Lathrop Brown and FDR: Epilogue

burns

Long before I had ever heard of the FDR Suite, I’d visited an absolutely spectacular spot on California’s coast. Located along Highway 1, just south of Big Sur, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation. Face westward, and thousand foot cliffs drop off into churning blue seas, while behind you, redwood forests rise pacifically into the mountains. There’s even a waterfall, where a small stream catapults off the rock and onto the beach hundreds of feet below.  It’s a perfect place to hike, picnic, or simply admire nature’s majesty.

The site is also interesting to history buffs. Home to some of the area’s earliest settlers, the land for the park was donated by a family who’d bought and ranched the property, building a series of successively grander houses perched on a point overlooking the ocean starting in the 1920s. The construction effort must have been nothing short of monumental: there was no Highway 1 at the time, nor anchorage in the rocky harbor. All supplies had to come over the mountains on mule train or unpaved track. By my day, the house was no longer extant – it had been bulldozed into the sea in the 60s when the State of California lacked funds to turn it into a museum – but bits and pieces of the gardens still remained, strange exotics poking through native coastal plants. An intrepid visitor can still sit where the grand old terrace once was, and on a clear day watch a vermillion sun sink through a mauve sky into a slate gray pacific. It’s a truly magical spot, majestically mournful, with a very special allure I’ve always felt keenly. Each time I was in the area, I made sure to find a few hours to wander around the park, resolving as I meandered to discover the name of the family who had been so drawn to this spot as to build a house here against such odds.

Of course, then I would return home to Boston, and amid the rush of quotidian living, forget, until next time…

Fast-forward a decade: Day one, minute five, of my involvement with the FDR Suite Renovation Project.

The scene: Judy and Sean Palfrey, Father George and I are sitting in the study of the FDR Suite. I’m looking around, awed:

Michael: Wow, so FDR really lived right here in Westmorly, eh?
Judy: Yes
Michael: Who knew? (We did, the Palfreys and Father George were thinking, but were too polite to say.)
Sean: That’s the problem. It’s a too-well kept secret. We need to get the word out.
Michael: I agree. Did he live alone?
Father George: No, there was a roommate.
Michael: Who was it?
Judy: Someone named Lathrop Brown. Friend of FDR’s, a congressman too, later.
Michael: Any other information?
Sean: That’s about all we know.
Michael: Hmmm. Lathrop Brown. Certainly doesn’t ring a bell. I’ll have to do some research.

So gentle reader: care to guess who donated the land for the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and whose ruined house I had been so curious about all those years?

Dedicatory-plaque

The plaque I'd missed on my travels...

And finally, at year’s end, as we contemplate indecipherables of past and present, a question: what odds might you have given that in eight thousand miles on separate coasts I would become intimately acquainted with two such tiny, but completely interrelated spots, so important to a single man of whom I’d never heard?

Personally, I wouldn’t have taken that bet in a million years.

Comments

Lathrop Brown and FDR: Epilogue — 6 Comments

  1. I walked on this spot myself in the early 70s…took a photo of the waterfall going into the sea…who knew??? I have to look for that photo!!! Great piece Michael!

    Cheers ~ Teresa

  2. A good story.
    Another good one could be how and why Lathrop Brown built a home of salvaged tin atop the mountain behind the Waterfall House – and how did he get the U.S. Dept of the Interior to build a road to it.
    And, what happened to all the cultural riches Helen Brown left to the State of California.

  3. Michael-
    I thought I’d read that Brown was building a house in the area that is now the park that he intended FDR to live in after he was President, but that FDR died first.
    Anyway, I love the spot as you do, and have fond memories of Harvard, so it’s cool to see what you are doing.
    Jim O’Connell (class of 1975)