September 19, 2017

Step Inside the California Home of John Muir, the Father of U.S. National Parks

  • By: Peter Fish, Houzz Contributor

Read the original story, first published on Houzz, here.

No one did more to turn America’s national parks from dream to reality than John Muir. This bearded, Scottish-born adventurer tirelessly explored the United States from the Gulf Coast to California’s Sierra Nevada to Alaska’s Glacier Bay.

Along the way, he became the nation’s most passionate advocate of preserving its natural wonders for future generations.

Muir cherished his time alone in the outdoors. But his California home reveals another side to the man—loving husband, devoted father, and successful author and farmer.

Muir was middle-aged by the time he arrived in Martinez. Born in Scotland in 1838, he immigrated with his family to Wisconsin when he was 11. The young Muir was a gifted tinkerer who might have had a successful career as a machinist. But when he was in his late 20s, an accident in a carriage parts shop almost blinded him—and convinced him that his true life’s path was in the outdoors.

In 1868, Muir arrived in San Francisco, then walked 300 miles across the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite, which he recognized as his spiritual home. He built a small cabin near Yosemite Creek.

But as much as Muir revered and required wilderness, he was no hermit. A natural storyteller, he attracted a wide circle of friends. In 1874, he was introduced to the Strentzel family of Martinez, a small town about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Dr. John Strentzel was a Polish-born physician-turned-fruit grower. Muir became a frequent guest, appreciative of the good food the doctor’s wife, Louisiana, served—and charmed by the Strentzels’ daughter, Louie. Muir and Louie married in 1880. In 1881, their first daughter, Wanda, was born; a second daughter, Helen, arrived in 1886.

Muir’s father-in-law completed the house in 1883. Designed by San Francisco architects Wolfe and Son, the three-story, 10,000-square-foot Italianate Victorian was built at a cost of $20,000. The opulent house testified to the doctor’s prosperity: One local newspaper proclaimed that “it will be the finest and most complete private residence in the county.” The exterior was painted the same colors you see today—light gray with red trim.

When Strentzel died in 1890, Muir and his family, who had been living in an older home nearby, moved in to share this house with the doctor’s widow.

The red-wallpapered West Parlor is home to a rosewood piano similar to the Steinway that Louie Muir—a trained classical pianist—enjoyed playing. She couldn’t perform when her husband was in the house, though: While Muir liked music, he disliked the sound of the piano. Muir was not, in fact, always an easy man to live with. After his father-in-law’s death, he worked diligently at managing the family orchards. But he would also leave his wife and children for months at a time to explore the West—trips that he wrote up in magazine articles he hoped would encourage Americans to preserve these wild places.

Nevertheless, the Muirs enjoyed a happy marriage. Louie realized that her husband needed his time away in the wilderness. Muir, too, cherished his wife and was devastated when she died in 1905.

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The home's East Parlor is dominated by a large brick fireplace that Muir had installed when the smaller original was demolished by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He was pleased with the results, writing a friend, “I’ve built a big fireplace, almost suitable for mountaineers, into which I roll a jolly pair of logs two feet in diameter and pile a half dozen smaller ones between and back of them making fires that flame and roar and radiate sunny heat.”

Muir’s father-in-law used their redwood- and sapwood-paneled library as his office for his small medical practice and his thriving fruit business. When Muir and his family moved into the house, however, Muir chose not to work there, spending long hours instead in his upstairs study. One theory: he found the library too dark and preferred the sunnier upstairs room. Another: Louie Muir wanted her notoriously untidy husband to work upstairs, keeping his piles of books and papers hidden from guests.

Muir’s upstairs study—which he dubbed The Scribble Den—was where he worked on his magazine articles and books, using the desk that is one of the few original pieces of furniture in the house. Muir did not find writing easy. “Writing is like the life of a glacier, one eternal grind,” he complained. And it was less lucrative than the family fruit business. Still, it was works like Our National Parks that established Muir as the father of the American environmental movement. His writings were greatly responsible for the creation of Mount Rainier, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks, and for the establishment of the entire park service, two years after his death.

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The Muir home's spacious kitchen is dominated by a G. Uhls and Co. coal- and wood-burning stove installed when the house was built in 1883. Although Louie Muir was a good cook, most meals were prepared by Chinese cook Ah Fong, who worked for the Muir family for many years. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen depended on gas lighting and heating. Muir didn’t add electricity until 1912.

By the 1890s, Muir had gained acclaim as an explorer and writer, and his Martinez home drew many famous guests, among them noted artist William Keith and fellow naturalist John Burroughs. Dinners at the Muir home were convivial events. Muir enjoyed entertaining his visitors with stories from his travels; if daughters Wanda and Helen were present, they’d clamor for another installment of his tale of Paddy Grogan, an Irish youth with a kangaroo for a steed.

John Muir died, while traveling, in Los Angeles in 1914; he and his wife are buried in a family gravesite about a mile from the house. After his death, his daughters sold the house; it passed through a series of private owners until local citizens formed the John Muir Association and worked to have the house restored and preserved as a national historic site.

The orchards that surrounded the house were the foundations of the Strentzel family’s prosperity. After his father-in-law’s death, Muir took on the job of running the fruit ranch, quite successfully. But the work took time and energy away from his writing and conservation projects, and he eventually turned over the ranch management to his brother-in-law.

Today, Muir’s home is surrounded by 9 acres of orchards, and visitors are welcome to pick the peaches, pears and other fruits that grow here still.

Visiting the House

John Muir National Historic Site is in Martinez, California, less than an hour northeast of San Francisco. You can explore it on your own or on regular ranger-led tours. The house is also part of the Martinez Home Tour, held each October.

Other Great National Park Homes

  • Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, Danville, California. America’s most distinguished playwright wrote The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Tao House, his Asian-influenced home east of San Francisco.
  • Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, Independence, Missouri. Completed in 1885, this handsome, creamy white Victorian was home to the 33rd president and his wife, Bess, from 1919 to 1972.
  • Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Oyster Bay, New York. Teddy Roosevelt’s 23-room Queen Anne home is one of the most beautiful of presidents’ residences.

By: Peter Fish, Houzz Contributor

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