The Mystery of the Fires
Wolves and dogs filled so many of Jack London’s books that his friend George Sterling nicknamed him “the wolf”. When London began building his dream home in 1911, it became known as Wolf House.
I spent last Saturday afternoon in the heart of the Valley of the Moon having dinner with treasured friends on a beautiful stone patio surrounded by lush, lime green vineyards. As I admired the stunning vistas and rolling hills of Sonoma, I could see in the distance the charred black mountaintops that had been devastated by last October’s catastrophic firestorm.
Only the outlines of brick chimneys remain of many homes scorched by the fires in the small town of Glen Ellen, where Jack London amassed 1200 acres in the early 1900s and dreamed of living the country life on Sonoma Mountain. As we drove through Glen Ellen on our way to dinner, I thought of all the people who had lost their homes to fire in this area, from the famous author of The Call of the Wild to several of my friends and clients last year.
The Wolf House
Jack and Charmian London began construction on their dream home in 1911. Although London himself called it The Big House and even wrote a book titled The Little Lady of the Big House, his friends and the local press called it Wolf House, and that’s the name that stuck. The 15,000 square foot stone and redwood structure cost $50,000 to build, an enormous amount of money at that time. Jack spared no expense in creating the 26-room mansion with nine stone fireplaces, extravagant walnut and oak interiors and even a tower for Charmian.
On August 22, 1913, the final cleanup of Wolf House took place. Plans were made to move the custom designed furniture, thousands of books, travel collections, and the personal belongings of the Londons into their massive new residence, which architect Albert Farr predicted would remain standing for “a thousand years.”
Sadly, the couple would never move into their dream home. That night, a ranch hand noticed a red glow in the Valley sky, much like the people of Glen Ellen saw over a century later. Wolf House was burning. By the time the Londons arrived by horseback from their small cottage a half a mile away, the entire structure was blazing, the tile roof had caved in and nothing could be salvaged.
The loss of the house was a crushing emotional and financial blow to London, and the end of a cherished dream. Mysterious rumors circulated about the cause of the fire, just as they did 104 years later when the Nuns fire engulfed Glen Ellen the night of October 13, 2017 and the residents of 375 homes lost everything.
As the light grew softer where I sat last Saturday, I looked south toward the Valley of the Moon with gratitude that the beautiful home of one of my clients on Aurora Lane in the hills above Glen Ellen was still standing. Following several years of construction, this grand stone and stucco structure with a red tile roof was completed in 2002. The 25-acre wooded parchment of land held several guest quarters plus a huge warehouse which set uphill from Aurora House. The massive wooden warehouse burned to the ground that same October night, but miraculously the adjacent Aurora House survived the epic Northern California firestorms.
I couldn’t help but remember helping my clients, Marilyn and Bob, build their dream home where they envisioned enjoying the country life, just as Jack London vowed to do. The couple planted vineyards, olive trees and heirloom tomatoes. They served delicious tomato sandwiches and gave me bottles and bottles of tasty homemade wine and olive oil whenever I stopped by after the house was finished.
The House is Alive and Well
I know many readers of this blog have admired my client’s home on HGTV, in magazines and on the cover of my 2007 book. But I wanted you to know that after over 50 years together, Marilyn has passed and Bob ultimately remarried and moved to a home on the east side of Sonoma. But the Aurora House they created together is alive and well today, surrounded by the beautiful gardens the couple planted 16 years ago.
Vowing to Rebuild
Jack London vowed to rebuild Wolf House but on November 22, 1916, he died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning at age 40. You can visit the remains of his broken dream in the beautiful Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California, which is now listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Here in Northern California, the cause of the 2017 fires that decimated property and land is still a mystery. Many residents who lost their homes and have vowed to rebuild have filed lawsuits seeking to hold Pacific Gas & Electric liable. At this time, it has not been established if PG&E was at fault or, as the power company claims, climate change and natural causes were to blame.
In any case, many residents who lost their homes in Sonoma County do not have enough money or insurance to cover the cost to rebuild. According to history, neither did Jack London.
Cherish Your Home
I tell these stories that took place over a hundred years apart to encourage you to live in gratitude every day for the place you call home. It can disappear in an instant. Cherish it. Take loving care of it. And say thanks for its shelter every day. Home is truly the heart of life!
For the love of our homes,