New Exhibits at the House of Happy Walls by Susan Nuernberg
The House of Happy Walls built by Charmian London that serves as the Jack London State Park museum in Glen Ellen, CA, re-opened with brand-new exhibits on November 10 and 11, 2018, after being shuttered for over a year.
The twenty-two new exhibits, designed by the Sibbett Group and fabricated and installed by Gizmo Art Production, are intended to inspire visitors to pursue their own dreams and passions as Jack and Charmian did. The $800,000 re-imagining of the exhibits brings into focus Charmian London’s considerable accomplishments as a sailor, writer, pianist, equestrian, stenographer, photographer and Jack’s mate.
The re-opening of the House of Happy Walls museum with new interpretive exhibits also marked the 55th anniversary of the park’s National Historic Landmark status. Visitors were hailed with plenty of fanfare. For a fee, one could take a docent-led tour of the Wolf House and be regaled with ghost stories and a reading of passages from Jack’s works or tour the Beauty Ranch and be plied in the garden of the cottage with Jack London wines made by Kenwood from the grapes grown on the ranch. For the $10 per-carload admission fee to the park, one could join a docent-led hike to the Beauty Ranch, Jack’s gravesite and Wolf House, and to the ancient redwood tree, or listen to a lecture. Iris Jamahl Dunkle spoke about Charmian’s three-day visit in 1901 to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York; Cecelia Tichi discussed Jack as a visionary farmer; and Doug McConnell, who currently hosts the “Open Road with Doug McConnell – NBC Bay Area,” talked about the park’s continuing appeal to him after years of travel.
Younger visitors were amused by some of Jack and Charmian’s favorite pastimes including their love of the sea and the art of fencing when children’s book author Jean Walker Harvey read her latest book Boats on the Bay and when En Garde Fencing of Santa Rosa gave a fencing demonstration and instruction. Carriage rides were provided by Neil Shepard, but the community picnic with hot dogs, kite flying, face painting, and music planned for November 11th had to be cancelled due to a red flag alert. Although the air quality was unhealthy due to smoke from the Camp fire, attendance was considered good.
Many rooms in Charmian’s House of Happy Walls that have always been off-limits to visitors are now open and contain exhibits. Visitors can enter the dining room to see a display of London’s sustainable agricultural practices and walk right up to the big fireplace on the first floor and sit in the window seats on either side of it. A replica of the long, mahogany surfboard London used in Waikiki is mounted in the window above the seat on the front side of the house. Charmian’s office, formerly filled with a Snark exhibit, is now the State Park’s gift shop. It is stocked with a complete paperback edition of all of Jack and Charmian’s books as well as some of their first editions. Upstairs the two small guest bedrooms off the hallway are now open. One contains a display of items acquired for Wolf House and the other features a timeline of Jack and Charmian’s lives. Although there is a small gate barring access to Charmian’s grand piano in one corner, the second-floor sundeck porch, fireplace and one of the window seats are open now as well.
Two entirely new additions consist of a large topographical map of the ranch on the main floor showing the buildings and trails with buttons that trigger sounds, such as the squealing of a pig for the Pig Palace, and a large globe on the second floor with the intended and the actual route of the Snark voyage clearly traced (he intended to revisit Korea and Japan, but not the Yukon Territory).
The only acknowledgement of Jack’s first wife and two daughters was to be found in “The Family Album,” one of the items not finished in time for the grand opening. Unhappy about the omission of her ancestors, Joan London’s granddaughter, Tarnel Abbott, set up a table outside the museum on Sunday displaying photos and dispensing information to visitors interested in learning about the existence of Jack’s descendants.
Jack London Park Partners executive director Tjiska Van Wyck, who was on hand for the opening on Sunday, told me that she plans to collect feedback from visitors on the exhibits for the next three months, at which time she will see that any errors or misleading statements brought to her attention are corrected.
In conclusion, I believe Charmian, who built the House of Happy Walls to serve as a museum to her life with Jack London, would be very pleased with direction the new exhibits take to inspire visitors.