”

On this journey through Beal’s life, there is much to see. In the makeshift patio stands a bird bath pieced with tires and car rims. Another piece of junk art is called the lighthouse, stacked with pottery saucers and a washing machine rotator at the top. According to O’Malley, many visitors chuckle at the sight of the toilet seat frame hung on the entrance wall. Beal loved old movie stars, so he would put their photos right in the center of the seat.

When he was finally done putting together his dream house, Beal had single-handedly completed a kitchen, dining room, an outdoor bathroom with two toilets facing each other (for conversation), a bedroom, and another smaller house in the back with a bedroom, bathroom, and small kitchenette.

Beal is said to have liked animals more than people, and statuaries of small rodents and fossils are strewn about the property, stuck haphazardly or purposely onto arches and steps with cement or baking soda and flour.

Unlike Hearst Castle, where visitors are not allowed to use flash from their cameras either inside or out, at Nitt Witt one can use flash photography anywhere. And on the Hearst tour, visitors are warned not to step on the expensive carpets but to stay on the runners. At Nitt Witt, O’Malley isn’t fussy about tourists tromping on the splintered wood and cement flooring. He does tell them to be careful not to slip over any of the rocks or loose beer cans or chipped ceramic figures.

While Nitt Witt is registered as a California historical landmark, it receives no funding from the state. In fact, O’Malley admits that the venture hasn’t yielded a profit yet, and says he is continuing his plumbing work because he and his wife and family “barely get by.” Yet he is still passionately committed to keeping Beal’s legacy alive. “I never met him, but I feel connected to him somehow. I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t believe in him and what he stood for. To me he feels like a universal grandfather, and when he was alive no one was fighting for him. He represented the people of the Depression, people who had to do with what little they had.”

At the end of the Nitt Witt tour, visitors will either leave shaking their heads or wanting more info. Says a teenage boy who completed the tour, “I liked it more than Hearst Castle. It wasn’t commercial. It was cool.”

VISIT
Nitt Witt Ridge
$10 per adult, $5 for children
881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria
Call 805.927.2690 for reservations

STAY
The Morgan in San Simeon offers ocean views and proximity to the Central Coast’s finest attractions. The breathtaking coast here is ideal for sunsets and mellow strolls. Nitt Witt Ridge is an easy 15-minute drive away, and Hearst Castle is even closer. Hotel-Morgan.com.