A Short History of Tao House
and East Bay Regional Park
August 10, 2016
Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill purchased 158 acres of land, built their home, Tao House, and lived in Danville’s western hills from 1937-1944. In this isolated rural sanctuary with its views of the valley and Mount Diablo, he wrote his last, great plays.
They sold the property to Arthur and Charlotte Miller who recalled that O’Neill thought the land reminded him of corduroy. In February of 1944, the couple purchased the O’Neill house and property. They bought about 900 more acres, built another barn, grazed cattle and named their land the Corduroy Hills Ranch.
Widowed in 1953, Charlotte later married Hugh Carlson.
This ranch was put on the market in 1965. It was optioned by the United Empire Realty Company of El Cerrito, a Hawaii-based syndicate of investors, who marketed the land for development of possibly 1500 homes. Their brochure, “Corduroy Hills,” touted the O’Neill name and house as selling features. These efforts fell through and the property reverted to Charlotte Carlson Gerdes, by then married to Stanley Gerdes and living in Piedmont.
Work to Save Tao House
Thalia Brewer, whose children had played with the Carlson children at the House, was alarmed at the proposed development and loss of the O’Neill legacy in Danville. In 1965 she and others formed the Eugene O’Neill Historic Site Association, which three years later morphed into the Eugene O’Neill National Monument Association. Joined by Darlene Blair and Lois Sizoo, these three women became a force to be reckoned with in saving the O’Neills’ house and property for the public. Helping as well were Las Trampas Wilderness Committee (Manfred Lindner and park supporters from Rossmoor) and the Contra Costa Parks Council which advocated saving both the surrounding open space and the O’Neill site.
Local Congressman Jerome R. Waldie introduced several bills regarding Tao House. One designated it a National Monument (1968) and a second called for the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site and Las Trampas Ridge National Park (1969). None of the bills got out of committee.
In 1971 Tao House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thalia Brewer and Basil L. Winslow wrote the application for the prestigious designation which included photographs, maps and written materials. Staff from the National Park Service assisted them on the application.
Enter the East Bay Regional Park District. In 1964 Contra Costa voters had annexed most of the county to the District. Soon after that success, park advocates and the District began to create a regional park in Las Trampas hills west of Alamo and Danville. Hulet Hornbeck, Chief of Land Acquisition for the EBRPD, made the first purchases for Las Trampas Regional Wilderness in 1966.
With funding for land acquisition provided by AB925 in 1971, Hornbeck pursued the beautiful Corduroy Hills Ranch property. However, the Park District Board of Directors did not want to buy the O’Neill home and property, in part because operating historic homes was not included in the District’s new 1973 Master Plan.
So Hornbeck took out his ruler and divided the property into two pieces, one the core O’Neill site and the other 1000 acres of open space. In his 2010 oral history Hornbeck said: “I had done drafting in college. I had, as I said, some military application of these kinds of lines on a map, so I put a triangle around the house and barn in about five minutes and calculated it out for acreage. It was seventeen acres. That’s how I was able to have the two valuations that excluded the house area.” (P. 118) “I thought I had a pretty good map, but it probably had never even been surveyed. If it hadn’t been surveyed, my drawing was just as good as somebody else’s, I suppose.” (P.119)
“The dog Blemie became very significant in some of the writings of O’Neill… (At the time) I thought it was just another dog that got buried, and so I didn’t pay any attention to where the dog was buried when I drew my triangle around the property.” (P. 120) This grave is now on Park District property.
His Board was satisfied with the property division and supported the open space purchase, giving Hornbeck a year to put together the transaction. Hornbeck said that he talked with the owners at length, got an appraisal for both parcels, and optioned the property. In March of 1974, the Park District paid the Gerdes $750,000 for 1000 acres. Hornbeck later said “We bought the land and we had this (year and a half option to buy) the house” which the District transferred to the newly formed Eugene O’Neill Foundation. The O’Neill house and land was valued at $235,000.
