The World of Jack London: Cause of Wolf House Fire
The
Wolf House
Burning Case
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Wolf House Burning
Dale L. Walker

Page III

They had planned the house as the centerpiece of the Beauty Ranch even before they were married in 1905 and the plot of land for it—on a bank of Asbury Creek at the extreme northwestern border of the ranch—was landscaped before they departed on Snark voyage in 1907. Jack was a wanderer, Charmian London later wrote, and needed a big place for his treasures.

"It [Wolf House] should be thought of...in relation to Jack, not as a mansion, but as a big cabin, a lofty lodge, a hospitable teepee, where he—simple and generous despite all baffling intricacy—could stretch himself and beam upon you and me and all the world that gathered by his log fires. Why the very form of the rough rock hacienda was an invitation, with its embracing wings, its sunny pool between the wide, arched corridors and grape-gnarled pergola.

The Overland Monthly described it as "essentially a home for the two people building it—a workshop for Mr. London, a home for Mrs. London, and a place where they can gather and entertain friends."

Even so, Wolf House was never to be a simple domicile; in fact, from the beginning plans, it was to be a "castle," as London himself referred to it repeatedly, or at least a château: a four-story, eighty-by-eighty-two-foot, twenty-six-room hospitable teepee of 15,000 square-feet of space designed by the eminent San Francisco architect Albert Farr.

In 1911, the lofty lodge began taking shape as huge volcanic boulders were hauled by draft horses from a quarry three miles distant to the landscaped site. These maroon-colored lava rocks, uncut and unmodified, were cemented in place and blended with unpeeled redwood logs to form the house walls. These walls, reinforced against seismic shocks by steel straps, were attached to an enormous earthquake-proof slab, strong enough, it was reported, to support a forty-story building. The roof was fashioned of dark red Spanish-style tiles.

Two of the giant redwood trunks, bark and branches in place, also formed the supports for the massive porte-cochère leading to a courtyard and breezeway that extended through the house. A patio, reflecting pool (to be stocked with mountain bass), redwood-paneled guest rooms, and the library opened on the left of the breezeway; a gun room, stairs, servants's quarters, utility rooms, and banquet hall seating fifty guests, all were situated on the right side.

The ground floor also held the eighteen-by-fifty-eight-foot living room—two stories high with rough redwood balconies extending around three-quarters of it, one side occupied by an huge fireplace of blue slate, red rock-and-cobbles, biggest of the nine fireplaces in the house and extending up through the ceiling rafters. A large alcove nearby held Charmian;s Steinway grand piano.

London's nineteen-by-forty-foot workroom on the third floor was isolated from rest of the castle with a same-size library for his eighteen thousand books beneath it on the second floor, connected by a spiral staircase. His bedroom on the fourth floor lay just above Charmian's personal apartment.

Wolf House had its own heating, electric lighting, and refrigerating plants; a laundry, wine cellar, and, also in the basement, a fireproof vault for London's manuscripts and other valuables.

"I have a wage list of $3,000 this month, which I must pay," Jack wrote to his editor at Cosmopolitan on August 19. He appealed for $2,500 and got the money. The magazine had been a steady source of income since 1911 when it published the series of twelve "Smoke Bellew" Klondike tales at $750 each. At the time of London's August appeal, Cosmopolitan was serializing The Valley of the Moon and paying advance money for the novel-in-progress, The Mutiny of the Elsinore.

On August 21, 1913, on the eve of occupying the place, and with but three hundred dollars cash in the bank, London negotiated with a Santa Rosa bank for a five-thousand-dollar final mortgage on the Beauty Ranch to complete Wolf House. The insurance on the mansion amounted to only six thousand dollars, since everyone agreed, as a newspaper article put it, that "rock and concrete, massive beams and redwood logs with the bark on, were practically fireproof unless ignited in a dozen places, owing to the quadrangular construction and cement partitions."

By that sweltering summer of 1913 London had spent at least seventy-five thousand dollars (in modern dollars, probably a million dollars) on his home and was ready to move in. He and Charmian had all their scattered belongings brought north from San Francisco and other storage places to fill the barns and cottages of the Beauty Ranch: furniture and furnishings, iron bedsteads, wall-hangings, animal skin rugs and throws, trunks of clothing, Jack's manuscripts and books, file cabinets, scrapbooks, photographs, the Steinway piano, curios and native crafts collected in the South Seas, and such priceless items as the dinner china once belonging to Robert Louis Stevenson that Charmian had purchased in Samoa.

On August 22, 1913, the day of final cleanup, the day before the move, the temperature in the Valley of the Moon, always cloying in the summer, rose to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

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At two o'clock on the morning of August 23, Charmian London woke up to the sound of a voice and found Eliza Shepard, Jack's stepsister and manager of the ranch, at the cottage window pointing toward Wolf House, a half-mile south. The night sky was glowing orange and billowing with smoke as Jack was awakened and dressed frantically.

They reached the house just as the roof collapsed, the tiles clattering down between the fire-blackened rock partitions. Only the walls, three stories high, a rubble of smaller stones, and the six fireplace chimneys, were left standing. All the redwood timber had been consumed and lay in piles of glowing embers.

The Londons, the wakened building crew and neighbors, remained at the ruins until dawn. The fire continued to burn for several days while the surrounding redwoods were soaked by a bucket brigade to prevent further destruction.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat carried the story on August 24:

"The spirit of Jack London is not depressed by fire, even if the flames do devastate the interior of a majestic castle he has been building on the hillside on his big ranch near Glen Ellen, occupying the most romantic spot in all the country round."

The paper stated that London "decreed Saturday that the work of reconstruction of the castle shall commence immediately after the insurance adjuster has inspected the premises....As to the origin of the fire, it may have been the work of a discharged employee and it may not." [1]

A day after the fire Charmian wrote in her diary: "Feel terribly shaken—heart seems to be jumping out of my body and tears are very close to the surface. Our dear dreamed of home." Of her husband: "Dear mate—he is so brave and cheerful. I don't believe a soul knows his secret heartsorrow." Years afterward she said, "The razing of his house killed something in Jack, and he never ceased to feel the tragic sense of loss."

"It isn't the money," he told her, "The main hurt comes from the wanton despoiling of so much beauty."

A few days later he returned to his desk, writing to pay the bills and payrolls. He took another two-thousand-dollar advance from Cosmopolitan and added a workroom to the cottage, giving him a small but efficient space with windows all around.

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