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The Tall Tale and True Story of the Tin House

Big Sur’s Tin House is a place that’s inspired myths and intrigued visitors for decades.

The Tin House sits high on a Big Sur mountain top in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.  The closest neighbors to the north on Partington Ridge look like specs on a hillside. Its isolation is perhaps what inspired a number of myths over the years.  Well the most common one is it was built for FDR as an escape, a place he could escape to,” said Pam Grossman.  Grossman the granddaughter of the people who built the Tin House: former New York Congressman Lathrop Brown and his railroad heiress wife Helen Hooper Brown.  They owned the Tin House, and the surrounding 1600 acres of land that are now a state park.  Grossman’s grandfather was a childhood friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  They roomed together in prep school and at Harvard. “And they were each other's best man in their weddings.  So they maintained a lifelong friendship.  So it’s a wonderful story that it was a getaway for FDR, not true though,” said Grossman. 

According to State Park Historian Matt Bischoff, the true story is that the Browns built the Tin House, their second home on the property, as a get away from the fog.  “So they decided to build up on the ridge line several miles above the coast.  And by this time it was 1944 in the middle of the war, and there was not the building material availability as there had been before.  So their solution to that was to acquire two gas station buildings that they had disassembled and hauled up to the site,” said Bischoff.  Building the house was no small feat.  They had to construct a road to get all the materials up there, and then hired an architect to reassemble the gas station buildings into a multi-bedroom house with a kitchen and living room for entertaining.

Today getting to the Tin House is still a trek. From highway one, you can either hike up the old construction road or take the more scenic Tanbark Trail.  I took the trail with Jon Iverson of  “I would say this is a strenuous hike.  If you are in pretty good shape you should have no problem at all,” said Iverson.    That said be sure to pack water, a lunch and your camera.   It’s a three mile, uphill hike to the Tin House, about four to five hours round trip.   When we arrive Iverson notices how the Tin House deteriorated.  “Coming up so many years and see how it used to be, I forgot that its deteriorated this badly now.   I mean you could kind of imagine yourself in a somewhat rundown art deco room from the mid to last century.  Now it’s almost, kind of dangerous,” said Iverson.  It isn’t safe to go inside.  The 2008 Basin Complex Wildfire gutted the house.  In fact the trail we took up here just re-opened a few months ago.  The Tin House’s rusty metal exterior is still standing with the roof partially caved in.  State Park Historian Matt Bischoff says he hopes they can stabilize the house, so people can continue to at least view it from a safe distance.  “It’s really a treasure in the south coast Monterey, Big Sur area. It’s very unique building, a building you won’t find like it anywhere else,” said Bischoff.  No matter the condition of the Tin House, the location has a panoramic view of the Big Sur Coast.  It attracted the Browns decades ago that will likely continue to attract visitors for years to come. 

If a four to five hour hike is not in your future, Pam Grossman says the real treasure of the land her grandmother donated to the state in 1962 is McWay Falls.  The waterfall spills directly into the ocean.  It’s a two minute hike from Highway 1, right across the street from the entrance of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.