Hornbeck and Doreta Chaney, Chief of Public Information and Executive Director of the newly formed Regional Parks Foundation, actively helped save the O’Neill site. Chaney obtained a successful $2000 planning grant for the site from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and assured the Park Board that the Foundation would be able to successfully raise funds for the site.
The Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House
In May, 1974, a growing group of O’Neill supporters organized the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House, a California non profit corporation. Its purpose was to acquire Tao House and develop the site into a center for performing arts and study.
The task of raising the purchase price was a daunting one for the twenty-three new Foundation Board members. Darlene Blair, the first special events chair, approached O’Neillian actor Jason Robards Jr. for assistance. After he had been told by his wife Lois that “You must do Hughie for the Foundation, Jason,” he called Darlene to say he and Jack Dodson would perform the play as a benefit on June 28, 1975 at the Zellerbach auditorium in Berkeley. The success of the Berkeley performance encouraged Robards and Dodson to take Hughie for a two weeks season at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles.
The proceeds from these and other benefit plays enabled the Foundation to put a down payment of $70,000 on the house and site. The Foundation secured title and access to Tao House early in 1976 and found the house in a state of disrepair. While it had been vacant, people had lived there without the owner’s permission.
Still, the Foundation did not have all the necessary funds to complete the purchase and was in danger of losing its option.
Congressman George Miller and Senator Alan Cranston introduced companion bills to have Tao House recognized as a National Historic Site in 1975. On April 28, 1976. Foundation board members Darlene Blair and Lois Sizoo, EBRPD representative Doreta Chaney, and actor Jason Robards Jr. went to Washington and gave testimony about the importance of the house and site before a Senate committee. The Congress was willing to accept and manage Tao House and the 14-acre site if the property was donated to the National Park Service.
In the meantime, California Assemblyman Dan Boatwright responded to Foundation appeals and introduced a bill in the State Assembly which would appropriate $255,000 for the purchase of Tao House, using Collier Park Preservation funds. State Senator John Nejedly supported this effort. AB 4539 was signed into law in Sacramento in September of 1976, making the site California State property.
George Miller’s HR 9126 passed in Congress and, on October 19, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed SB 2398 into law. Tao House and the property were designated a National Historic Site.
When the O’Neill’s property was purchased by the state in 1976, the East Bay Regional Park District’s direct involvement with the site ended. Cooperation between the Park District and the NPS has continued since they share mutual boundaries. Hikers occasionally reserve Tao House tours and trek to and from the Bollinger Canyon staging area. Visitors regularly hike the Virgil Williams and other Las Trampas trails west of the site.
After a transitional period with both the state and national government having responsibilities for the O’Neill site, on June 12, 1980, the ownership was formally transferred from the State to the Federal Government. This title transfer was effected by Assemblyman Dan Boatwright who introduced AB 1953, enabling the deed to go from the State’s General Services Agency to State Parks to the National Park Service. Ranger Craig Dorman of the National Park Service was assigned to the site.
Since that time the Foundation and Park Service have worked together to preserve Tao House as a living memorial to Eugene O’Neill. The legislation established both the National Historic Site and set down the partnership between the Park Service and the Foundation, with the Foundation responsible for artistic and educational programs in cooperation with the NPS. A MOU delineates this relationship.
In 2014 the site is surrounded on three sides by Las Trampas Regional Wilderness which covers 5,342 acres.
Beverly Lane 2014
Hulet Hornbeck, courtesy of EBRPD
Tao House from Las Trampas, courtesy of Chris Diggins
Chronology of Tao House, Foundation library
Cooper, Wendy, Notes May 2014
Hornbeck, Hulet Eminent Domain: Twenty Years of Land Acquisition at the East Bay Regional Park District and Forty Years of National Trails Advocacy, A U.C. oral history, 2010
Kerlin, Evelyn: Eugene O’Neill — Tao House Compiled by the Danville Women’s Club (clippings from 1968 to 1980)
McCreery, Laura, Living Landscape, Berkeley CA: Wilderness Press, 2010
Museum of the SRV archives
Sizoo, Lois, EONF Newsletter, Feb. 1977, Long and tortuous Tao House History