The ‘Poor Man’s Hearst Castle’: Nitt Witt Ridge is California’s most eccentric landmark
Editor’s note: This is the third installation in The Tribune’s new series “That’s SLO Weird,” exploring the things that make San Luis Obispo County so wonderful and so ... well ... weird.
Wondering about something weird in SLO County? Send your tips to Andrew Sheeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been called the “poor man’s Hearst Castle.”
But while Cambria’s Nitt Witt Ridge might bear a superficial similarity to William Randolph Hearst’s eccentric edifice — located just a few miles up the road in San Simeon— those comparisons fade away once you spend a few minutes inside Arthur “Art” Beal’s former home.
Abalone shells decorate stone walls. Beer cans line a garden path.
By the time you spot the portraits of Beal’s favorite Hollywood movie stars, framed by toilet seats, you realize you aren’t in La Cuesta Encantada anymore.
Because it’s impossible to separate Nitt Witt Ridge from the man who built it, it’s important to know just who Beal — aka Der Tinkerpaw, aka Captain Nitt Witt — really was.
The man, the myth, the Nitt Witt
Consuelo Macedo, historian and columnist for The Cambrian, remembers sitting in Art Beal’s parlor at Nitt Witt Ridge, having tea.
Beal, a longtime local trash collector by profession and pastime, would be talking, joking and just being his usual self. Then a tourist would appear outside the gates of Nitt Witt Ridge, doubtless drawn by the the funky folk art home’s cult reputation.
“(Art) would lapse into character,” Macedo said, hunching his shoulders and assuming the role of Captain Nitt Witt, local codger and crank.
It was a reputation that spread nationwide, spurred along by an appearance in the 1970s on a TV show called “Real People.” People heard about Beal’s house and expected the resident eccentric to be ... well ... eccentric. He never disappointed.
But Captain Nitt Witt, as he came to be called by locals, was just a persona, Macedo said.
“He never did that with us. He was just straightforward,” she said.
“He had his public persona and he had his at-home persona,” said Elizabeth Appel, a close friend of Beal’s and former member of the Art Beal Foundation — created to promote the artist and his art.
Before he became Captain Nitt Witt, Beal — allegedly born in San Francisco to an Irish father and a Klamath mother — made a name for himself as a wrestler and swimmer.
It’s unclear when he came to Cambria, but Beal started building Nitt Witt Ridge in 1945. “He just took off at that point,” Appel said.
A building inspector’s nightmare
For decades, Beal worked tirelessly building his home. “He did his own wiring, electrical. I’m sure it was not up to code,” Macedo said.
It was Beal’s choice of building materials that elevated him to legend status: abalone shells and scavenged wood, metal pipes and stacked tire rims. And the omnipresent Busch beer cans.
Beal lined up several beer cans in his garden so, he claimed, the wind would blow through the openings and scare the gophers, Nitt Witt Ridge’s current owner, Michael O’Malley, said.
O’Malley suspects Beal just liked to drink beer and thus had an abundance of cans.
“Every 15 minutes, he said, he’d take a coffee break: a Busch beer in a coffee cup,” O’Malley said.
‘This place is underground’
Beal died on Aug. 16, 1992. His ashes were spread around a redwood on the property.
For years, Beal’s house, which was designated a California Registered Historical Landmark in 1986, sat empty. In 1999, Michael and and Stacey O’Malley bought Nitt Witt Ridge after they saw the property listed for just $42,000.
“I had a little money. Boom. I was just drawn to it. I was drawn to it from the minute I saw it,” O’Malley said. “Now I think it bought me. I can’t leave. I’m stuck.”
O’Malley began leading groups of people through the house in 2001.
He now heads four or five walk-throughs a day, regaling visitors with a well-practiced routine and reminding them to watch their step as they walk from room to room. After all, Beal didn’t exactly build Nitt Witt Ridge to code.
Visitors to the house have included NBC News’ Lester Holt and Norman Reedus from AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley said he doesn’t call his excursions “tours” because that sounds too much like commercial activity; Nitt Witt Ridge sits in a residential zone. Instead of advertising the walk-throughs directly, he has a sign out front that says “Human waste” and the time of the next tour.
“I’m underground. This place is underground, man,” O’Malley said.
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whose district includes Cambria, said one of the concerns with running tours out of the house is the parking situation.
Nitt Witt Ridge sits on a narrow hillside road, with a short pull-off for cars. “The residents in the neighborhood have had some close calls” with traffic, Gibson said.
Still, for a house built by an untrained eccentric, it’s remarkable Nitt Witt Ridge has lasted so long.
O’Malley said he was giving a tour of the home in 2003 when the San Simeon earthquake hit. That 6.6-magnitude temblor killed two people, injured dozens and caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.
“This stuff didn’t even get knocked off of the shelves,” O’Malley said, referring to an assortment of cans and jars.
‘The anti-Hearst Castle’
According to O’Malley, Nitt Witt Ridge is “the opposite of Hearst Castle. It’s the anti-Hearst Castle.”
Hearst Castle is famous for its glamorous Neptune Pool, Nitt Witt Ridge for Beal’s his-and-hers double-toilet outhouse. Hearst Castle houses dozens of priceless pieces of artwork; Beal’s features bawdy wallpaper.
“The longer I’m here, I think his true love was bathroom humor,” O’Malley said.
But while Nitt Witt Ridge’s collection runs toward the oddball, Macedo said Beal was no less proud of his home.
“His castle was filled with as many treasures as Hearst had,” she said.
Funnily enough, one of those treasures came directly from Hearst Castle — specially, the bathroom of Hearst’s longtime mistress.
“(Art) was very proud that among his possessions he had Marion Davies’ bathtub,” Macedo said.
Visit Nitt Witt Ridge
To schedule a walkthrough of Nitt Witt Ridge, call 805-927-2690. A $10 donation is suggested.