Robinson Jeffers Tor House
Sunday May 5, 2013
Original Kitchen Now the Library
Still in the main house built in 1919 I leave the living room and enter what used to be the original kitchen. It is now the library. The picture above shows this portion of the house (from the outside) to the left of the open doorway.
Back inside, the dining room addition (completed in 1930) can be seen through the white door.
Hundreds of the 2,000 books cataloged by the
including Robin’s unabridged dictionary.
Above the dictionary is a painting of Noel Sullivan a friend of the Jeffers who directed the choir at the Carmel Mission. It was Noel who accompanied Robin and Una on a cross country journey in 1941. Robin had accepted an invitation to speak at the Poet’s Congress in Washington D.C.
This acceptance resulted in Robin giving addresses at a number of college campuses as they drove their Ford across the country. It would be the only time Robin accepted an invitation to speak publicly as a lecturer.
Here, after a brief introduction to his life, you may listen to Robin Jeffers personally recite his poetry
at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, in 1941.
Still in the library notice the two unicorn figurines on the window sill, a reminder of Una’s influence,
and a picture on the back wall of Annie Jeffers, Robin’s mother.
The side door off this room filled with motto’s,
leads to the bathroom.
The motto at the top of the door
written in French states:
“Quick to Accomplish”
Four people, numerous house guests,
one indoor bathroom –
Una was not about to let anyone think
they could take their time in this room.
The Place for No Story
The coast hills at Sovranes Creek;
No trees, but dark scant pasture drawn thin
Over rock shaped like flame;
The old ocean at the land’s foot, the vast
Gray extension beyond the long white violence;
A herd of cows and the bull
Far distant, hardly apparent up the dark slope;
And the gray air haunted with hawks:
This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen. No imaginable
Human presence here could do anything
But dilute the lonely self-watchful passion. (1)
“The year 1930 saw the start of two new projects for Jeffers: the planning and building of a dining room for Tor House and the writing of a new narrative poem, Thurso’s Landing. The new room was to be added to the north of the kitchen with a door and large window facing seaward, another door into the courtyard, and a large window at the north end of the room. A stone fireplace was planned for the northeast corner, and the room’s dimensions were to be large enough to accommodate a long table, as well as one of Una’s melodeons and a Welsh dresser for the earthenware dishes. At the south end of the room would be a corner for her grandmother’s spinning wheel. Mornings Jeffers wrote on Thurso’s Landing and afternoons he carried and cemented rock upon rock for the new dining room.” (2)
The picture above was taken in 1920 (Garth and Donnan just toddlers) after Robin completed work on the garage. It is in the area between the main house and the garage, that the dining room would be built 10 years later.
Work on the dining room was completed in 1930, after the completion of Hawk Tower. Step down from the library into this large room with an open beamed ceiling,
and a ladder that leads to the gallery, an area used frequently by Garth and Donnan. By the tiny door to the gallery is a motto by Virgil, “Easy is the descent.” More motto’s can be seen on the Welsh dresser which holds Una’s Jug Town pottery.
Mr. Maddux a gravestone
cutter from Monterey,
did most of the wood
carvings in the dining room,
here a Unicorn and a Hawk,
and the chiseled inscriptions on various stones,
here the date of death of Thomas Hardy.
It was for Mr. Maddux that Robin wrote:
To the Stone Cutters
Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly;
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems. (3)
In one corner of the dining room is a large fireplace with a massive chimney. In order to support the weight of the chimney, Robin dug down four or five feet to make the foundation. With each shovel full of soil he brought up fragments of abalone shell. Abalone being a staple of the Ohlone diet was evidence to Robin and Una that their new kitchen lay on the very bedrock where the Ohlone Indians prepared and cooked their meals.
The walls of the dining room are quite different than the redwood lined walls of the main house. Here the thick stone walls remain exposed.
