For more than eight decades, the historic lodge and cabins of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn have withstood howling winds, punishing wildfires and torrential rains.
But now Mother Nature has delivered some gut punches that the inn — a relic of a bygone era, managed by the Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn Preservation Foundation — cannot survive on its own.
The Big Sur coast’s original roadhouse, the lodge is now appealing to the public for emergency funds to repair and restore the landmark. As a nonprofit organization, it does not have large financial reserves.
“We hope to rebuild, sustain our employees and open our doors,” said Deetjen’s spokeswoman, Jeanne Crowley.
Landslides have destroyed four of its 20 cabins and compromised its other historic structures and all the internal roadways. The downed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge has cut off access to guests, employees and most supplies. The beleaguered inn was still struggling from the economic blow of last summer’s 134,000-acre Soberanes Fire, which spared the lodge but forced its closure to all but a few intrepid tourists.
It can only keep five of its 50 staffers, some of whom have worked there for three generations. It is hoping to keep these families sustained through unemployment insurance and donations, until it can bring them back.
Deetjen’s rustic buildings were constructed between 1936 and 1950 by Helmuth Deetjen and Helen Haight, who bought the property from descendants of José Castro, whose father came to California on the 1775–1776 Anza Expedition.
Deetjen employed the vernacular wooden building traditions of his native Norway in its design, creating a cluster of rough-hewed cabins under the boughs of redwood groves in the scenic Castro Creek Canyon.
The lodge responded to an expanding need for overnight visitor accommodations along the Big Sur coastline as a result of the opening of the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, a precursor to Highway 1, in 1936. It became a haunt for local artists and writers, among them poet Robinson Jeffers and author Henry Miller.
And even as Big Sur has grown expensive and exclusive, Deetjen’s has not. Unlike other retreats in the area, which cost hundreds of dollars per night, it has stayed affordable.
There’s no Wi-Fi, TV, cell service, hot tub or spa. Rooms are full of character: dim and cozy, with dark wood and tilted floors, decorated with antiques and warmed with wood-burning Franklin stoves. Deetjen’s personal touch is everywhere, from hand-carved wood balusters to plaques with quotes from world literature and his own homilies.
“We wanted people to experience what Big Sur was years ago, while staying up-to-date with comforts,” such as linen sheets, Crowley said.
Its restaurant was beloved for local cuisine from the Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley, such as baby organic green salads, seared tuna and pork tenderloins. The dining room features a portrait of Deetjen, smoking a pipe with one eyebrow arched. Cats meander through its well-tended gardens.
Last summer, the Soberanes fire almost caused it to close full-scale operations. It stayed opened primarily as a service to the community, offering meals and a place to stay for firefighters. While this was a major economic shock, the lodge expected a full recovery.
“We thought we’d catch up over the winter,” Crowley said.
Then the winter’s storms severely damaged the property, when a mudslide and downed trees crushed the duplex Creek House, the Stokes cabin and the Faraway cabin.
“The trees came down, and tore this whole mountain down,” said lodge historian Doris Jolicoeur.
The coup de grace was a landslide that shut down all Highway 1 access from the south — and, even more profoundly, the closing and demolition of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 to the north.
This dictated that Deetjen’s close completely, which has been devastating to the families who depend on the lodge for income. The plight is shared by neighbors Nepenthe, Ventana and the Post Ranch Inn.
The few employees who stayed behind miss their families and co-workers, who are now on the other side of the broken bridge. They stay connected by phone, said Viancy Cortez, 24. “It’s been hard. My dad, sister and boyfriend are on the other side.”
The Foundation has not yet tallied its total losses, but estimates that repairs could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition to cabin rebuilding, they must refurbish and fix interior roads and other infrastructure.
“What we are planning to do is save and use as much lumber as we can — the doors, the beams, the windows — so we can duplicate what we have,” Jolicoeur said.
With the bridge down, it must find new vendors for fresh food and supplies from the south, from places like Cambria, Lucia and Paso Robles.
It also wants to help its employees, so they return. “People are in shock, and we’re helping with paperwork, email and on the phone,” Crowley said. “Deetjen’s has always taken care of its employees, providing benefits, so we could offer the best quality of services to our guests.”
“We want to turn Deetjen’s into what it was before,” she said. “If you’ve stayed at and enjoyed Deetjen’s in the past, a donation of any amount will be greatly appreciated.”
Deetjen’s is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, so donations are tax deductible. To give, go to: https://www.gofundme.com/help-save-deetjens-big-sur-inn or write: Deetjens Big Sur Inn Preservation Foundation Inc., 48865 Highway One, Big Sur, CA 93920.