Tor House, now part of a Carmel neighborhood.
If you had to design a dream house on a spectacular bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you would probably start with some gargantuan west-facing windows. Lofty rooms, pale wood, skylights. And so, at first glance, the Carmel, Calif., dream home of poet Robinson Jeffers—a cramped stone cottage with low ceilings, minuscule windows, and heavy, somber furnishings—seems all wrong. Why block out that view? Why so small? So dark? Yet five minutes into a tour of Tor House, you find it hard to imagine a more magical dwelling.
In 1914, Jeffers and his wife, Una, settled in Carmel, drawn to the rugged coastline that reminded them of Great Britain. "It was evident that we had come, without knowing it," Jeffers later wrote, "to our inevitable place." That year they bought a large piece of land on a cliff at Carmel Point that encompassed a dramatic outcropping of rock—a tor in Scottish Gaelic. Una wanted a house modeled on a Tudor barn, so the couple hired a stonemason; Jeffers signed on as his apprentice, working until "my fingers had the art to make stone love stone."
Even when the original cottage was complete, Jeffers continued his stonework. Mornings he wrote his acclaimed poems, many of them celebrating the Central Coast landscape. (In those days, a poet could become a celebrity: Jeffers appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1932. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for Hungerfield and Other Poems.) Afternoons he hauled granite boulders up from the beach, erecting over the years a garage, a dining room, and for Una, Hawk Tower. In this extraordinary, 40-foot-tall Irish tower, two staircases—one inside, one outside—corkscrew up to a tiny, mahogany-paneled chamber where Una napped, entertained visitors, and displayed her treasures, among them an Edward Weston photograph of her husband.
Una died in 1950; Robinson in 1962. But Tor House has been preserved as it was when they lived there. Embedded in the mortar of the buildings and the sinuous garden paths are stone mementos from the Jefferses’ travels and gifts from friends: a piece of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, a Gaelic cross, an arrowhead from Michigan, pre-Columbian terra-cotta heads, tiles from Mission San Antonio (near King City, Calif.). Inscribed on the walls are sayings such as bien faire et laisser dire ("Do well and let them talk") painted over a closet door.
Though they entertained a string of distinguished guests at Tor House, from Ansel Adams to Charlie Chaplin, the Jefferses—for philosophical reasons— embraced a strenuously modest lifestyle. They relied for decades on driftwood for heating and candles for light, and their decor was sober and minimal. Now, as then, a few Oriental rugs cover the red-wood floors. A 1905 Steinway baby grand—their lone luxury—dominates a living room the size of a contemporary closet. The whole effect might have been claustrophobic. Instead, it is intensely cozy, like a Hobbit house or one of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit holes.
Inside Tor House, you are profoundly inside. And when you step out the door, the cold ocean air, the sound of crashing surf, and the dazzling views hit you with even greater intensity.
Photography by Caren Alpert
This article was first published in November 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Docent-led tours of Tor House are offered hourly on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.To reserve a place on a tour, call (831) 624-1813 or visit www.torhouse.org. Children under 12 are not allowed. 26304 Ocean View Ave., Carmel, Calif.