Wild Love: Helmuth & Helen Deetjen

by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Image by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Today’s Wild Love is inspired by one of the most beautiful places in the country, Big Sur, and the couple who helped define its style: Helmuth Deetjen and Helen Haight Deetjen.

In the late 1920s, carpenter Helmuth Deetjen fled Norway and eventually settled in beautiful Big Sur, California. He met and married Helen Haight, who came from an important family of wealthy and prominent political figures in California. She settled with Helmuth, trading a house in Carmel for a tent on four acres that she owned in Big Sur’s Castro Canyon. Using reclaimed wood from canneries in Monterey, Deetjen built a redwood barn on the property. As people like Henry Miller and the Beat poets started coming through Big Sur, word spread about the Deetjens’ barn, which they opened up for weeks to travelers looking to write, hike the Castro Canyon or just unwind.

Top to bottom: Helen Haight Deetjen & Helmuth Deetjen, in front of the main barn, photo courtesy of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn; Portrait of Helmuth Deetjen, photo by Mary Kathryn Paynter; Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn today, photo by Mary Kathryn Paynter

By 1941, they had started building five structures and turned the property into Big Sur Inn. The main barn was turned into a restaurant that was overseen by Helen. The warm, self-taught-carpenter look of the buildings became the defining style of architecture for not only Big Sur, but also much of northern California, inspiring countless builders of handmade houses with its hallmark exposed redwood beams, low ceilings and concrete floors, reclaimed windows and fixtures and hand-carved and handmade touches. — Mary Kathryn

The full post continues after the jump . . .

Top to bottom: Staghorn fern and assorted succulents growing on the side of a cabin; One of the cabins at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn today, located at the base of the redwoods in Castro Canyon, Big Sur; Interior of the restaurant. Images by Mary Kathryn Paynter.

Helmuth and Helen became known as “Grandpa” and “Mrs. D” Deetjen to everyone who stayed. Mrs. D had a love of chocolates and juicy gossip, while Grandpa spent much of his time in the beautiful library onsite, listening to classical music and enjoying red wine. Their spirit and spunk for managing their paradise lasted throughout their old age. Robert Cross writes in his book, Big Sur Tales, about the hand-painted sign at the front desk that read, “All of our guests make us happy — some by coming, others by going.”

After Helen died in 1962, followed by Helmut in 1972, their ashes were buried together at the base of the redwoods in the Castro Canyon, and the property was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Their love for Big Sur and its beauty inspired not just a community of artists and writers, but also a style of handmade architecture that reflects the warmth, quirkiness and natural beauty of the area.

Images by Mary Kathryn Paynter

Today’s arrangement is inspired by the local beauty of Big Sur, where the wildflowers are exceptionally bright and beautiful. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn has a beautiful English-style garden that winds around the cabin on the property and is made up of shade-loving plants such as begonias, roses and ferns. My arrangement is a bit more summery, as it is inspired by the bright wildflowers that grow along the Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, the likes of which one encounters when stepping out of the redwoods and toward the beautiful rocky beaches.

To begin, I used the tall bushy stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and euphorbia, both found growing in Big Sur, to create fullness and height in the arrangement. Next I added yarrow, which I consider to be an iconic California flower. Yarrow comes in many different colors, and I opted to use both a peachy orange and a blush pink to soften the greens and yellows of the Queen Anne’s lace and euphorbia. Next I added beautiful English lavender, which is grown in many Big Sur gardens, including the one at Deetjen’s. Finally, I finished with long stems of scabiosa, which also grows in the garden at Deetjen’s. This particular scabiosa is purple, but it’s variegated with white, which gives the petals a soft, almost dyed feel.

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  • So beautiful. I feel like I’m visiting my mother’s former life. For many happy years, she and her husband lived in Carmel in a darling cottage they named Nevertheless. Big Sur was my favorite side-trip.

  • This post was so special to me, because I recently traveled to Big Sur, and I’ve read about this inn. I loved reading more about its history, and your wildflower bouquet is so lovely! The flowers bring back happy memories of Big Sur’s breath-taking landscape.

  • Wild Love is so calm and beautiful today. I would love to recommend a perfect record to listen to when reading this post (or arranging the flowers). “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur” by Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Farrar, accompanying a documentary under the same title. It’s indie rock , singer-songwriter, clear and bright :).

  • Found Deetjens Inn totally by accident in 1987, and had a magical stay, that my husband and i still reminisce about. Lovely post – thanks for filling in the history of this very special place.

  • Deetjen’s (the restaurant) is fabulous. My boyfriend and I had breakfast there twice on a recent trip to Big Sur and I think about it all the time. The decor is charming, the staff is friendly & knowledgeable, and the food was simple yet fantastic.

  • My husband and I have stayed at Deetjen’s a few times, and for years made an annual camping trip to Big Sur with friends…it is truly a magical spot, it’s like you can still feel the creative energy that has run through there. As a matter of fact, we ended up naming our now-two-year-old son Bixby, partly inspired by the Bixby bridge which was always our signal that we had made it to Big Sur. Lovely bouquet, too! :) xo Laura

  • My husband &I stayed there in the 70’s while visiting Big Sur. We’ll always remember the delighful table settings with mismatched china & silverware in the restaurant, & the huge pancakes that hung over the sides of the plate. It was special place then, & I’m certain it still is!

  • Surprised no one has mentioned the guest books and the secret notes hidden in the walls! Each room has its own guestbook(s) and they are way more interesting to read than any novel you might have brought with you. People also hide little notes in the walls. I left my own note in the wall after a magical weekend spent in SF with a young man I was completely smitten with. He’s a distant memory now but leaving that note in the wall, in a stupendously clever hiding place–that action, and my joy in doing it, will remain with me forever.

  • Guestbook entries anonymous , sublime. Lovers trysts, frozen moments in time. Fireplace glow; no tv or phone. Just two souls in bed alone.

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