The light hand of architect Chuck Davis and
willing handiwork of contractor Gene DeSmidt revive
the historic stone buildings at Tassajara Zen monastery
Text and photography by David Fuess
Pacific, the Monterey Bay monthly, July 1990
For thousands of years the Chinese have allied sensitivity to environment and rhythms of nature to architecture and to daily living. Proper orientation and use of materials was evolved so as not to offend the presumed spirits and forces of nature. The desire was to create a safe living environment that enhanced good luck and economic well-being. In the West this might have evolved from commonsense or philosophical architects who told us that "less is more" and "form follows function."
The seeking of "harmony between user and space," known as feng shui (foong shwei), is a reemerging discipline. Architects from Hong Kong to San Francisco consult feng shui artists before choosing a building site and again to the siting of the building.
A hidden example of feng shui principles is found at Marsh's antique shop at 599 Fremont in Monterey. To enter one must walk around a spirit screen that "bends" energy and people as they enter. The same principle is encountered when one crosses the aesthetically arched bridge to the Hot Springs at the Zen Monastery at Tassajara. A feng shui expert was consulted for the recently completed restoration of the stone rooms at Tassajara, and similar sensitivities can be felt in the interviews with Charles Davis, architect for the project and Gene DeSmidt, who did the restoration.
Exhausted and elated, contractor Gene DeSmidt spoke as if he did not know how to relax, though he knew that he finally could and had to. He had that very day finished the last details of an exciting and unique restoration project at Tassajara Zen monastery.
The historic stone buildings were 110 years old and had been condemned as unsafe. DeSmidt says, "Reinforcement of the buildings was completed just five days before the October earthquake which would certainly have destroyed them. They're the oldest structures in the Tassajara Valley.
The now solid stonewalls were originally constructed by Chinese laborers. The reason the buildings were constructed in such a remote upper Carmel Valley area was the discovery of therapeutic sulfur Hot Springs flowing from giant rocks by the river. Nearby caves are more than 1000 years old, indicating that the local Indian population knew of the springs long before the first white hunter discovered them in 1843. (Indeed, he encountered Indians headed toward the baths to cure a skin disease they had contracted.)
A steaming brew of 32 minerals, Tassajara Hot Springs caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institution which declared the richest spring then known in the United States. Costanoan and Salinan Indians gave way to the arrival of Frank Rust, who founded the baths in 1868, and hunters such as "Rocky" Beasley, said to have killed 132 Bear in the local area. Jack Bordon, according to the old information, gave the name Tassajara which means "a place where meat is dried and jerked."
From Carmel to Jamesburg is about 26 miles, then begins a difficult dirt road best navigated by a standard shift car with good brakes or the four-wheel-drive modern "stagecoach" provided for the convenience of summer guests. This is a continuation of an old tradition. The road opened in 1890 and a four horse all-day stage plied the road three times a week bearing, no doubt, white knuckled passengers to their baths. A sizable tree, attach to the rear of the coach, was needed to create sufficient drag to negotiate the final eight mile downgrade.
Why anyone would risk the road, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, heat, dryness, possible fires and a dozen other hazards to take the baths may seem strange. DeSmidt says, "There was a Victorian fascination with 'taking the waters'. This was popular in Europe and here was found the California equivalent. People dressed up for dinner and wore suits and ties.
"It was a hunting club for a while. Then in the '50s from what I understand, it changed. It was a real den of iniquity at one point. Mean with whiskey and guns and so forth. Cowboys and bikers. Check your guns at the door and raise all kinds of hell."
San Francisco Zen Center bought Tassajara in 1965 from Anna Beck and her family. Part of the agreement the Becks hammered out was that the resort must be open to the public a certain amount of time. Zen teacher Alan Watts, poet Gary Snyder, musician Ali Akbar Khan, and dozens of others put on benefits to help cover the significant expense to purchase. There was a tremendous appreciation for Zen practice as it made its way from China, Korea, and Japan to the United States. Joseph Campbell has stated "the opening of the gateless gate through nature to our own nature is the great Zen gift to our age."
While the Tassajara Zen center is open to guests for May to Labor Day (and is usually booked well in advance), a year-round community of Zen practitioners is in place. "We're talking about a group of people here, not just one individual, and were talking about a Zen Buddhist monastery which is really a unique phenomenon, says DeSmidt. These people are heavily involved in inner work. They are often dealing with heavy personal transition while they are doing what they are doing.
Everyone at the Zen Center works and remembers the Hyakujo's statement "a day of no work is a day of no eating." When Gene DeSmidt allied himself with a renowned architect Chuck Davis and engineer John Rutherford to rebuild the stone buildings he may not have realized how much work he was in for.
Or maybe he did. He had been a close friend to the Zen center for more than 18 years. From offering to do simple repairs he has gone on to refurbish the simply beautiful hot baths with great integrity and aesthetic sensitivity. The use of rare red and white cedars from Washington state gave the baths a subtle smell and a delicate color scheme. He donated his work to build the elegant arching Japanese style bridge which carries bathers across the river to the baths.
When DeSmidt encountered the stone rooms, which had originally been used for private baths, he found that "you could move the stone columns with your hand, there was no mortar left." It would have been easy to tear down the existing structures but an aesthetic and historical decision was made to preserve the structures.
"The 18 inch walls are buttressed and can't move out" DeSmidt says. "We used steel reinforced concrete." DeSmidt had studied Japanese carpentry techniques so he brought his expertise to the task. "The Japanese style is intelligent," he says. "It joins the wood to itself. It shows off the wood and you have to know exactly what you're doing. That attention spreads out into all the work you do. What is the basic theory of Japanese carpentry? …Proper use of the materials."
The logistics of building, and building well, in such an isolated area could become a nightmare. DeSmidt made 56 trips to the Zen center in his Isuzu Trooper (are you listening Joe?). The road was covered in deep snow until mid-April. He would lie to the delivery people about the road conditions. "They knew I had 10 lies to use and I used eight of them. 'Sure the road is great, come on in.' With ice chains on all four wheels we would still be slipping," DeSmidt says. "It is not an easy thing to do. I'd never do it." The lumber was brought and milled at the site. He could not forget any details because there was no hardware store nearby to go to purchase a missing screw.
Architect Chuck Davis donated his time to the entire project. Of the partnership DeSmidt says, "Our relationship has been strong. It is the best relationship I've ever had with an architect. We've done everything together on this project."
The end result is that the buildings have been brought back to life. Attention has been paid to all the details. The washbowls in the bathroom glisten in the sun admitted by the skylights. The old stone fireplace is solid and inviting. The back patios virtually sigh their visitors over the river. Nature is omnipresent yet the residents feel safe. Summer burns outside yet one is cool. Subtle purples and grays play about the river stone walls. The beamed ceilings give a sense of height. The furnishings are simple and clean. Kerosene lamps await an evening match.
The buildings have been nominated for several architectural awards in the category of restoration. The work has been done by people who care both for the Tassajara Zen monastery and for the aesthetic principles and philosophy which it represents. The original abbot of the monastery, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, was himself a stonemason of note. He was a man "always at rest" even when he was working. They say that you can see the difference in the stone wall he was building when he died. What was done afterwards was not quite the same. He might even give a grunt of approval about the restoration if he was still here.
Gene DeSmidt says with satisfaction, "These buildings will be here another hundred years…the big success as far as I'm concerned is the fact that we saved the building from the earthquake. The whole idea was to protect the stone buildings from a seismic event. We didn't expect the earthquake to happen and we certainly didn't know that it would happen so close to when we finished our foundation pours-- five days after 110 years.