City in central California founded in 1903, incorporated in 1916.

Early history.

Juan Rodrigo Cabrillo sailed up the coast and anchored near Carmel in 1542. He was followed sixty years later by Sebastián Vizcaino. The latter anchored in Carmel Bay and named the river flowing into it El rio del Carmelo (the Carmel River) after some Carmelite monks accompanying him. In 1770, Junipero Serra founded the mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo. (This boded ill for the people already living in the area, but that is another story.) The mission was one of a string of them rising up the coast of "alta California," as the Spanish called it, and has been restored beautifully. Serra, the great mission founder, is buried here.

Carmel sits in the shadow of Monterey, its large and politically important neighbor to the north. Carmel's site was in many ways unpromising, chiefly due to the lack of water in the city area. The Carmel River runs nearby, but that is a relative nearness in this day of cars and tap water. The civic center is effectively dry. Old pictures show the area as typical central California coast, with grasses and some trees, but hardly the artificially lush garden of the present city. The famous Monterey cypresses grow nearby but not naturally on the site of Carmel.

Although speculative land purchasing began in the area as early as 1889, it was not until 1902 that two developers, J. Franklin Devendorf and Frank Powers, acquired the land at the core of the later city and formed a company to promote building at Carmel. They sought above all university professors, and offered discounts to entice them in. Carmel's mission had made it a natural retreat area for Catholics, and they played this angle, too. With the first pioneering residences went up a corporation hotel (now the "Pine Inn") in 1903, a school, a theater, a Protestant church (Church of the Wayfarer), and a free lending library (in 1905). Trees were planted along the platted streets, but the water initially had to be carted into the city from outside sources.

Early Carmel was characterized by a "roughing it" attitude which it lost only gradually. Simple houses (some astonishingly simple) housed free spirits and bohemian types seeking an artistic or pastoral retreat. Several of the great California impressionists (like Maurice Braun, who painted a striking Monterey Cypress, among other local subjects) spent time in and around Carmel in its first decades. At the same time, members of the well-to-do middle class came in and began to build rather more comfortable cottages than the bohemians.

Straddling the line, and perhaps emblematic of early Carmel, was the poet Robinson Jeffers. He arrived in the area in 1914 and in 1918 began building his so-called "Tor House" (for the 'Tor', or craggy knoll on which it stood overlooking the Pacific) for himself and his wife Una well to the south of downtown in an otherwise quite undeveloped area. He acquired much of the land surrounding Tor House, which he aggressively planted with cypresses. Though he sold off most of his parcels of land, you can still read his influence on this area from the trees (illegal to cut a healthy one down in Carmel) and the roads, which curve in obedience to his boundaries. Jeffers built Tor House and the neighboring "Hawk Tower" with his own hands and simple tools, and they are remarkably well and solidly built.

Jeffers was a sentimentalist, obviously sympathetic to the Arts and Crafts movement. His house, which he encrusted with historically and geologially significant objects, embodies these principles. He embedded a piece of stone from the great pyramid in Egypt into the stonework, for example. (Interestingly, at about the same time, Frank Lloyd Wright was doing about the same thing with Asian art at Taliesin.) By the time of his death in 1962, Tor House was firmly within the urban fabric of Carmel.

Wright himself built in Carmel (see below) as did other first-rate architects. Carmel was the seat of activity of Charles Greene (of Greene and Greene fame) from 1915. He built a house and studio, and designed several striking palatial mansions on the nearby Monterey Peninsula. Julia Morgan (of Hearst Castle fame), who lived in Monterey, built a cottage for clients in Carmel in 1940.

The city takes off.

The 1920s saw the development of the commercial core of Carmel (centered on Ocean Avenue) which tourists know and love today. Here are the quaint Spanish mission revival style outdoor arcades, Hansel and Gretel-evoking witches' houses, a few nordic structures, and tons of arts and crafts. Over time Carmel became the highly manicured French poodle of California art havens, a Mecca for tourists and a Valhalla for middle-class retirees. Ordinary people have been priced out of entering the Carmel market (Carmel is not alone in this), and that category of comfy upper-middle bourgeois bohemians ("bobos") described aptly by David Brooks has taken over. Some pertinent evidence: there are no street numbers, and all of the houses have would-be jaunty or quaint names ('Spindrift', 'Made it at last', 'Fool's paradise'.)

