House of Happy Walls Museum re-opens
Exhibits take new angle on Jack London and wife Charmian
With an official ribbon cutting and loads of family-friendly activities and fanfare, the historic House of Happy Walls Museum in Jack London State Historic Park re-opened on Saturday, Nov. 10, after a year-long, $1.5-million renovation.
Twenty-two new exhibits commemorate and celebrate the story of Jack London and his wife, Charmian. The exhibition, designed by the Sibbett Group, shows London was ahead of his time: a conservationist, feminist, organic farmer, humanitarian, social activist, journalist, and one of the most famous writers of his time. The expansive second floor of the museum shares the story of Jack’s wife, Charmian, a modern “new woman” who rode horses astride, and an adventurer and writer in her own right.
“A lot of the house is more visible – and touchable,” said Kristina Ellis, education manager for Jack London Park Partners, the nonprofit which operates the park and museum in partnership with California State Parks. The redesign has enabled JLPP to increase public access, removing some of the guardrails, Plexiglas and other barriers in the old house, which Charmian built and lived in for 10 years after Jack London’s death in 1916. Most notably, visitors can now walk into Charmian’s green and turquoise kitchen, complete with period details of the time and expansive views over the Sonoma Valley.
Charmian died in 1955, at the age of 83, and her House of Happy Walls was left to family, but subsequently donated to state parks and opened as a museum in 1963. Charmian wrote that even as she built it, she always intended it to be a museum someday. The exhibits and displays changed little over the course of the next five decades.
Many of the artifacts and historical photos now featured in the museum have never been on display to the public before. These include Jack London’s boxing gloves, with which he and Charmian held daily sparring matches, and London’s wooden surf board, one of the first to exist in North America, London having been one of the first white men to learn the sport during his travels in Hawaii.
A capital campaign for the new exhibition was carried out over several years by JLPP, with seed money coming from Glen Ellen residents John and Nancy Lasseter and the Hind Foundation.
Some of the artifacts came from private donations, including objects from Glen Ellen residents Victor Reus and Kira Tiedgens, and a complete collection of first editions from Joanna and Scott Tilley. The Tilleys now live in Virginia but both attended Sonoma State University and fell in love with each other while hiking the trails of the park so they have soft spot in their heart for Jack London.
Upstairs, in Charmian’s living quarters, where she spent a significant amount of her private time, exotic collectibles from Jack and Charmian’s travels are on full display – totems and art from the south pacific, Australia, Cuba, and other places the two visited, often via sailboat.
Throughout the museum, new interactive digital displays highlight the many facets of Jack, Charmian, and the two as a couple – “mate-woman,” as Jack would often call Charmian.
Two main goals of the new exhibits are to inspire visitors to live life to the fullest, much as the Londons did, and to highlight London’s contemporary relevance, said Ellis. Many of his 50 books and 200-odd short stories are prescient and relevant in today’s current political and social climate.
Quite a few of Jack London’s literary works are no longer in print, but the revamped museum gift shop carries all of them, specially printed by Orinda-based Sea Wolf Press, specifically for the park. Charmian’s books, all out of print, are available for purchase there, too.
The museum will also be ramping up its K-12 education opportunities, rolling out a new ecology program for seventh graders.
“The new exhibits in the park’s museum, the House of Happy Walls, have been designed to inspire guests, especially young people, to live their lives to the fullest by example of Jack’s amazing life of innovation and achievement,” said Executive Director Tjiska Van Wyk. “And Jack’s story would not be complete without giving equal attention to his soul mate, Charmian London. A formidable team, she helped facilitate Jack’s success as his editor, confidante, transcriber and model for many of Jack’s leading female characters. We look forward to visitors enjoying all the park has to offer.”
Jack London State Park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road. Find out more at jacklondonpark.com.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.