Roger Somers and Elsa Gidlow, Druid Heights




Marin, California, United States

Visiting Information

The site is located in Marin County, CA.

About the Artist/Site

Beginning in 1954, a five-acre property located on the southwestern flank of Mount Tamalpais in western Marin County, California served several generations of alternative communities as a retreat and meeting center. Founded by carpenter Somers and British-born gay Canadian-American poet Gidlow on the site of a former chicken ranch, it was christened Druid Heights by Gidlow in honor of her mentor, Irish teacher and revolutionary Ella Young, known as The Druid. Among the luminaries who visited or stayed at the site was Alan Watts, who, with Gidlow, founded the Society for Comparative Philosophy here in 1962.

Somers’ architecture was influenced by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Japanese architecture, but also made use of vernacular structures found on-site. For example, the library, intended as a repository for Watts’ writings and papers, was constructed out of an old redwood water tank. At its height, some sixteen constructions or designated sites – including a named monumental rock and the Love Garden – graced the property; among these was the Mandala House, a cabin shaped like a lotus flower, and the Moon House, a meditation area with stained glass windows. From the bohemians through the hipsters, the hippies, and other countercultural movements, residents were dedicated to radical artistic, philosophical, spiritual, political, and sexual experimentation, and the site was equally known for its literary gatherings and for its raucous party scene.

Portions of Druid Heights were acquired by the National Park Service in the 1970s with the intent of protecting endangered species and the watershed of Muir Woods, but in 2006 they evicted everyone from the property except those retaining life estates. Technically part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Park Service can take no further action until the passing of the last residents, although a study by the GGNRA has concluded that Druid Heights meets the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and would make an ideal artists’ retreat. Given its degradation, with most of the buildings crumbling and abandoned, it can be considered threatened.

A local group, Save Druid Heights, has organized a Facebook page, and is actively working to preserve what is left of the physical site, as it celebrates the creativity and innovation of those who lived and visited Druid Heights during the years of its flowering.

~Jo Farb Hernández



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