Stories of Jack and Charmian come to life
Museum in the House of Happy Walls refurbished, reimagined, reopened
By Tracy Salcedo
“This building and its arrangements are peculiarly an expression of myself and its ultimate purpose is that of a museum to Jack London and myself.”—Charmian London
Jack ushers you in. When you enter the House of Happy Walls at Jack London State Historic Park, an iconic image of Glen Ellen’s most famous author greets you; shadowy eyes, a sideways smile, wind-tousled hair. His books — his body of work — are stacked in a display to one side, one atop the other, some spine out, some tipped forward against the glass, jackets antiqued by time. He’s the reason most people come to this place, to learn more about the writer, rancher, and adventurer.
Charmian ushers you out. This is her house, after all, the one she built after the one Jack built burnt, and after her mate’s star flashed out. She is with you there on the first floor, beside Jack, a bass line to his vibrant melody. Upstairs, in what was once her bedroom, she takes center stage, and her iconic image is the last thing you see as you head backlit image of Jack, what dominates the main room as you walk into the museum is a model of the expansive park, including its trail system, which will be interactive once pandemic restrictions are lifted. In fact, many of the museum’s exhibits are now hands-on, with items from the collection displayed in drawers visitors can open, slideshows they can listen to, and window seats they can settle on to read Jack’s work or admire the stunning views.
But more than the openness and the accessibility, says Kristina Ellis, the park’s tours and education manager, the museum renovation has created an opportunity for tour guides and visitors to immerse themselves in Jack and Charmian’s stories.
The storytelling doesn’t follow a timeline, per se, Ellis explains. Instead, elements of the Londons’ lives are captured in modules, “story forward with the artifacts in support, so the storytelling will flow,” she says. She uses the module focused on the couple’s sporting life as an example: The image in the floor-toceiling light box is of Charmian and Jack in a playful tussle; the artifacts in the display include boxing gloves. Here, Ellis tells the story of how Charmian and Jack used to box with each other in the backyard, and how Charmian, petite but fierce, once knocked Jack down, to the horror of his mother. Jack’s massive surfboard, a slideshow of startlingly candid photographs Jack took as a journalist, the sunken hearth at the fireplace: Each has a story, and in the grand room with its carved beamwork, the renovation has opened space for those stories to be shared.
With a handful of exceptions, all of the barriers that once walled off exhibits — or entire rooms — have been removed. Items that might degrade if they were touched have been replicated, like the drapes and the back down the hallway to the stairs: her bright face, white hat, and white dress, now more nuanced after learning more about her in her once-private domain.
The House of Happy Walls has long served a dual purpose at the park, as both its administrative center and as a museum. But the museum side is what Charmian long envisioned. Even as she passed her post-Jack days within its stone walls, working with Eliza Shepard to manage the London ranch, the House was her legacy, and she intended its dedication to the memory of her beloved partner. When the Beauty Ranch was transferred to California State Parks after Charmian’s death, the artifacts of her life and Jack’s, from the Klondike to the South Seas, went on display in the House. Though it’s not true to say the place was previously cluttered with those artifacts, the museum’s recent renovation has opened things up in a way Charmian likely would have approved.
Aside from the rakish
ack London State Historic Park. London – from page 8
mattresses from the Snark, which once served as cushions on the windowseats. Other aspects of the house have reverted to their original purpose; in what’s now the gift shop, the original bookcases are packed with Jack’s books for sale, many reprinted using the original typefaces and cover designs (only in aperback), and exclusively available for sale on site.
The narrow stairway to the second floor hasn’t changed; it’s still dark and moody, artifacts from the tropics behind glass. Upstairs, one of the guest bedrooms features a light box where timelines of Jack and Charmian’s lives scroll by, side by side. Charmian’s begins before Jack’s, and runs long after. She was a woman ahead of her time, fearless and curious and hard-working, “pushing patriarchy,” as Ellis says. The timeline is a delightful 20-minute time suck, full of “Did you know?” nuggets, adding depth to every story harbored in the House of Happy Walls, and the ruins of the Wolf House, and the Beauty Ranch beyond.
The museum’s March 17 reopening also has a story. Though the renovation was complete in 2018, the museum couldn’t open because of the threat of wildfire and pandemic shutdowns. In addition to the COVID-19 closures, all the artifacts were packed up and taken to Sacramento for safekeeping when the Glass Fire broke out in September 2020. Museum staff is delighted to be able to welcome visitors now that restrictions have been lifted, and visitation, according to Ellis, has been brisk. The number of first-time visitors, at least anecdotally, has skyrocketed, she says.
But even for those who’ve visited the House of Happy Walls before, or often, another trip is well worth the time. Even if the stories are the same, the windowseats will always beckon.
The House of Happy Walls is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas. There is no fee for admission, but donations are accepted. Jack London State Historic Park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; the vehicle entry fee is $10. Information is available at www.jacklondonpark. com, or call (707) 938-5216. Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning author who lives and works in Glen Ellen.