It was in these walls that “Una had great fun deciding on where to place the small stones, some of which she had brought home from her travels, and others given by friends. Robin and the twins then cemented them to the window-frames, into the fireplace, and in the flagstone entrances, as others had been cemented into various portions of the tower…With such embellishments the new room might have achieved the appearance of a fruit cake, but it is a warm, and pleasant room, and one is not uncomfortable in the company of those fragments of Ossian’s grave, and of the Egyptian pyramids.” (4)
In the picture above there is a “carved stone Aztec mask and just above it a small fragment of mosaic from the ancient Roman city of Timgad in North Africa. Above these again, the large oblong cut block of sandstone was once a surveyor’s mark on the highest of the hills just sough of the Carmel River. The motto “Carpent Poma Nepotes” (Let the Grand-children Gather the Apples) was carved by Maddox.”(5)
If you want to know more about any of the stones, trinkets or gifts placed lovingly around the Tor House property you will find it in The Stones of Tor House
by Donnan Jeffers available at in the Tor House Office. It is a tour all in itself!!!
Near the fireplace is a long cord attached to a bell probably used to call the family to supper. This bell came from the Carmel Mission before its restoration in 1933, led by Harry Downie.
Robin employed men from Castroville to hand make and lay the tiles for their dining room floor. Once the twins left for college, Una would encourage them to bring their friends home on the weekends. Square dancing was in fashion and Garth, Donnan and their friends would need to give little encouragement to their parents before the large oak table was pushed into the corner and a huge floor ready for dancing. The couples would dance for hours, until a pink dust from the soft tile drifted throughout the room. “To this Una began to object, and Robin said, “Very well, I shall build them a ballroom.” Such was the inception of what is now called the east wing.”(6)
The poem October Week-End was written about his sons after they had gone off to college.
It is autumn still, but at three in the morning
All the magnificent wonders of midwinter midnight, blue dog-star,
Orion, red Aldebaran, the ermine-fur Pleiades,
Parading above the gable of the house. Their music is their shining,
And the house beats like a heart with dance-music
Because our boys have grown to the age when girls are their music.
There is wind in the trees, and the gray ocean’sMusic on the rock. I am warming my blood with starlight,not with girls’ eyes,But really the night is quite mad with music.(7)
Today we find a fancy spread on the long dining table used by the Jeffers family. It is the 100th anniversary year of Robin and Una’s marriage.
Una has invited us to tea, pulling out all the stops she is using her personal silver tea service.
Opposite the fireplace is Una’s grandmothers spinning wheel.
Above the spinning wheel hang two rifles which were gifts from a friend. The longer rifle on top is a two man rifle. Just underneath the rifles is a Narwhal
tusk Una ordered from the Hudson Bay Company. She thought it would make a good walking stick but it turned out to be too cumbersome for her stature and it was hung on the wall instead. The Narwhal may have been the closest real live animal Una could get to her mythological Unicorn.
Another one of Una’s melodeon organs sits under the window in the dining room, this one a chaplain’s or missionary organ which was very lightweight, and easily transportable by missionaries in the field.
On top of the book case is a bust of Robin by American sculptor Jo Davidson.
Robin sat for this at Lincoln Steffens home in Carmel. The bust was commissioned for an exhibition in London where Robin was one of four writers honored.
Prior to his feature in Life, and after the writing of his eighth major work, Thurso’s Landing, Robin’s photograph, taken by Edwin Weston, graced the cover of Time Magazine April 4, 1932.
The East Wing and the “Annex”
The East Wing is not open during regular tours of Tor House. Today we may enter and listen to the soothing sounds of String Trio, local high school students, Jonathan Vu, Eric O’Hagan and Brynn Dally.
“On January 10,  he celebrated his fiftieth birthday, on which day he laid the first stones for an additional room on Tor House.” (8) “It wasn’t until 1957 – twenty years after the foundations had been laid – that the structure was complete, and it consisted of a very spacious and pleasant abode with the sitting room, office, and garage on the ground floor and three bedrooms and bath above, and the younger Jefferses, now with three children, moved in.” (9) I had the pleasure to meeting Donnan’s children Lindsey and Una in at the garden party. They each spoke of the joy they experienced growing up at Tor House and birthday parties in Hawk Tower.
