On a scenic stretch of San Luis Obispo's North Coast stand two landmarks linked to two legendary men. One is Hearst Castle, the opulent mansion of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. The other, located approximately eight miles to the south in the pine-covered hills of Cambria, is Nitt Witt Ridge.
One of 10 sites registered as California Historical Landmarks under the designation "Twentieth Century Folk Art Environments," Nitt Witt Ridge is the former home of Arthur Harold Beal, also known as "Art," "Captain Nitt Witt" and "Der Tinkerpaw" -- because, he explained, "I like to tinker with my paws." Considered a cantankerous crackpot by some and a courageous, creative free spirit by others, Beal spent more than 50 years transforming the Hillcrest Drive homestead into a wild, whimsical folk art environment unlike anything seen on the Central Coast before.
According to Jo Farb Hernandez, the director of SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), Nitt Witt Ridge belongs a vast network that includes Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, Salvation Mountain in Niland and Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
"It has been recognized for decades as one of the premiere sites" in Southern California, said Hernandez, whose nonprofit organization, based in Aptos, seeks to document and advocate for "folk" or "outsider" art environments throughout the world.
"There's a human urge to create and to adorn your space in some way," she said. "Of course, somebody may not think that adornment is so fabulous ..."
Artist Peter Fels, who befriended Beal in the mid-1960s, praised him as a self-made man who took a "waggish, Picasso-esque approach" to his art.
"He dealt with society on his own terms," said Fels, who lives with his wife, artist Phoebe Palmer, near Ragged Point just north of the Monterey County border. "He chose what I interpreted as the role of the fool to say whatever he pleased, which he did loudly, frequently and right in everybody's face."
Born in Oakland in 1892, Beal spent the first few years of his life with his mother, a Klamath Indian who died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. As an adult, he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, worked as a sous chef, waiter and mercury miner, and competed as a long-distance swimmer against "Tarzan" movie star Johnny Weissmuller.
According to Fels, Beal landed in the "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" record books twice -- once for balancing 170-some plates on a chafing dish, the other time for floating a canoe made of cigar boxes across San Francisco Bay.
Beal moved from the Bay Area to Cambria in 1928 with a woman named Gloria, by most accounts his wife, and started construction on the two-and-a-half acre lot he had purchased for $100, Fels said. (Visitors to the property can see the slumping remains of the two-story wooden building they originally called home.) When Gloria split - "She left him and absolutely broke his heart," Fels said - work on Nitt Witt Ridge started in earnest.
From the 1930s until his death in 1992 at age 96, Beal poured his soul into shaping the 250-foot-high ridge. He did all of the work himself, primarily using "idiot sticks" -- hand tools such as picks and shovels.
"He was something of a carpenter, a fair-to-middling cement guy and a pretty good mechanic," said Fels, adding that Beal made money doing "the jobs nobody would do" such as digging up clogged sewer lines, laying foundations and tending fallen trees. He also did a brisk business hauling sand from the beach to construction sites, resisting the city's many attempts to license him.
According to Hernandez, professor and director of exhibitions and special projects for the School of Art and Design at San Jose State University, Beal, an avid poet and nature lover, shared certain characteristics with other folk environment artists.
Art environments are "works that are generally created by self-taught artists that don't have (formal) training in art or architecture or engineering," Hernandez explained, although that those highly creative "creator-builders" often have plenty of time and energy. In addition, they tend to use cheap, readily available building materials -- whether that means stone, straw or strapped-down saplings -- to express themselves.
Beal, who worked as the town garbageman for 30 years, salvaged most of his materials from his immediate environment. He stacked tire rims into reinforced pillars, transformed toilet seats into picture frames and decorated his handiwork with abalone shells, glass bottles and pastel-colored ceramic figurines.
Nearly every aspect of his four-story house had a purpose -- from the network of metal-pipe handrails that carried water to his orchard and vegetable garden, to the stairway, dubbed the "California cooler," that kept food at a comfortable 50 degrees. Beal even ensconced Busch beer cans in concrete, claiming that the sound of the wind whistling through the openings kept away pests.
"When he was building the place...he'd take a 'coffee break' every 15 minutes, which Art described as a coffee cup filled with a Busch beer," explained Michael O'Malley, the property's co-owner since 1999. "He called beer cans 'building materials.'"
Beal took a idiosyncratic approach to interior decorating as well, using a secondhand child's dresser as kitchen drawers and converting a RCA radio cabinet into a bookcase. In lieu of wallpaper, he plastered one hallway with cartoons, magazine pages and pin-up photos.
Contrary to appearances, "He did have a vision," Fels said, "and he accommodated for it structurally from the bottom up."
Cambria resident Elizabeth Appel, who met Beal in the 1980s, described Nitt Witt Ridge as an untamed "oasis in the middle of town." "It was built with huge effort and great consciousness of using nontraditional materials," she said, "The inventiveness, the ingenuousness ... it was really intriguing."
Unfortunately, health problems and financial troubles slowed Beal's progress later in life. In the early 1970s, his friends - including Morro Bay author Vicki Leon and San Luis Obispo painting contractor Steve Rebuck - formed the Art Beal Foundation to help protect his assets, pay off his debts and promote the artist and his art, said Appel, who served as foundation president for at least two years.
Although the organization was able to raise funds for a new roof and an onsite caretaker, Appel said it ultimately suffered from "too little money, too little support (and) lots of broken promises .... People were really enthusiastic, but the follow up was difficult."
By the time Michael O'Malley and his wife, Stacey, purchased the property from the Art Beal Foundation for $42,000, Nitt Witt Ridge had once again lapsed into disrepair.
Although O'Malley and his relatives have made some repairs, he said he, too, is limited by a lack of money and county codes that forbid him from selling T-shirts and other memorabilia. (He offers tours on a donations-only basis.)
To date, neither the county nor the city have shown much interest in Nitt Witt Ridge's upkeep, Appel said, adding that she once approached the Cambria Historical Society with the idea of doing a retrospective on Beal but never heard back. (Although Nitt Witt Ridge joined the California Historical Landmarks registery in 1986, the designation doesn't require the state to maintain it, Hernandez said. )
"It's a mystery to me," O'Malley said regarding the lack of community interest. "They didn't have it fixed up and looking all nice. They just thought it was an eyesore, even when Art was here and taking care of it."
Maybe those recalcitrant townspeople should take one of O'Malley's tours. "(People) go through a transformation up here," he said. "They go "I don't know about this place" and then when they're done ...I get a lot of people (saying) 'Hey, this was better than Hearst Castle.'"