Jack London State Park projects underway
Winery ruins, cottage garden getting facelift
The 103-year-old winery at Jack London State Historic Park has seen better days – after decades of wear and tear, weather, and the major storms of 2018, the mortar is weak, some of the walls are crumbling or leaning, and the brick archways of the doorways and windows are compromised. Originally built for the Kohler & Frohling winery in the early 1880s by Chinese masons out of rubble rock and field stone, the ruins were partially destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. Utilizing the remaining foundation, in the early 1900s Jack London gave the stone winery a second story of wood, which served as a carriage house, living quarters for ranch hands, guest quarters for visitors, and an office where his step sister, Eliza Shepard, could manage the ranch. That second story burned down in the 1960s and the remaining ruins have become an open-air theater space for the award-winning Transcendence Theatre Company’s summertime Broadway Under the Stars – voted one of the top outdoor theaters in the nation.
The ravages of use and time have not gone unnoticed by Jack London Park Partners (JLPP), the nonprofit that operates Jack London State Park in partnership with the State of California. In November, JLPP received a $100,000 grant from the Hind Foundation to continue the restoration and stabilization of the ruins. The grant is part of an ongoing effort to execute recommended treatments from a structural evaluation made by ARG Conservation Services, a firm that specializes in preserving the character of historic structures. Since 2014, $200,000 has been invested by JLPP to ensure the ruins retain structural stability – notably restoration work to prevent the catastrophic failure of the iconic west entry arch that looks out over vineyards planted by the Shepard family descendants. With this latest grant, the restoration will be able to enter phase three of what’s envisioned as a four-to-five-phase project which includes the repair and stabilization of six window arches in the north wall of the ruins. Work will begin in March and follow strict guidelines from the federal Department of the Interior, as London’s Beauty Ranch is listed on the national register of Historic Landmarks. JLPP Executive Director Tjiska Van Wyk estimates that completing all the projects recommended by ARG will run close to $800,000 and take place over several more years.
Restoration work is also underway behind Jack London’s cottage. JLPP recently completed the rebuild of Jack and Charmian’s two separate sunroom “sleeping” porches. Jack, an insomniac, kept a clothesline above his bed on the porch to scribble bursts of inspiration in the middle of the night – and a martini shaker on a small table beside the bed. The picturesque garden onto which both porches look will also be getting a renew this winter and spring, pending California State Parks approval. JLPP has received a $6,000 grant from the county’s community investment fund to help return the garden surrounding the historic cottage back to time period plants in the style of the early 1900s. Director of Operations Eric Metz said the current garden was installed in the mid-1990s, designed as a more formal “English garden” style, with a central pond, hedges and lined gravel walking paths, which is very beautiful, but lacking historical accuracy. “Based on the photos we have, the original garden was less formal and more rustic, more like a home garden,” said Metz, referring to photos taken during the time the Londons lived at Beauty Ranch between 1905 and 1916. Removal of some of the hedging and loosening of some of the rock borders will help to achieve this, as will rebuilding the current pressure-treated white picket fence with period-appropriate whitewashed redwood and lengthening it to completely encircle the garden. They will also replant six roses along the front of the cottage, which can also be seen in photographs.
While the ancient palm tree, olive, elderberry, almond and pomegranate trees can be seen in the old photographs – albeit much smaller – JLPP will also replant several black locust trees that have been lost, as well as a new plum tree.
“We try to maintain the ranch to look as it would have in 1916, and the cottage garden should be included in that representation, so park visitors can see a garden that represents what Jack and Charmian London would have walked through, maintained and spent time relaxing in,” said Metz. “This project is a great partnership between JLPP, our gardener, and State Parks historians, archeologist and natural resource staff.”
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.