Danville, CA

Danville's Tao House is a piece of American literary history

Built in the Bay

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(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

Nestled above the quiet suburb of Danville is a beautiful two-story Monterey Colonial home lined with rich American literary history. The Tao House, which is preserved by the Eugene O'Neil National Historic Site, was built by Eugene O'Neil with the money from winning the 1936 Nobel Prize for literature.

Eugene O'Neil, widely regarded as one of America's foremost playwrights, was born in New York and wrote many of his early works while living in Greenwich Village. While there he befriended a number of radicals included Communist Labor Party of America founder John Reed.

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(Courtesy of Union City Library Blog)

One of his early works, The Web, dealt with a child being born to a prostitute in a brothel which, at the time, was a revolutionary innovation in drama writing and earned him much acclaim. His volume of works often dealt with themes of tragedy and loss.

In his personal life, O'Neil was much more disorganized. He was born in a hotel on what is now Times Square in 1888. His father James O'Neil, an Irish immigrant, suffered from alcoholism and his mother, Mary Ellen Quinlan, also Irish, suffered from an addiction to morphine. Both his parents and his eldest brother Jamie died within a three-year period of one another as Eugene began garnering public success for early works like The Emperor Jones and Beyond the Horizon.

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(Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

O'Neil was married three times and his final wife, stage and film actor Carlotta Monterey, helped him build the Tao House with the money from the Nobel Prize in 1936. The couple, especially Eugene cherished the time in what was then the countryside and Eugene's seminal masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night was written in the home.

The house itself, built on 158 acres using the $40,000 from the Nobel Prize, combines both Chinese and California ranch motifs. The name itself, Tao, was interpreted by the couple as "the right way of life." The house had heavy basalt brick walls, dark-colored tiles on the roof and doors, dark blue ceilings and colored mirrors. The floors and ceilings were an attempt to create the juxtaposition of earth and the sky, with earth tones on the floor and dark sky tones on the ceiling.

Eugene's favorite herbs, jasmine and hawthrone were planted in the backyard. The pool was lined with redwood, almond and walnut trees for additional privacy. Their dalmatian "Blemie" would roam the large property and even made it to downtown Danville on occasion.

By the time Carlotta on Eugene moved to Danville, Eugene was well-known but had yet to write his acclaimed dramas The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten which were all written at the Tao House prior to 1943.

Due to a degenerative condition in his hands, that was later determined to be cerebellar cortical atrophy, Eugene did not write another play after 1943. Still, his last works are widely regarded as his best. Additionally, his volume of work prior to 1943 puts him easily in the category of the most prestigious American playwrights like Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.

In the later stages of his life, Eugene faced much of the personal tragedy and loneliness that he portrayed in his works. In 1943 he disowned his 18-year-old daughter Oona for marrying 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin. Eugene reportedly never saw Oona again.

He faced similar isolation from his sons, Eugene Jr. and Shane, who both committed suicide a number of years later.

While he produced the seminal works of his career at the Tao House, O'Neil was precluded from meeting his personal production goals by the degenerative disease in his hands. He had intended to write 11 plays detailing an American family since the late 1800s but was unable to write following the completion of A Moon for the Misbegotten. Additional drafts of different plays were destroyed by Carlotta at Eugene's request.

Eugene died in room 401 of the Sheraton Hotel, now Boston Univesity's Kilachand Hall dormitory, in Boston on November 27, 1953 at the age of 65.

He whispered his last words, "I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room."

The house itself, while not explicitly designed with Feng Shui in mind, has a number of Feng Shui elements. According to experts, O'Neils location choice is perfect as the rolling Las Trampas hills represent the "Green Dragon" protecting the home on three sides from evil energy.

The courtyard contains features similar to the Taoist garden they visited while touring China in 1928 like hidden entryways, indirect paths and guardian rocks. The interior of Tao House also contains similar Feng Shui design elements including stairways that do not face doors and exterior doors that do not face each other.

While many elements of the house paid homage to Feng Shui and Eastern philosophy and O'Neil's personal book collection contained a number of texts about Eastern philosophy, by the end of his life it became clear that that philosophy alone did not satisfy Eugene's need for understanding or meaning.

In the early 1970s, the Tao House was saved from demolition by a number of local women who formed the Eugene O'Neil Foundation and the house became a National Landmark in 1971. In 1976 it was declared a National Historic Site and in 1980 it was passed to the management of the National Parks Service. The foundation has produced an annual festival of O'Neil's work, including productions of his plays on the property, since 1999.

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