Toilet seat picture frames, abalone shell arches and tire rim pillars are just a few components making up what Cambria residents call Nitt Witt Ridge – or the anti-Hearst Castle. Made almost entirely out of reused goods and trash, the house has existed as a California historical landmark and a Central Coast attraction for nearly a century.
Despite little community appreciation left for the original artwork, neighbors who cannot stand the sight of it and a lack of funding – Nitt Witt Ridge still stands. However, to the dismay of current owner and tour guide Mike O’Malley, it is once again up for sale.
After buying two-and-a-half acres of land atop a hill for $500, Art Beal spent the next 50 years sculpting an intricate, three-story fantasy home out of nothing but concrete and found materials. Although he died in 1992, O’Malley said Beal’s presence still lives on in the house.
“You can feel something here – whether you think it’s pretty or ugly, or whatever – he created something from his soul,” O’Malley said. “That’s true art to me.”
Merriam-Webster defines the term nitwit as a “scatterbrained or stupid person,” but behind Beal’s castle of junk lies elaborate details and a sense of Beal’s whimsical personality, O’Malley said.
Despite what local residents think of it, Nitt Witt Ridge has worn the title of California Historical Landmark No. 939 since 1981. On the house’s exterior, a large bronze plaque deems the house “a revealing memorial to Art’s unique cosmic humor and zest for life.”
The Artist Behind the “Hysterical Landmark”
Hellraiser, mad genius, crackpot, rebel – there is no shortage of labels Cambria residents used to describe Captain Nitt Witt himself, Arthur Harold Beal.
Born in Oakland in 1896, Beal grew up as an orphan. According to O’Malley, the house provided a creative outlet for him when he first moved to Cambria.
“It was almost like he had the imagination of a 15-year-old kid his entire life,” O’Malley said. “He was like a real Peter Pan.”
A garbage hauler for 30 years, Beal did not believe in wasting items, O’Malley said. He collected discarded wood, rocks, pipes, jars, paint buckets, electrical wire and hundreds of Busch beer cans he emptied himself as building blocks for his creation.
“You can feel something here – whether you think it’s pretty or ugly, or whatever – he created something from his soul. That’s true art to me.”
According to Cambria resident Elizabeth Appel, Beal was “the quintessential pioneer of reduce, recycle and reuse.” To this day, she said, his photo still hangs on her refrigerator to remind her of his presence.
“I think he was pleased to show people you can live with less,” Appel said. “You can live within your means, you can incorporate and honor and respect Mother Nature in your space, in your world.”
Although he worked on his home for five decades, Beal did not stay confined within its walls. According to Cambria Historical Society Curator and College of Math and Science alumna Melody Coe, he hosted poetry readings for children and built fireplaces for families in early residential homes.
“When I was a kid, everyone loved him,” Coe said. “He was very involved with the community.”
Beal was known for his house, but what he loved even more was the city of Cambria, Coe said.
“Certainly we have a lot of unique individuals who have lived in our community,” Coe said. “It has artistic history.”
Elizabeth Appel, who later became president of the Art Beal Foundation nonprofit organization in 1992, said anyone who sought to alter Cambria’s culture were one of Beal’s greatest annoyances.
“He thought they should appreciate the town for how it is and what it is, and shouldn’t try to change it,” Appel said.
As time passed, however, residents who knew Beal well came and went. Appel took care of him during the last eight years of his life, after he began suffering from dementia as well as a myriad of physical ailments.
She eventually moved Beal from the house he spent half his life building to a Morro Bay nursing home in 1989. Because people were no longer able to meet him, Appel said, a crucial part of the Nitt Witt Ridge experience began to fade.
“He had a really great heart,” Appel said. “People [new to the city] were never able to experience that part of him.”
Preserved but not Protected
In its prime, Nitt Witt Ridge was not only intact – it was awash with life, according to Appel. When Beal still roamed the halls, his backyard garden overflowed with fresh fruit and vegetables, and a fireplace warmed the living room.
“He did have a personal sense of aesthetics, of what constituted a welcoming home to him,” Appel said. “It was charming, and it was inviting.”
Now, however, the house is a shadow of what it once was – sporting dust, leaves and cobwebs in every corner.
A tattered blue bathrobe still hangs in the closet, pieces of once-vibrant pink wallpaper still peel off the walls and rows of untouched, 50 years-expired canned goods still line the pantry. However, most of Nitt Witt Ridge’s current disrepair is unintended – an inevitable result of erosion and passing time.
Yet, its landmark status still remains.
To earn designation as a California Historical Landmark, a property must be “an outstanding example of a period, style, architectural movement, or construction, or it is one of the more notable works, or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer, or master builder,” according to Sec. 5031 of the Public Resources Code.
Although the house meets this criteria, it does not receive funding from the state or from San Luis Obispo County, according to O’Malley. This means all repair costs come out of pocket, which he said he cannot always afford.
When he first saw Nitt Witt Ridge, O’Malley said it attracted him “like a magnet.” He bought the house in 1999 with plans to bring large tour groups and to add a gift shop, but was quickly stopped short by law enforcement.
Since the building is on residential property, he said, he is unable to do commercial business. This means O’Malley can only conduct small tours at a time, and ask for support through visitors’ donations – setbacks he said that leave him with two choices.
“Either I’ll go broke and lose it, or I’ll die up here,” O’Malley said.
He owns the house, but he does not live there. Since Beal sold the water meter in 1997, Nitt Widge Ridge is unlivable. It is O’Malley’s hope that someone will buy the house from him, he said, and invest money to return it to its former glory.
Due to the house’s current state of disrepair, many residents are sick of the sight of it.
“I don’t like the way it looks – it looks bad,” Cambria resident Jeanine Pheoeh said. “I find that it ruins the whole neighborhood.”
In addition to disliking the house’s image, neighbors are also growing frustrated with tourist traffic crowding Hillcrest Drive’s narrow road, especially at its peak popularity in the summer.
Jerusha Greenwood is a College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences experience industry management professor specializing in sustainable tourism. She said residents generally push back in similar ways when they are concerned with losing the quality of life they are used to.
“There are lots of historic places that fall into disrepair and are unfortunately lost to time,” Greenwood said. “So, if that’s the case, Nitt Witt Ridge might be an issue that eventually the community has to address.”With the exception of a roof added by the Art Beal Foundation and intermittent tweaks from O’Malley, Nitt Witt Ridge has undergone no major repairs since its original construction.”
Nevertheless, the original house stands firm.
“I think [Beal] would be pleased people still marvel the place is still standing – that his ways and means of construction, as unconventional as they were, proved to be enduring,” Appel said.