Historic bluffside home to 
become park property

David Briggs
An old Navy barracks and Coast Guard lookout built on a former piece of the Mendoza family ranch is being handed over to the National Park Service after the death of the longtime lease holders.
06/19/2014

The Point Reyes National Seashore is on the cusp of taking possession of a historic residence sitting on sandstone cliffs overlooking South Beach, between B and C Ranches, after the couple who held the Reservation of Use and Occupancy died last fall and their children decided to give up the remainder, according to the seashore. 

Although the structures, many almost a century old, carry rich histories, their precarious position puts their future at risk.

The park is awaiting final paperwork from the family, but the transfer of the three and a half acres is imminent, seashore spokesperson John Dell’Osso said.

Ben Davis Sr., a contractor, and his wife, Pat Davis, lived in the home for about 50 years, though in their last few years they stayed part-time in San Rafael. (They died within two days of each other last year.) Mr. Davis was from the city and earned a degree in geography from San Francisco State; he moved to Inverness with his new wife in 1962. 

“They loved living next to the ocean. They had it 24 hours a day and they didn’t get tired of it,” said friend Richard Plant. 

Mr. Davis was a regular beachcomber, collecting a number of Japanese buoys and occasionally helping out those who shipwrecked. Although he was not an avid fisherman, he sometimes went poke-poling to catch eel and cabezon.

Today the main residence’s sea-green paint is faded and cracked, its windows cloudy with saltspray. Old and weathered signs hang on various structures, announcing “Oyster Bed,” “By appointment only,” “Keep Out or Face Arrest.”

The first buildings were constructed in 1920, when the Navy leased the land from the Mendozas, who ran (and still run) a dairy on B Ranch. The Navy built a radio direction finder station and barracks on the parcel. It was one of three finder stations—the others on Half Moon Bay and the Farallon Islands—that allowed Navy men to triangulate signals, monitor ships and catch distress calls from sea, according to historian Dewey Livingston’s “History and Architecture of the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station” and Jack Mason’s “Life and Death on the Great Beach.” 

(At the time, the technology was so new that some captains apparently ignored the men who warned ships lost in the fog that they were about to crash into the beach.) 

The Coast Guard took over the facility in 1941, and at least seven men were stationed there during World War II. The land and the various buildings returned to the Mendozas after the war; they soon sold it as a vacation home to two men, who then sold it in 1962 to Ben Davis, Sr., who raised his family there. 

Mr. Davis sold the land to the seashore in 1977 and took a 50-year Reservation of Use and Occupancy—the maximum number of years allowed. 

“Ben wanted to live there forever,” Mr. Livingston said.

Mr. Livingston, who undertook a history of former nearby life-saving station as a park employee, said the parcel could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. “But the problem still is, it’s threatened in a way that it’s hard for anyone to do anything about it,” he added.

About 40 years ago, the home was about 150 feet from the edge of the cliff, according to Mr. Plant. Today, it’s separated from the precipice by about 10 or so feet of iceplant (assiduously planted by a captain back in the 1920s to stabilize the sand).

Mr. Dell’Osso said the bluff could become unstable in just a few years, given the rate of erosion. At some point, although he was unsure when, either the seashore or the regional park office will conduct a historical evaluation of the place, and the State Office of Historic Preservation will make the ultimate determination of its significance.