Big Sur Homestead Revisited

In 1967 I built a house in Big Sur. It was a rudimentary homestead. I tapped into a spring 600 feet up the mountain for water and cleared and terraced an acre or so of the hillside for farming. The house was built out of large (double-track) railroad ties for posts and recycled 30′ long fir 2 x 14’s (from Cleveland Wreckers)for beams and floor girders. The roof deck and the floor were 2×8″ local tongue-and-groove Monterey Pine; the wall sheathing was lumber from a farm labor camp I tore down in Salinas. I made the wall shakes from a deadfall redwood I found in a nearby canyon. Used windows from chicken coops. It was what would now be called “green building.” It took me about a year to build the house. Within 2 years, I left Big Sur for a variety of reasons, and had only been back down there a few times in the ensuing 40 years.

The Big Sur Historical Society invited me down to do a talk on building the house and so last week I went found myself in the deja vu zone. The weather was great and as I rounded a bend just south of Carmel and saw the first massive hills of Big Sur I got a jolt in the solar plexus: I fall in love with places and Big Sur was one of my great loves.

The beautiful Bixby bridge, built in 1931

Japanese girls at the bridge

I first went to Big Sur to build a large house on a ranch in 1966 (before building my own place), and I went back to look at this place:

The house was built from redwood bridge timbers and pretty complex in the foundation and framing work. It took 3 of us almost a year to get it framed.

This wonderful pool has been in the canyon below my house for some 50 years. There’s no chlorine, it’s kept fresh by constantly-flowing creek water. Each night after I’d finish working on my house I’d go down there, bow to the redwoods and then the 4 corners, and dive in. On this trip I went swimming in it 4 times. Wonderful with no chlorine.

My house is now owned by Barbara Spring, a well-known sculptor. Barbara, 90 years old and still sculpting her figures (with an electric chain saw), loves the house. Click here to see some of Barbara’s sculptures

Her caretaker, Ehren Woyt, keeps the pool and grounds in beautiful condition.

In the 40 years since building the house, I’ve photographed countless skilled carpenters and builders, making me realize how crude was my workmanship here. But what took me by surprise was the soulfullness of the place, still intact, kept alive by Barbara and her family.

Table I built out of horse stable girders with two chunks of a bridge timber for legs, still in use.

Weathered railroad ties for framing

After going swimming and then dinner on Monday night, I sneaked into nearby Esalen Hot Springs to soak in the baths. It was pitch black and after getting into the grounds I had to rely on memory to make my way to the baths, going down dark paths and crossing creeks. avoiding Esalen officials. I made it and soaked in the magic waters, looking out at Scorpius rising, its long curved tail extending down to the horizon. Oh yeah!

The next day about 40 people showed up at the house and I told them about building it, and what was going on in the counterculture in those days. The next day I headed home, stopping to jump in the ocean in Carmel, then the 17th Avenue cove in Santa Cruz, then finally ducked under “my” waterfall on Mt. Tamalpais on the way over the mountain to home.

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

2 Responses to Big Sur Homestead Revisited

  1. Your blog is giving me serious nostalgia for the Central Coast… my grandparents lived in Monterey. I last visited them in 2001, but they're dead now so no excuse to visit anymore.

    Now I live in northern Spain, which is lovely in its own ways, but still, that nostalgia hook… sea otters in the kelp at Point Lobos, the smell of aromatic plants, riding Highway 1 on the last leg of my bike trip from Colorado…

    By the way, I've found your books on self-building very inspiring. You can see the results (photos of our cob and oak cabin) at http://www.lesspress.com.

    All the best, Robert

  2. super cool tale, have never been to the area but am going next wednesday
    my google search was: sneaking in to esalen and you were number 3!
    hope i can find this house. dang… magical
    best,
    sleeper

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