New life for M.F.K. Fisher’s ‘Last House’ in Glen Ellen
The so-called Last House, where culinary writer MFK Fisher lived for 20 years, and where she died in 1992, is undergoing a rebirth these days, one that is drawing out many former friends and family, and some new fans, to the Glen Ellen cottage.
It's modest in scale – maybe 1,200 square feet – with only two main rooms and a large bathroom located in the middle. The floor throughout is black Arabic tile (not linoleum as previously and erroneously reported), but light is let in by big windows and matching porches that face south and north, one across the vineyards toward Highway 12 and one toward the Mayacamas, and an idiosyncratic stone bell tower that pealed 21 times as sunset approached each day.
The house was designed by Fisher and David Bouverie, the architect whose 500-acre property was gifted to Audubon Canyon Ranch years before his own death in 1994. Bouverie and Fisher met while the writer was still living in a Victorian in St. Helena, but realizing the necessity to scale down her life – but accepting her powerful need to continue writing – Fisher decided to use the proceeds from the sale of the St. Helena house to build a new one on Bouverie's property.
'It was what she wanted – two big rooms and a big bathroom – and that's what she got,' said Kennedy Golden, daughter of the celebrated writer. For two decades Fisher lived here, between trips to Europe, and wrote prolifically, delivering 13 titles to publishers – and entertaining her many old friends and meeting new ones.
'The house was a very busy and full place,' remembers Golden today of the home where she visited her mother often. 'She had many visitors and friends who would come visit her. It was kind of hard to find family time sometimes!'
Golden is one of a handful of people animated by the renovation of the Last House, collecting many of Fisher's books, dishware, memorabilia and furniture that had been widely dispersed following Fisher's death in June of 1992, just two weeks shy of her 84th birthday.
'We had three months to empty the house, that was the agreement,' said Golden. She remembers working with her aunt, Mary Frances' sister Norah, 'taking the house apart and finding homes for all of her stuff. Between friends and family and visitors who had special memories, we did our best to make sure that everybody got something that was important to them. And I think we pretty much managed that.'
For almost a quarter century thereafter, the two-room cottage served innocuously as 'staff housing,' according John Petersen, executive director of Audubon Canyon Ranch's Bouverie Preserve. John Martin, David Bouverie's ranch foreman and later land manager for the preserve, was the primary tenant, moving in when those three months were up and living there for almost 20 years.
When Petersen became director at Bouverie, in 2015, he recognized that the house was not serving its 'highest and best use.' After all, the house was historic, and if in scale it was no match for the Cypress Grove Research Center at ACR's Tomales Bay property, it surely might serve some role consistent with ACR's land preservation mission.
Now much of that memorabilia is coming home to the Last House.
'Once it became clear that this was going to happen, I reached out to family and friends,' said Golden. 'I told them I was looking around my house to see what is here from the Last House that hasn't become part of my life in the past 25 years ago. I invite you to do the same — with the condition that if there are things that have become part of your life, you hold onto them.'
Last Saturday, an open house – 'First Peek at the Last House' – opened the doors to the work-in-progress that is the Last House. While far from the busy cluttered home it was 25 years ago, life is returning to the Last House – furniture, paintings, photographs, kitchenware, the Chinese red paint on the bathroom wall.
Books that once belonged to Fisher again line the bookshelves – a collection of Audubon nature guides, works of Georges Simenon, Rollo May and Aldous Huxley, honors and certificates including her 1989 James Beard Award. Photographs that once may have been stuck to her refrigerator show how the house once looked, cluttered but comfortable, as modest friends and international notables came to call.
One of the most recognizable pieces of furniture is here, too, a wide rattan chair that shows up in many photographs as Fisher's favorite perch. There's a photo of her in this very chair, listening intently as Maya Angelou reads. The bookcase and arched window in the photo show that the chair once lived on the south porch, a room now empty of furniture but with the same view across an overgrown brick path and vineyards to the summer sunset.
Perhaps most telling, the dining room table is filled with fruits, cheeses, ginger snaps and other foods, much of it produced by caterer Sheana Davis for this event.
'I used to cook for her when I was a surly high school student,' said Davis. 'I thought she was just a grouchy old lady who drank Negronis all day.'
The drink – equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – was covered by cheese cloth to keep the seasonal fruit flies off, Davis remembers.
Last December, Davis realized she needed a project to distract herself from the recent election. Recognizing that the house where she worked, and Fisher lived, was now just sitting empty, she agreed to devote her time as volunteer curator for the Last House.
Joanne Filipello of WildThyme Catering is another of Fisher's friends engaged in the resurrection of the Last House. 'She was very farm-to-table,' she remembers. 'I used to drive her around when her regular diver wasn't available.'
James Pendergast was there too, another friend of Fisher's, who still lives in Sonoma and continues to write poetry, screen plays and the occasional letter-to-the-editor.
'It's very rewarding,' said Golden of the recent open house. 'To talk to people and find out how they found out about it, and why they came, was really rewarding.'
But don't expect Last House to become a tourist attraction. 'As a nature preserve it's very important that they take their stewardship of that land very seriously,' she said of ACR. 'I don't ever see the preserve renting out the Last House for a wedding every weekend during summer – there needs to be this constant vigilance for the mission and goals of the preserve.'
The restoration of the Last House is bringing together not just people who had known Fisher, but many who didn't, who could not have, but who discovered for themselves the exuberant, sensuous writer who helped create modern ways to write about food and wine, leaving a legacy far beyond a simple house in the Sonoma Valley.
Contact Christian at email@example.com.