Druid Heights


January, 2012

Zen Buddhist popularizer Alan Watts lived at 310 Laverne from 1956 to 1963. Beat generation poet Gary Snyder lived at 370 Montford for a few months in the spring of 1956-his roommate was Jack Kerouac. Both Watts and Snyder became part of the Druid Heights scene. Druid Heights? Where’s that?

On the west side of the ridge west of Homestead Valley, there used to be a five-acre development called Camp Monte Vista Sub One at the end of a dirt road off Muir Woods Road. In 1954, Elsa Gidlow, an unusual, fiercely independent Greenwich Village poet, anarchist and lesbian moved to this rural hillside patch with its few tumble-down frame houses and barns. She named it Druid Heights. It soon became a “beatnik” enclave years before the term was born, and later a party spot for famous freaks. Scores of sculptors, sex rebels, stars and seekers lived or visited there including Gary Snyder, Dizzy Gillespie, John Handy, Alan Watts, Neil Young, Tom Robbins, Catherine McKinnon and the colorful prostitute activist Margo St. James. Too anarchic and happenstance to count as a commune, Druid Heights became what Gidlow jokingly called “an unintentional community:” a vortex of social and artistic energy that bloomed out of nowhere, did its wild and sometimes destructive thing, and, for the most part, moved on.

Gidlow initially shared the property with Roger Somers and his wife Mary, the couple who had actually found the place. A visionary house builder and jazz musician, Somers moved to Marin in 1950. In his woodwork and design, Somers developed a flamboyant, organic, deeply Californian style influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Japanese architecture, and the twists and turns of living things.

Several Druid Heights homes and structures were built or converted by Somers and Ed Stiles. A custom furniture maker from the East coast, Stiles first tracked down Somers in the early 1960s after seeing a photograph of him and a bare-breasted Mary in a sensationalist article on the California scene in Esquire. Somers invited the young artist to live at Druid Heights and install his shop in a building there in exchange for giving Somers access to his woodworking tools. Stiles built a library for Alan Watts who divided his time between Druid Heights and the Vallejo ferryboat in Sausalito which he shared with artist Jean (Yanko) Varda.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service upset Druid Heights’ natural social balance, i.e., shared bohemian poverty, by buying out various property owners. What was called Druid Heights is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. All the buildings have been abandoned and are boarded up with one exception. Ed Stiles and his wife have a house and a woodworking shop-they have a life time lease.

If you have comments or questions about this article or other topics
pertaining to the history of Homestead Valley,
please feel free to e-mail Chuck Oldenburg.