Fleeing flames and ruins to Carmel colony

By Therese Poletti


One hundred years ago, a small group of artists, writers and other self-described bohemians fled San Francisco to join a burgeoning artistic community at Carmel-by-the-Sea that had begun forming several years earlier. Many had lost paintings, manuscripts and their homes in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

"I've had a lively time of late," wrote poet George Sterling 10 days after the quake to writer Ambrose Bierce, according to an account in the book, "The Seacoast of Bohemia." Sterling had invited many of the artists to seek refuge in Carmel. "I fear I'll be known as `the man who made Carmel famous.' "

A sketched self-portrait in 1906 by Maynard Dixon shows the overburdened artist, suitcase in one hand, canvases and studio props in the other, fleeing from a hilly row of buildings amid darting flames.

"People lost their studios," said Kent Seavey, an art and architectural historian in Pacific Grove. "They moved there for a while for the most part, but San Francisco was still the nexus of everything: the magazines, the newspapers, the quarterlies."

Some historians may have overstated the size of the migration.

"It was not this great influx of artists,'' said Scott Shields, the curator of the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, which is exhibiting paintings from the Monterey Peninsula from 1875 to 1907. Shields said many of artists had moved to Carmel in the 1903-05 range. "Monterey was really the home to the art colony prior to that," Shields added.

Carmel-by-the-Sea was formed in 1903 when San Jose developer James Franklin Devendorf and his partner Frank Powers of San Francisco bought a tract of land near the coast, amid pines, oaks and cypress trees. They sold their lots for $50 to $100, targeting "School Teachers of California and other Brain Workers," according to Shields.

The developers thought that if they lured artists and other poor bohemian types, the richer masses would follow, and they proved correct.

By 1905, a small group of artists was living there, some in tents. They welcomed new arrivals after the quake with their traditions of picnics on the beach and cooking abalone stew on outdoor fires.

The quake refugees included artist E. Charlton Fortune, a California impressionist painter, who briefly fled to Carmel with her mother after losing all her paintings in San Francisco. Other visitors were poet Nora May French and writer Jack London.

By 1914, a group of artists was entrenched. A story in the San Francisco Examiner referred to Carmel's residents as "artists, poets, writers, dramatists and musicians colonized there."

Sterling was partially prescient. Today, the picturesque town of Carmel is still known for its artistic community, but mostly for its abundance of art galleries and quaint shops.

Mercury News Wed, Apr. 12, 2006