September 04, 2011

Photo Essay: Nitt Witt Ridge, One Man's Castle

After touring Hearst Castle during my first trip up the Central California coast, I was ready for some tourism that was a bit more offbeat.

So, having spent the night in the charming town of Cambria, I stopped by the location of one man's castle, made out of another man's trash: Nitt Witt Ridge.

Nitt Witt Ridge is literally a house made of garbage. The primary building materials are beer cans, pull tabs, and toilets with some salvaged wood (washed ashore from the ocean and probably sourced from a local yard), rocks, shells, and homemade mortar.

Its builder, Captain Nitt Witt as he was called (also known as Tinker Paw), was Cambria's local garbageman, and it has been postulated that very little of the trash he collected ever actually made it to the dump, but rather into the construction of his house, which became a living landfill.

He lived in the house alone his whole life, into his 80s even after Nitt Witt Ridge received landmark status as an example of the folk art movement and was taken over by a foundation (which allowed him to stay). But despite his lifelong bachelor status, he incorporated lots of "his and hers" elements in the design and decoration of the house...

...and lots of feminine touches.

Touring the building, there's a sense that it was probably quite nice to live in at one time (though the Captain reportedly only showered once a year and never cleaned), but over the years - especially after the Captain was sent to a nursing home and the house stood abandoned - it fell into severe disrepair...

...subject to looting.

The house is now under private ownership, by a man who bought it in the '90s for $40,000 and has taken the care to fix leaking roofs, provide security against trespassers, and conduct tours for curious visitors.

In the backyard, you can see more details of the construction of the house, including the hot water heaters that were stripped of their insulation...

...towers of tire rims...

...jars of oddities...

...and the Captain's original, more traditional home, toppled by a fallen tree, and left to settle back into the ground.

Like many other examples of folk art - Watts Towers, Bottle Village, Salvation Mountain - Nitt Witt Ridge has a polarizing effect on residents and tourists alike. It's ugly, disordered, and unfinished. But as an amalgamation of ephemera in a sprawling compound that has withstood major earthquakes (more so than more stable structures that were constructed under strict building codes) and suffered only under the attack of vandals and erosion, Nitt Witt Ridge is - if not art - a testament to one man's dedication, innovation, and industriousness. If a man must live alone, comforted only by the presence of several cats, let him drink, build, design, and dream as much as he wants. Let him build the castle that he wants to live in, with his own hands. Let him spark the curiosity of so many visitors that he shall never be alone if he doesn't want to be, even after he has passed.

Who are we to say what the better castle is?

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