The secret history of the Bouverie Ranch bell tower in Sonoma
You can't really see it, driving south along Highway 12 near Glen Ellen, unless you're looking - and sometimes not even then. It appears and disappears like a shy bird, or the name of a song you can't quite forget, or quite remember.
What it looks like is an 18th century Spanish mission, hiding in the oaks in the Sonoma Valley, with only the bell tower visible. But if you ever find out where it is, and manage to get through the locked gate of the Bouverie Preserve you find that's all it is - just the bell tower, or campanile, rising 35 feet above the grounds of the nature sanctuary.
And rather than centuries old, it's only a few decades - built by David Playdell Bouverie himself (or more likely a team of laborers) when he lived at the 535-acre estate, and wanted his very own bell to ring, 21 times, every day when “the sun was two fingers above Sonoma Mountain,” said John Petersen, the current executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch's Bouverie Preserve. The possibility that such a caroling signaled the end of the work day, or the beginning of cocktail hour, is not to be discounted.
As Petersen said, “He was a really interesting guy, very friendly and somewhat eccentric. The way he spoke was sort of aristocratic, I guess, he had a British accent.” He was also “the second son of a second son. Which means when it came to inheriting his family's wealth, or titles, he was out of luck.”
Bouverie's uncle was William Playdell-Bouverie, the seventh Earl of Radnor, a peerage that dates from the 17th century and has included various Conservative members of Parliament, at least one Keeper of the Privy Seal and a viscount or two. But as “the second son of the second son,” little lord David got squat.
Born in 1912, this second son nonetheless took advantage of family wealth and position to become an architect, a practice he pursued in England and, in 1933, brought to the U.S. with a scheme to sell designs for prefabricated houses. “Then, in 1938,” he wrote in a brief memoir, “I found the Sonoma Valley and knew it was a part of my destiny to save and nurture this land.” He cited the Radnor's tradition of protecting vast land holdings since 1530, saying “the stewardship of land is in my blood.”
He purchased the 140-acre property that lined the highway for $8,500 where at one time stood the Warfield Station, the end-of-the-line for a two competing steam trains, one from San Rafael and one from Santa Rosa. He added to the property several times in the following years, until it reached the current 535 acres of the preserve that bears his name.
He liked to tell tales of his colorful predecessors on the property and nearby, and in his memoirs – elicited from questions the Bouverie Preserve Docent Council asked him in October 1988, six years before he died - recalled that when he bought the property, “there was a barely livable house made of rubble with weeds … a mountain of abandoned cars and junk by the front door, that is all.”
But the industrious architect added a series of cottages, including a very solid main house that is even now packed with huge family portraits, baronial furnishings and idiosyncratic touches. “He liked to entertain a lot,” said Petersen. “He was a really interesting guy, he was very friendly and somewhat eccentric.”
For instance there's a huge circular swimming pool off the back porch he had his stonemason build, and the garden boasts a six-pronged brick star, its arms designed to comfortably support star-gazers in a horizontal position, with cocktail tables within reach.
If Bouverie was a bit eccentric, it went with the territory. He was the sort of man who used to be called a “confirmed bachelor,” though he did marry once - briefly, for six years - to Ava Alice Astor, a New York socialite (her father, John Jacob Astor IV, died on the Titanic). She was his fifth and final husband; among her earlier companions were a gay choreographer and a gay journalist. They divorced in 1952.
But Astor's inheritance gave Bouverie the chance to add to his property; she also gave Bouverie the gift of a bulldozer, which he used to build trails across his by-now extensive property, trails current-day visitors follow in their hikes though the Bouverie Preserve.
He also, in the 1950s, had built that bell tower, made entirely of the lava rocks scattered across the landscape (the same rocks that Jack London used to build the Wolf House, by the way). “I designed the bell tower and bought the finest bell in all of California from the estate of William Randolph Hearst,” he told the docents. “It is four feet in diameter and weighs two tons.”
In 1971, Bouverie offered to build a house on the property for his friend, the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who at the time owned a house in St. Helena. The one-story cottage, with wide doors to accept the wheelchair she used in later life, offers an excellent view of the bell tower out the kitchen window, where the writer spent much of her time. She said it reminded her of Provence, and called it the Last House, according to Kathleen Hill, her friend for the last seven years of Fisher's life.
It was here she died, in 1992, in her bedroom.
Two years later Bouverie also passed away, in 1994.
In 1979, he started ceding much of his property to the Audubon Canyon Ranch, saying “In my old age, I continue to do everything in my power to see that this placed is cherished … and shared with the millions of other living things, which inhabit this land. Those millions of living things neither know nor care who bought what, and when it went into escrow and nor do I.”
With his death the final 99 acres of the property were given to ACR in his bequest. Said Petersen, “I think it was a wonderful act that he did to preserve it for future generations. And to use it the way that we do for environmental education and protection.”
Petersen, who started working at the preserve as a graduate student at SSU in 1986, recalls that although Bouverie had asked that there be no memorial service, staff and docents commemorated his life with a ceremony that included plans to ring the bell in a full 21-gong salute, as he had liked to do.
After only a couple tugs, however, the pull rope broke and the bell was silenced.
Contact Christian at email@example.com.