CAMBRIA – Dynastic pretensions reside 15 miles up the coast at the Hearst Castle, where that monument to capitalistic excess stands proudly amid the coastal mountain range.
Down here, where the proles dwell, lies a curious sight that many believe was constructed decades ago by the town crank as a snarky answer to the opulence on display at the mansion of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
It, too, is on a hill.
It, too, has a fancy name.
It, too, is a state landmark.
Even without those official brown state landmark road signs to serve as a guide, you can't miss Nitt Witt Ridge, which is either Cambria's contribution to the nation's underappreciated folk-art movement or merely one man's junk-heap folly.
The man, Arthur Harold Beal, may have long since passed, but his enduring symbol of – well, no one's exactly sure what – lives on.
Nitt Witt Ridge is a four-story architectural marvel slapped together from driftwood, creek stones, metal tire rims, abalone shells, toilet seats and too many Busch beer cans to count, all held together by a concrete foundation and sheer force of will.
Beal, the town garbage man, began the project in the 1930s and still was working on it, at least conceptually, in 1992 when he died at age 96.
If it appears as though one big gust of wind – or maybe a minor temblor – would reduce Nitt Witt Ridge back to the garbage heap it once was, think again.
"It's stronger than it looks," said Michael O'Malley, standing in what passes as Nitt Witt Ridge's living room. "Eleven years ago, I had two people up here on a tour and we were inside this second level when a quake hit. Nothing happened. It surprised me. Nothing even got knocked down."
O'Malley, along with his wife, Stacey, are the proud owners of Nitt Witt Ridge – though Michael prefers the spelling "Nit Wit" but doesn't press the issue because the landmark sports the extra T's – and has since 1999. They bought the place in 1999 from a group of locals that formed the Art Beal Foundation to keep the place from getting razed.
A plumber who lives in town, O'Malley has spent years spiffing up the place, being careful not to make it too tidy lest the spirit of Beal's "vision" be tainted.
The purchase price was $42,000, and O'Malley figured he could turn the place into something of a tourist stop on Highway 1. That $42,000 did not include water rights, so the castle is uninhabitable. Still, O'Malley envisioned tourist buses stopping by to gawk at and walk amid the ruins.
"I thought of it as an anti-Hearst Castle," O'Malley said. "I paid 600 bucks to have people from the county up here. They walked through and said, 'You can make it a gallery.' But I got nothing in writing. Turns out, I couldn't. It's a residential-zoned lot."
So when O'Malley set up a table out front and started selling "Nit Wit" T-shirts, Cambria put the kibosh on the operation.
"What I am allowed to do," O'Malley said, "is give tours for 'donations,' but I can't advertise or anything. I'm OK with that. At this point, I'm not doing it for the money."
Several times a week, more on summer weekends, curious tourists call O'Malley and ask for private tours after finding the information on the Internet. He gladly obliges.
Wearing a "Nit Wit" T-shirt he no longer can sell, O'Malley ambles through the house, marveling at the eccentricities of its builder. He shows how chrome tire rims and PVC pipe were used as pillars, rubs his palm over glimmering abalone shells and shakes his head at the sheer number of beer cans that serve as ballast for the foundation.
O'Malley never met Beal, but he's become a de facto historian as well as curator. He says there are multiple versions of Beal's exploits, most apocryphal, but he passes along both fact and fiction and lets the visitor decide what to believe.
"He'd tell people he'd get wood out of the ocean. After big storms, planks come washing up," O'Malley said. "But look at the wood. It's nice. I think he may have collected some of it at night from the local construction sites.
"He'd told people (Hearst Castle builders) hired him to haul away stuff in this truck the first couple of years when they were building the place, and he kept the stuff for himself. Some people joked that, when he was the town's garbage man, he'd pick up people's trash but never take it to the dump."
Everything had a use for Beal. He had a fondness for toilet seats. Used them as picture frames. Beer cans were used as everything from insulation to decorative wainscoting.
"While he was building the place, he'd take a coffee break every 15 minutes," O'Malley said.
But the "coffee" was really Busch beer, "which became building material," O'Malley said. "You'd think this (canopy made of cans) would collapse, but it's still here."
It's sort of eerie how O'Malley has left the dwelling almost exactly as it was when Beal lived there. Beal's clothes still hang in the closet, jars of preserves and canned goods still line the kitchen walls. Unpaid bills from the 1960s remain in drawers.
A major attraction of O'Malley's tour is Beal's ratty blue bathrobe. Word is that, in his final years, Beal would wear the bathrobe – with nothing on underneath – around town. Many days, Beal would sit on a toilet seat he nailed to the balcony, and let the wind flap open the bathrobe.
"He'd size people up," O'Malley said. "If he liked you, he'd let you in. The ones he didn't, he'd start shaking his fist at them, yelling 'Move along, small change.' He built a woman's room, a guest room all pink. But that's funny: He never married and wasn't known to have a girlfriend. I don't know if any woman would be brave enough to live in this place."
Because Nitt Witt has been preserved in mid- decay, it almost seems as if Beal just went out to buy a case of Busch and will return shortly.
In fact, his voice still echoes along the hallway. O'Malley has unearthed a VHS tape of an episode of the TV show "Real People" that featured Beal in 1981. He was 81 years old at the time, sported a long beard and a walking staff. He looked a little like John Muir mixed with Dennis Hopper.
In the video, he's asked what the neighbors think of his castle. He growls, "If I'm such a nut and this is such an eyesore, why did Mrs. Rich Bitch and Mr. Stoopnagle come and move up here next to me? I was here first."
True, neighbors have come and gone over the decades, but Nitt Witt Ridge endures.
NITT WITT RIDGE
The state historical landmark is at 881 Hillcrest Drive, Cambria.
For private tours, call Michael or Stacey O'Malley at (805) 927-2690. The Bee's Sam McManis takes "Discoveries" requests. Call (916) 321-1145.