Laura’s Cabin

David Briggs
SEASHORE: A storied A-frame tucked beneath Bishop pines on Mount Vision and once part of the movie set for an Elizabeth Taylor flick, led writer Mary Olsen on a journey of discovery. Nearby the house lies a tiny cob structure built by longtime resident Melinda Leithold.  
06/02/2016

When I first moved to Inverness three years ago, I was intent on hiking all the nearby trails, hoping to unlock the secrets of this mysterious place. When I came upon an inviting dirt road or a driveway, I walked boldly on, my fearless dog Molly by my side. One day, I happened upon two abandoned dwellings so interesting that I could hardly contain my joy.  

The first was a hobbit house, built of cob. It was maybe 12 or 15 feet in diameter, with a small door off to one side and many windows, some round and others reclaimed from some old house. Inside was a tiny fireplace and some abalone shell niches; the whole place was whimsical and wonderful. There was no roof on the little building, although clearly there had been at one time. Whole logs crossed overhead. 

Cob is just clay and straw, not known for withstanding the copious amounts of rain we are blessed with here, but obviously this house has withstood. As one enamored of both hobbits and cob, I found it exquisitely beautiful. My first thought was to find a passel of children and hold a teddy bear tea party.

After I’d had my fill of whimsy, I trundled on, never expecting another surprise. But there it was: a very old, wood-shingled A-frame on stilts, clinging to the hillside. I walked up to the front door and peeked in, feeling just like Goldilocks and hoping to see three bowls of steaming porridge awaiting the bears’ return.  

There was a sweet little kitchen with a butcher block counter, a fridge with magnets holding a shopping list and phone numbers, a wood stove with a rocking chair beside it, a 1960s turntable and some old records. Huge paned windows looked out toward Tomales Bay through the treetops and in a loft upstairs I could see a child’s bed surrounded by old games and toys. Clearly someone had lived here at some point, but there was enough dust to make me suspect no one had been there for a very long time.

Over time, I asked my friends and neighbors if they knew anything about this magical place. No one ever did. Until one day, a friend was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking tea. We were discussing building a cob pizza oven for the community garden and she slowly revealed her cob building experience. Here was my hobbit house architect!

The story unfolds

The architect was spritely Melinda Leithold, a longtime resident of Seahaven, a well-known herbalist and gardener, an outspoken political activist and a volunteer. And architect.  Melinda lived in the A-frame, then a rental, for 15 years. During that time, she built the cob building as a guest room and meditation place.

She had come to know about the A-frame from her previous life in Berkeley. Friends of hers purchased the house from a Hollywood backlot where it lay  disassembled. It had been part of the set for “The Sandpiper,” starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor circa 1965, in Big Sur. Elizabeth Taylor was 33 at the time and exquisitely beautiful; Richard Burton wasn’t bad either. In the movie, the house is the home of Laura Reynolds, a rebellious free spirit with a young son. She is a feminist, an artist and an atheist. She is surreptitiously homeschooling her young son (played by James Mason’s son Morgan). The young boy comes into contact with authorities after he shoots a deer, and the juvenile judge has him sent to a posh private boarding school in Monterey. Taylor has dealings with the headmaster (Burton), a married Episcopal minister, and of course they fall in love. I’m not telling any more—get the movie. (I tried unsuccessfully to find it at video rental stores and finally ended up buying it online, but anyone with Netflix can rent it there.) 

I watched the movie twice, once for pure enjoyment and the second time with my finger on the pause button so I could stop the action and savor the interior scenes of the wonderful cabin, so quintessentially ‘60s. Indian cotton bedspreads for curtains and chianti bottles holding candles, driftwood and animal skulls, seashells and dried flowers everywhere.  Fantastic views of the beach and ocean from the many windows. And an enormous wood stove, the perfect backdrop for a tender love scene on the rug. The old rug love-scene thing.

Melinda’s Berkeley friends (unidentified for privacy) bought the house in pieces from storage on the Hollywood backlot and had it trucked to a lot they owned on the Inverness Ridge. They rebuilt it on stilts on a very steep lot, nestled close to a bit of flat land. It was reassembled as a simple A-frame, though in the movie it is a marvelously caddywumpus, much larger structure with a crazy roof.

The owners lived there at times but, eventually, they rented the place to Melinda. She lived there happily, enjoying the isolation and serenity and working on her cob structure when the spirit moved her.

I’ve often visited my marvelous place in the woods. Once, a few months after Christmas, I was showing some friends my secret treasure. We peeked in the windows and there was a Christmas tree, lovingly decorated, with some unopened presents beneath it. I imagined some beloved family member was away at Christmastime and other family members had decided to celebrate upon his return. Such a poignant vignette. I kicked myself for not being an artist whose watercolors could capture the exquisite tenderness of the scene, or at least for not carrying a camera.

Enter the park service

The National Park Service became the stewards of the land in the 1970s and the rest is history.  Just recently, the previous owners cleared the place out completely—taking everything but the heavy wood stove. The park service slapped up some warning signs to frighten off nosey trespassers like me. Laura’s Cabin looks sad and abandoned now as it awaits its fate.

Perhaps the park will knock it down, or perhaps they’ll just let the wind and rain take care of it. Perhaps, eventually, it will sit on the forest floor, the lichen and the saprophytes doing their job, returning her timbers to the duff. Goodbye, sweet friend.

Sequel

I wrote this story five years ago. About three years ago, I received a long email from a gentleman thanking me for writing it and telling me about spending some wonderful days as a teenager watching the filming of “The Sandpiper” and having lunches with the cast and crew on the beach, just across from his home at the time. The writer was William Randolph Hearst III; his home, Hearst Castle. After reading my story, he said he spent one of the loveliest days of his life hiking to the cabin and later enjoying a plate of oysters at Drakes Bay Oyster Company. He asked me to fill him in on developments in the oyster war, and later sent them a
donation.

Another woman, a great fan of the movie, wrote to me from Southern California wanting to explore the possibility of moving the cabin to some land she owned. As recently as last week, a woman wrote to me from Australia; she is coming to California in June just to see the cabin.

I visited it recently. A tree has fallen across the deck, the property is bristling with no-trespassing signs. It’s a sad end to a beautiful little cabin with a history as sparkly as one of Liz’s diamonds.

 

Mary McAndrew Olsen lives in Inverness. When she’s not trespassing or walking her dog in forbidden places, she enjoys feeding ravenous friends, sorting the laundry and annoying people at the Farmers Market. You can contact her at marymalarkey@sbcglobal.net with questions or comments, or phone her at (415) 669.9872. Stories or information about Laura’s Cabin would be especially appreciated, and stay tuned for a fundraiser showing of “The Sandpiper” once the details are worked out.