Drive along Scenic Road (which runs a few meters from the shoreline) and you will see the result of the flood of residents. Houses of styles from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s line the road, sitting cheek-by-jowl next to one another. A few later houses have been shoehorned in, but these are much rarer. A splendid Frank Lloyd Wright house designed in 1948 (the Walker house) is one of the few structures on the ocean side of Scenic Drive. But if Carmel housing has pretty much expanded to capacity (and maybe a little beyond), strict civic ordinances have protected beaches, ensured public access to the water, kept attractive (if small) green spaces on the ocean side of scenic drive, and kept the aesthetic standard of living astonishingly high.

Carmel today.

None of the expansion has damaged the beauty of the city. It is a breathtakingly attractive place where the resident, even a temporary one like a tourist, can take simple pleasure in the rare mix of natural and highly artificial beauties. The housing, if too crowded, is nevertheless carefully landscaped and finished; people (in typical middle class fashion) are house-proud and maintain (with the conspicuous help of non-anglo gardeners and builders from less fortunate nearby towns like Salinas) little magical havens which attract and detain the eye of the passerby. Occasional gems of architecture from the early days stick out among the later, less noble additions. The air always seems cool, mists are frequent, sea breezes bring ocean smells and refresh the pedestrian. Many coastal redwood trees pepper the streets and house lots, and some are getting reasonably tall after 80 years.

To the casual visitor, the city still presents itself as a haven of the arts, though more realistically, it is now a haven of art galleries. It is not too expensive to stay there, which makes it a very pleasant staging ground for trips to Monterey, Big Sur, and the Monterey Peninsula. Golf is another distinguishing mark of Carmel, not for any municipal golf courses, but for the world-famous ones at nearby Pebble Beach and elsewhere along the so-called 17-mile drive on the peninsula. In the off-season months the city is at its best; still attractive enough in the summer, the glut of tourists and day visitors renders traffic formidable and can remove a lot of the pleasure from a visit. Carmel, like so many of the nice parts of the world, suffers from "too many people syndrome," and sometimes seems like a noble tree being choked by kudzu vines.

Carmel rises to the dignity of being a real place. It is markedly artificial, but this artificiality springs from the technology and human ingenuity which make the city possible in a dry, naturally sparse area. There is scarcely a leaf on a tree, or a stone in a building in Carmel which has not been managed with care and attention. If you find Hansel and Gretel cottages over the top, I ask you to compare a trompe l'oeil church ceiling or a wall full of putti in Baroque Rome. Carmel tastes run to Gemütlichkeit rather than grandezza, but in terms of the money wealthy patrons pump into creating a fantastic manmade environment, I don't discern a great deal of difference.


Image URLs.

http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/2001-3/imagesbraun.htm (representative Braun canvases from San Diego)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/driftwood.jpg (tree on Carmel beach)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/missionfountain.jpg (Carmel mission)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/gingerbreadhouse.jpg (Hansel and Gretel slept here)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/coasthouse.jpg (middle class Gemütlichkeit on Scenic Drive)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/carmelbch4.JPG (green spaces along beach/Scenic Drive)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/carmelbch%208.JPG (typical Carmel beach with Wright's Walker house on far shore)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/fritziesite.jpg (Carmel would look like this without all the artificial care and water)
http://www.carmelbythesea.com/images/sketchesoffice.jpg (cutesy art boutique)
http://www.pebblebeach.com/page.asp?id=1373 (Monterey Peninsula map, Pebble Beach photos)
http://www.endorphin.com/free/index.php (Endorphin.com movies of Monterey County and CA coast (the latter is impressive))

Bibliography.

Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise. The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Simon and Schuster.
Gebhard, David, et al. 1985. The Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California. Gibbs Smith, Publisher. (459-476 on Monterey to Carmel.)
Gerdts, William, and South, Will. 1998. California Impressionism. Abbeville Press.
http://www.carmelcalifornia.com (the municipal web site)
http://www.torhouse.org/history.htm (Tor House history, links to Jeffers sites)
Paul, Linda Leigh, and Kurzaj, Radek. 2000. Cottages by the Sea. The Handmade Homes of Carmel. Universe Publishing.
Shapiro, Steve. 1998. Carmel. A Timeless Place. Central Coast Press. (7-18 on early Carmel history)
Storrer, William Allin. 1993. The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. The University of Chicago Press. (Walker house, catalogue number S.306, pp. 318-319.)
Woodbridge, Sally. 1988. California Architecture. Historic American Buildings Survey. Chronicle Books. (15-25 on the missions)
Zimmerman, Scot. 1992. Guide to Frank Lloyd Wright's California. Gibbs Smith, Publisher. (50-53 on the Walker house.)

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.