Woodbutcher Origins: Beth Livermore Cabin, 1917, Big Sur, Ca. | Sam Trotter, Designer and Builder

In my slide presentations, thanks to information that’s emerged since the publication of my book, I’ve been able to go deeper into the principal sources of woodbutcher design and construction, an approach that was first captured in the early 1970s by Lloyd Kahn and the team of Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit and quickly photograph a house that I’ve concluded is an early icon of the approach, the 1917 Beth Livermore House, aka Rancho Para Todos, in Big Sur. This is a house made by Sam Trotter, and in fact it’s his oldest standing house.

Some people have suggested that my book dwells heavily on “the Big Sur look.”  There’s a reason for that: the Big Sur look is the woodbutcher look.

I’ll quickly summarize. In the 1960s, when back-to-the-land designer/builders went into the countryside seeking examples of anti-intellectual, anti-corporate, honest, and soulful buildings that demonstrated an acute awareness and respect for the land, an “architecture without architects,” those who made it to Big Sur promptly called off the search and started taking notes. Here, in one of America’s most topographically breathtaking regions, existed one of the richest collections of site-subordinate homesteader-era or pioneer style buildings in all the United States. European Modernism had never gotten traction here. The 19th-century homesteader vernacular was not only still around to be studied, it was still in use and regarded as relevant and vital within the local culture. What’s more, the Big Sur buildings (cabins, barns, outhouses) had been constructed almost exclusively with locally sourced hand-split redwood. Talk about sublime.

Seeking to capture the shibui of old hand-split redwood structures like Rancho Para Todos here without having to fell the trees and learn a forgotten craft, back-to-the-land builders tapped into a newly available materials resource, one with remarkably similar aesthetic and structural qualities: giant, patina-rich old bridge timbers. Yes, this new building activity coincided with the shift that was taking place in America’s transportation infrastructure: The old timberframed bridges were being deconstructed, replaced with steel-reinforced concrete. In northern and central California, the opportunities for the reclaimed-timber seeker were especially plentiful. (Consider all the coastal bridges in just Big Sur.) Take another look at the first Handmade Houses book, or the section on Doug Madsen in Shelter; this one material came to define the woodbutcher aesthetic.

Rancho Para Todos has been in the possession of the State of California since 1955, when Beth Livermore’s estate donated it. In the 1960s and 70s, a steady stream of hippie seekers squatted here for a period and had their way with it. (The house is near the Esalen Institute.) Today, Livermore’s old place is part of the John Little State Reserve and barred from public access and appreciation, despite its rich history. Given the recent State Park funding cuts, the house’s unfortunate scenario isn’t likely to change.

In 1980, the Big Sur Gazette ran an article on the house, which was then being restored by Sam Trotter’s son Frank and Doug Madsen and John Larmour. The piece quotes the late Big Sur graphic artist Harrydick Ross, who called Sam Trotter “a God damn natural genius.” Ross summed up the relationship between Livermore and Trotter this way: “He just went down there with a broad axe and a saw, and he hauled and split lumber and built her her house!”

Enjoy the photos (and note the cowhide door hinges and handmade redwood hardware).