Goofy, bizarre, and wonderfully odd, Nitt Witt Ridge is the former home of Arthur “Art” Harold Beal, built with trash and found objects. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Art was an eccentric garbage collector who gathered and kept much of what others threw away to build his home. He also used natural resources from the abundant Cambrian forest and beaches. The home is composed almost entirely of seashells, toothbrushes, beer cans, tires, toilet seats and other oddities. Art died in 1992, but visitors can still tour the “anti-Hearst-Castle,” which is now registered as a California Historical Landmark.
History of Nitt Witt Ridge
Nitt Witt Ridge stands on a 2 1/2-acre hillside parcel near Cambria’s West Village, backed by a pine forest. When Art Beal acquired the house in 1928, it was a shack with only one room. But as he added on to it both vertically and horizontally, Art grew the house to comprise nine levels. Amazingly, he did so with found objects and what most people would consider trash. Favorite materials included rocks, abalone shells, tires, other car parts, electronics, beer cans he had emptied, and toilet seats, all held together with concrete. He even had a toilet installed on the roof, where, according to myth, he regularly sat and talked with passersby, sometimes completely nude.
Art was incredibly resourceful, spending next to nothing on the construction of his home (other than the cost of that beer, of course). Understandably, visitors often compare Nitt Witt Ridge to nearby Hearst Castle, where William Randolph Hearst also built a rambling, unorthodox home. That’s where the comparison ends, though. Interestingly, Art Beal once worked in construction at Hearst Castle, and, unsurprisingly, pilfered cast-off materials from the job site for his own ‘enchanted hill.”
For its peculiarity, Nitt Witt Ridge includes many practical and artistic choices. For instance, though he never married, Art built a “woman’s room,” finished with lace and a floral rug. He also used toilet seats as picture frames on the wall. And, because his kitchen lacked a refrigerator, he placed perishable foods in the stairwell of the house because he claimed it never passed 55 degrees.
Though Art Beal lived to see 96 years, the decline of his health late in life reflected the decline of Nitt Witt Ridge. At one point, a pine tree fell into the kitchen and living room, never to be repaired. The floorboards started to decompose and wallpaper started to peel. Late in his life, Art said that vandals also hurt the property, stealing bits and pieces of the home.
After Art’s death, Nitt-Witt Ridge sold to the O’Malley family in 1999. Michael O’Malley repaired some of the house for safety purposes, but left nearly everything else intact. He offers tours by appointment, and Art’s clothing, boots, photos, decor – even his canned vegetables – remain in place for the public to see.
California Historic Landmark status
Sometime in the early 1970s, a man gave Art a small loan to keep up Nitt Witt Ridge, and Art transferred the deed to him. When Art couldn’t repay the debt, the man threatened to destroy Nitt Witt Ridge and develop the property. But in 1975, friends of the unusual homebuilder formed The Art Beal Foundation, which purchased back the deed. The purchase also funded work to have Nitt Witt Ridge recognized as a California Historical Landmark in 1981. Today, the bronze plaque can be seen on the home’s street level.
During his many years in Cambria, Art Beal preferred to be known by his nickname, Doctor Tinkerpaw. He also answered to the name Captain Nitt Witt after being called a nitwit by someone in Cambria. (Hence the name Nitt Witt Ridge.) But Art was anything but dim.
Born 20 miles north of Cambria in 1896, Art was the son of a Klamath Indian woman who died when he was just 10 years old. As an orphan, he passed through several institutions and took odd jobs before becoming a vaudeville entertainer. (He claimed to have performed an act with a stunt dog and a one-legged bicyclist at the Toronto World’s Fair in the 1920s.) Later, he would become a famed long-distance swimmer, freestyling 22 miles of the Hudson River and across San Francisco Bay. His swimming career led him to a number of famous entertainers who became friends, including Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and Willie Nelson. During his years building and living at Nitt Witt Ridge, he was profiled on several television programs, highlighting his eccentricity.
When he died in 1992, Art’s ashes were spread under a redwood tree on the Nitt Witt Ridge property. Clippings of his varied accomplishments, as well as photos of his high-profile friends, remain in the house to this day, right where Art left them.
Current Tours– location, hours, what to expect
Nitt Witt Ridge can be found near Cambria’s West Village, at 881 Hillcrest Drive. This is a residential neighborhood with very limited hillside parking. Tours are available by appointment, but typically at 11am, 12pm, or 2pm. (Call to confirm.) The suggested donation is $10 per person. Note that Nitt Witt Ridge offers no restroom, is not built to code or wheelchair accessible, and has low ceilings and uneven floors.
Stewardship Travel for Good – Heritage and History Trail
Our stretch of Highway 1 presents so many opportunities to travel deeper, and a tour of Nitt Witt Ridge is just one of them. For more remarkable experiences with the rich culture and backstory of this place we call home, check out our History and Heritage Trail. Each stop along the route tells a story that brings California’s Central Coast vibrantly to life.