1937 – 1957
During those twenty years much would happen in the Jeffers family that would keep the east wing from being completed. In the late 1930’s Robin and Una would travel to Ireland for four months, and Robin would publish The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. In 1941 the Jeffers traveled cross country so that Robin could participate in numerous speaking engagements for the Library of Congress. Later that year, Una had surgery for cancer for which she was told she was cured of in 1944. From 1942 – 1946 their son Garth was stationed in Germany. During this time the Jeffers became very involved with the war efforts at home leaving little time for building, leisure activities or their friends. Una would write, “…we have taken on a few more duties at Fort Ord and as I regard all that as my contribution to the war effort, it comes first…” (10)
Robin continued to write during this period, though the war dominated his writing during the 1940’s. Publishing Be Angry at the Sun in 1941; “but the full measure of the bitterness and disgust he felt was not apparent until The Double Axe (1948), a volume whose isolationism and biting acerbic criticism of world leaders were so offensive to the literary establishment that his publisher felt compelled to preface the book with a disclaimer.” (11)
Yet this decade would also bring Robin great public acclaim. In 1945 he completed Medea which would be adapted for live theater opening on Broadway in 1947 with Judith Anderson in the title role. “Night after night, the “Medea” played to a full house, continuing month after month, lauded by the theater’s most astute critics, publicized in every newspaper and magazine in the country, with a two-page spread in Life magazine. As Miss Anderson took the bows, she insisted that all publicity give Jeffers his share of the credit, and it was she who insisted that he receive a generous royalty.”(12)
In 1947 Donnan and Garth would both move to Tor House with their wives. Garth and his family stayed only until May of 1948 when he took a job in Oregon with the US Forest Service. Donnan and Lee would remain at Tor House and raise their children. Though building on the east wing had begun again – it was be interrupted in 1948 when Robin and Una decided to travel to Ireland.
During this trip, Robin would become quite ill with pleurisy, a condition that almost took his life. It was a number of months before he was strong enough to return to California.
Sadly in 1949, Una’s cancer returned. Lee nursed her mother-in-law during her illness and Robin slowly began again to work on the east wing. “By the time of Una’s death, in 1950, the walls of the new building were almost to the height of the second floor, and Robin almost ceased to work.”(13)
Finally in 1957 with Donnan doing much of the remaining work, the east wing was completed.
The Annex (or converted garage)
On the inside wall of the dining room there is a doorway which is closed during normal Tor House tours. Today it is open. This doorway leads to what was originally the garage built in 1920, but converted to a kitchen during the addition of the east wing.
“In 1955, the “annex” was nearing completion, and the old garage was successfully converted into a new kitchen, Lee Jeffers wrote: “We had a door jack-hammered through the wall from the dining room into the garage. The garage was extended into the court yard with a large bay window – [original rock arch visible inside] –
Then Donnan built a wonderful fireplace – and with much, much more work the result is a large and really most charming kitchen – the old kitchen has become the most minute Library to bear so grand a title – very cozy and sweet though, and we all love the changes – gives us so much more room…” (14)
When Donnan finished the east wing he moved Lee and the children into their new quarters. Lindsey however decided to stay in the attic apartment to be near his grandfather, Robin. When I spoke to Lindsey at the Garden Party, he spoke tenderly of this time as he recalled those years with his grandfather.
Inside Tor House
Part 1 Family Background
Part 2 Robinson Jeffers – The Early Years
Part 3 Robinson Jeffers Meets Una Call Kuster
Part 4 Robinson and Una
Robinson Jeffers Tor House Garden Party – Tor House Garden
Credits and Photos
Black and White photo taken 1920 after the garage was completed – Donnan Call Jeffers, The Building of Tor House (Ryan Ranch Printers, 2008), 19.
Black and White photo from Life Magazine, April 1, 1948, photo by Nat Farbman.
Color photographs taken May 5, 2013, L. A. Momboisse.
(1) Tim Hunt, ed., The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2001), 379.
(2) Melba Berry Bennet, The Stone Mason of Tor House (The Ward Ritchie Press, 1966), 146.
(3) Hunt, 18.(4) Bennett, 147.(5) Donnan Jeffers, The Stones of Tor House (Jeffers Literary Properties, 1985), 7.
(6) Donnan Call Jeffers, The Building of Tor House (Ryan Ranch Printers, 2008), 28.
(7) Hunt, 531.
(8) Bennett, 160.
(9) Jeffers, 29.
(10) Bennett, 193.
(11) Robinson Jeffers Association, Biography
(12) Bennett, 201.
(13) Donnan, 29.
(14) Bennett, 229.