In San Luis Obispo’s North Coast, reclusive artist Arthur “Art” Harold Beal spent 50 years creating his folk art “castle on the hill.”
Hearst Castle isn’t the only unique landmark sitting along this scenic stretch of California’s coast. A short 8.1 mile drive south is all it takes to reach the other, less visited one.
Arthur Harold Beal bought his two and a half acre hillside lot back in 1928 and spent most of the next 50 years carving out the terraces with only a pick and shovel.
Beal, also known as “Art,” “Captain Nitt Witt” and “Der Tinkerpaw” — because, he “liked to tinker with his paws” was the town’s cantankerous garbageman for 30 years and salvaged most of his materials from his immediate environment, including numerous loads of “junk” from Hearst Castle while it was being built.
His home was put together using salvaged odds and ends: toilet seats used as picture frames, abalone shells crafted into pillars, light bulbs, car bumpers, beer cans and television sets sunk into concrete walls.
Most of the walls were constructed using cement made with beach sand, which is not the most stable of building materials and yet most of what he built still stands today.
As his health and financial troubles grew during his later years, Beal’s “castle on the hill” fell into disrepair.
By 1989, he was forced to move into a nursing home and died there August 16, 1992 at the age of 96 with no known relatives.
Friends of Beal formed the Art Beal Foundation to help protect his assets, pay off his debts and promote the artist and the folk art castle he created.
Although the organization was able to put a new roof on the house, by 1997 the struggling Art Beal Foundation was forced to sell the property’s water rights to raise money for back taxes.
By 1999, the foundation was in such bad shape that they had to put the property up for sale.
Michael and Stacey O’Malley purchased the property for $42,000 with hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction in order to help raise funds for its ongoing preservation.
But without water rights, the county deemed the property uninhabitable shortly after the sale, forcing the O’Malley’s to give up on their original plan.
Although the O’Malley’s and their relatives have made some repairs over the years, government entities have forbid them from selling T-shirts and other memorabilia that would help them raise the required funds that are needed to complete some of the larger projects on the property.
Today, the O’Malley’s offer afternoon tours throughout the week for a small suggested donation of $10.
Guests need to call (805) 927-2690 prior to showing up to Nit Witt Ridge for the tour. Michael prefers the spelling “Nit Wit” over “Nitt Witt” but the registered landmark classification sports the extra T’s, so most people go with that.
Tours include a short 4 minute video from a segment about Nitt Witt Ridge that ran on the 80’s TV show “Real People” which I remember watching as a kid. Weird side note: Real People’s Skip Stephenson was the first “celebrity” I ever approached to ask for an autograph. I was 10 years old at the time and he signed it on the back of a cocktail napkin at the Kern County Fair. Imagine what that autograph would be worth today:)
The tour goes through most of the rooms in the house and the exterior gardens.
Born in Oakland in 1892, Beal spent the first few years of his life with his mother, a Klamath Indian who died in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He never knew his father. As an adult, he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine, and worked in various jobs such as waiter, sous chef, and even a mercury miner at one point.
Beal moved from the Bay Area to Cambria in 1928 with a woman named Gloria and purchased his 2.5 acre lot for just $100.
They lived in a much smaller two story building, the remains of which can still be seen in the upper garden area during the tour.
Gloria eventually left him which absolutely broke Beal’s heart.
O’Malley has left the property almost exactly as it was when Beal lived there. His clothes still hang in the closet along with his infamous ratty blue bathrobe, which during his final years, he would wear (with nothing underneath) while walking around the village of Cambria.
Balconies wrap around most of the levels.
Michael O’Malley does a great job of explaining the history of the property and believe me, there’s a story around each and every corner.
Beal liked to set Busch beer cans in concrete, claiming that the sound of the wind whistling through the openings kept the gophers away.
Water heater graveyard.
Beal was quite the character and would often sit on a toilet he nailed to the roof and let the wind flap open his bathrobe for all to see.
Abalone shells gathered from local beaches can be seen throughout the property, especially along many of the exterior stairways.
It was hard to tell if some of the items scattered outside were brought to the property by Beal or dumped there by someone else after his death.
These sinks used to be a functioning fountain that drained into a bathtub and then out to the terraced gardens to water his plants and vegetables.
Fog and rain at Nitt Witt Ridge.
Not Mrs. Butterworth.
Inlaid tiles decorate many areas of the property…
…including these which are said to have come out of that other landmark down the road, Hearst Castle.
Mike O’Malley’s love for this unique historical landmark is infectious and while many of his neighbors and the city of Cambria itself, probably would’ve rather seen Nitt Witt Ridge razed long ago, there’s tons of other people like myself who are thankful that the O’Malley family stepped in to help keep this lesser-known “castle on the hill” open for all to enjoy.