When the grieving widow Charmian London embarked on construction of her new house on Sonoma Mountain almost a century ago, she dubbed it, somewhat ironically, “The House of Happy Walls.”
Inside it would contain many of the important objects and memorabilia from happier times — her full and passionate life with the internationally renowned writer and adventurer Jack London.
And yet the public museum that eventually opened in the House of Happy Walls after her death contained scant mention of Charmian, the formidable “Mate-Woman” who worked closely with London and shared many of his adventures, including their storied voyage to the South Seas on The Snark.
But now that nearly 60-year-old oversight has been corrected. A new $800,000 renovation of the museum in Jack London State Historic Park that formally opened to the public this weekend with celebrations, a picnic and special events and talks, gives Charmian her due, showing what an integral partner she was to London.
“We wanted to make sure there were exhibits that focused on Charmian London because this was her house. She built this house after he died and there was almost nothing in here about her. Just her little closet,” said Susan St. Marie, the director of program and volunteer management at the Glen Ellen park.
The house itself, built over many years starting in 1919, three years after Jack’s death, remains largely as Charmian left it when she died in 1955.
But the exhibits inside have been re-imagined for the digital age, with audio-visual and interactive components to appeal to a younger generation of visitors.
It is the first time the exhibit has been changed in any notable way since the park first opened in 1960, said Lou Leal, the volunteer historian for the park.
Through the camera
Visitors can look through a “camera” to view photos taken by London, who also was an accomplished photographer, as if they are seeing them through his own camera lens. In another area they can type out messages on what looks like an old-fashioned typewriter, but is really a computer, to show the technology he used to write his 50 books.
They can then print out their messages and reactions to what they’re seeing and tack them up, part of an effort to engage visitors with interactive elements.
When museum visitors go upstairs, they will also see larger-than-life photos of Charmian, the woman who, like Jack, lived big.
She was brazenly independent for her day, an accomplished pianist, photographer, working woman and contributor to the Overland Monthly — a magazine owned by her aunt and uncle — through which she met the promising young writer Jack London.
A considerable amount of space has now been given to the sophisticated and independent woman who was far more than London’s muse.
She figures prominently in a display on the 1907 Snark expedition and has her own exhibit titled, “The New Woman.”
It describes her as a “feminist model” for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a woman who was educated, self-sufficient, liberated and who “valued her own mind as much as any man’s.”
Kids can hop aboard a saddle that Charmian rode astride at a time when most women road sidesaddle, and, through a new audio-visual component to the museum exhibits, hear the sound of leather on horseback.
House of Happy Walls Reopening Weekend Sunday Lineup
Special tours are available throughout the day. For a complete list of weekend activities visit jacklondonpark.com.
Here are some highlights
11:30 a.m.: Bay Area TV personality Doug McConnell, host of “The Open Road with Doug McConnell,” on NBC Bay Area, discusses Jack London in The House of Happy Walls.
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: A community picnic in the Oak Grove Picnic area for a celebratory community picnic featuring hot dogs provided by Sonoma Lions Club. Kite flying, face painting, carriage rides (noon to 2 p.m. and music by Wine County Ragtime Festival’s Director, John Partridge in the Eucalyptus Grove picnic area
1 p.m.: Jack London scholar Cecelia Tichi, a professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt Unitery, hosts a lecture, “Jack London: A Farmer on the Forefront — Then and Now,” on the sunporch of the House of Happy Walls Museum.
2 p.m.: Award-winning author Jean Walker Harvey reads her new children’s book, “Boats on Bay,” followed by a Boat Mobile Craft Activity.