Eclectic house reflects sense of community of its UC Davis residents

Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013 - 12:49 pm

The Turtle House, a rambling, two-story mansion in Davis, has a cluster of cactuses growing next to an honest-to-god chicken coop surrounded by chickens whose names are Gertrude, Gladys, Henrietta and Edna.

It also has a fire pit. And an all-white Bluebird school bus with aftermarket modifications including a table, a countertop, a futon and shelves. And a custom-built wooden fence, constructed to dampen the sound emitted near a custom-built wooden stage that’s erected about once every semester.

It has an enormous sculpture shaped like a bird’s nest sitting in the same yard as a planter made from a discarded tire and an oversize, three-person tricycle with two speaker mounts.

In short, the Turtle House is the home and garden version of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s the ongoing experiment of its residents, many of whom are science-focused UC Davis students whose IQs may well hover in the stratosphere.

Take, for example, Eric Schmidt, a resident of the house with a summer hardware-engineering internship with Google. Or Michael Norcia, an applied-physics major who built a fiberglass, steel and foam electric roadster the summer before coming to college. Or Benjamin Molinari, a material-science engineering student who has studied the effects of humidity on a ceramic compound with a nearly unpronounceable name.

The Turtle House house is a reflection of those students and is surrounded by their completed – and abandoned – projects. And although you wouldn’t know it by looking around the cluttered yard, the Turtle House (named for a wooden terrapin suspended from the balcony by parachute cord) is an oasis of calm and tranquility for its occupants – all 15 of them.

“There’s usually … someone here you can go to to talk about things with,” said Molinari, sitting on the second-story balcony. “It’s been that sense of community. And not just a community with anyone, with people I want to get to know more.”

That confluence of creative minds didn’t happen by accident. Norcia decided to lease the place in 2012 after he came home to his apartment one day and logged onto Facebook. He discovered that the website was one of his primary social outlets, which made him realize how lonely he was.

“I thought, ‘I don’t think this is what college is supposed to be,’” Norcia said.

So, based on his experiences living at a UC Davis co-op his freshman year, Norcia decided to set up a similar community in the Turtle House, a gargantuan home nestled in downtown Davis on Second Street. He contacted the owner, asked his parents to sign the $140,000 lease and set about recruiting 14 occupants to fill the place.

After the men and women moved in, it didn’t take long for them to start adding their own touches. Within a month, two of the residents purchased chickens, Molinari said. The occupants of the house built a wood fence, complete with a front gate, over a few weekends. They built custom subwoofer for their audio system. And when they threw their first party, they built a stage in the yard and installed lighting for the band.

Some of the neighbors didn’t appreciate the party din, even though noise-dampening plywood had been installed behind the stage. Police have showed up at every party since, Norcia said, and seem to know the property’s history well, putting “The Turtle House” on the address line of a letter recently mailed to the manor.

If any of the partygoers made it past the front door of the house, they’d see that the inside looks just as cobbled together as the projects scattered throughout the yard. The downstairs kitchen is painted cake-batter yellow. The second story rooms are green, brown and crimson. The floor is linoleum, unless you’re in the basement, which is hardwood covered with area rugs that clash violently with the mismatched furniture.

Shared spaces are in the basement, the balcony and both kitchens – upstairs and down.

Visitors to the basement living area are greeted by a trio of movie theater seats upholstered in Willy Wonka purple that sit opposite a lurid tapestry of John Wayne’s disembodied face gazing down on Utah’s Monument Valley.

The decorative hodgepodge belies the fact that the residents of the Turtle House are remarkably organized in their decision-making. Every week, they use a Facebook group to compile an agenda that contains a variety of house concerns, such as whether they should procure a flock of ducks, (“team duck” argues in favor) or where they should take their modified school bus for spring break. Each resident is free to indicate approval, disapproval or neutrality by flashing a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or thumbs-sideways, respectively.

Most of the decisions are made without controversy, although there was a brief episode in which someone spent too much of the house fund – a pool of money generated by a $20 monthly tithe – on alcohol for a party.

“We argued about it for a night, but then the party came around and it was pretty awesome,” Norcia said.

With one year in the house completed, the residents had to replace roommates who graduated or otherwise moved away. They auditioned several people to ensure that the new residents would contribute to the delicate mix of creative minds. Norcia intends to find communal housing after college no matter where he goes.

“Whenever everyone’s right there, it’s just a bubbling stew of ideas and people caring about life,” he said.

Read more articles by Benjamin Mullin

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