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Jack London Park’s museum, the House of Happy Walls, begins remodel Jan. 29

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[NOTE: This article appeared in January 2018. The Happy Walls museum is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 10, 2018)

The House of Happy Walls, which serves as the visitors center and museum at Jack London State Historic Park, will close its doors on Monday, Jan. 29, for up to five months to undergo an $800,000 renovation. The official announcement came this week although the renovation has been in the planning stages for over a year, said Tjiska van Wyk, the park’s executive director.

“In 2015, the Jack London Park Partners were thinking about what we would most like to contribute as improvements to the park, what would our legacy be,” van Wyk said, speaking of the collection of nonprofits that took over operation of the state park in 2010 and has run it ever since. “We recognized that the museum had not been updated for a little over 30 years, but it’s the main visitor center, everyone who comes to the park comes here.”

The House of Happy Walls was where Jack London’s widow Charmian lived from 1934 until her death in 1955. But it was built to serve as a museum, as well, with collections of the author’s first editions, Charmian’s Steinway piano – still in tune and played for special events – and memorabilia from throughout London’s life, both before and after his marriage to his second wife.

Once it was time to move forward with the remodel, Valley of the Moon Natural History Association board member Harvey Shein raised his hand and said, “I’ll do it.”

Though he joked he should have learned never to volunteer in the Army, Shein acknowledged his 40 years of experience in real estate development – and as a board member of Quarryhill Botanical Gardens – came in handy when he needed to find the right team to execute the remodel.

“I remember that every time I would take my wife and kids to the park museum, I’d see the same four chairs sitting in front of the same video machine,” said Shein. “Sonoma has changed, technology has changed.”

He lined up the institutions, companies and especially California State Parks to work through the permitting issues and authorizations. “First we had to show state parks that we needed the remodel, and then convince them of the quality of work we wanted to do and the high-quality team we had to do it,” said Shein. “Then they agreed, as long as they could vet and approve it in the end.”

Though the remodel had been in the planning stages for about a year, the fires accelerated the decision to move forward, said Shein. Many of the artifacts were removed from the House of Happy Walls and the London Cottage for safe-keeping when the Nuns Fire threatened the park, and while some have been returned, some are still in storage in a state facility outside of Sacramento. “It was an opportune time to close it and start the remodel,” he said.

The remodel will emphasize more interactivity and modernized exhibits, divided into 12 storylines covering aspects of both Jack and Charmian’s lives. Among the examples that van Wyk mentioned were “London the Observer” – a photojournalist, a war correspondent and a socialist.

London’s “Explorer’s Quest” will naturally get an exhibit of its own, representing his travels to the Klondike and South Seas among other places. And “Sporting Life” will emphasize the importance on physical fitness and engagement that London showed throughout his brief 40 years.

Charmian’s role – not only as Jack’s wife but as a colleague, writing partner and social pioneer – will also be given weight.

“And each exhibit will have a larger-than-life photo mural,” said van Wyk, “because we think the Londons are larger than life.”

The exhibits will be created by the Sibbett Group of San Anselmo. Among that group’s other work is the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum in Berkeley, Legends of Silicon Valley in Los Altos and, more locally, the “Lost Boys Found” display at Hanna Boys Center.

June 1 is the scheduled reopening of the House of Happy Walls, but both van Wyk and Shein would only say the date was a goal. “It’s always uncertain but it’s good to be finally getting it going,” said Shein.

During the period that the House of Happy Walls is closed, the Londons’ Cottage and its neighboring buildings at the Beauty Ranch will serve as the park’s visitors center, with no additional fees to visit (entrance and parking fees will remain $10 per vehicle, $5 walk-in or bicycle).

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.