From a distance, the house atop the hill at 1209 N. Highland looks rough and unkept, its windows covered with plastic sheeting, much of the exterior adorned with weathered and unpainted plywood.
Across Highland, from the cozy interior of the San Francisco Coffee House, one could come to the conclusion that it is neglected, dilapidated, even.
One could be forgiven. Because you have to get close to realize that this house is architecturally complex, solidly built with the finest materials and stunningly beautiful.
Welcome to The Tower, the creation of John Harich, engineer, carpenter, artist and self-described jack-of-all-trades.
It is nothing short of a work of art, but it is also almost impossible to describe. There is Gothic influence here, as well as Gaudi — a style usually described as ‘beyond the scope of modernism.’ There are marble arches, and “Japanese Moongates,” twisting columns rising from the earth and reaching upwards to hold the house in place, all made from 100 tons of Georgia marble.
The facade is mostly southern white pine and western red cedar. The flashing is copper, the roof is the highest gage aluminum.
And that helps explain why The Tower has been under construction since 1975.
When that fact is pointed out to him – a house 35 years in the making – John Harich simply smiles and reminds a visitor that, “many of the people who worked on the cathedrals of Europe knew they would never see them finished.”
Oh, the 61-year-old Harich wants to finish before he dies, but he also wants to get it right. A lot goes into the planning, and there is the question of finding the time and the money. So, he gets to it in bits and pieces, when he has the time, the money and the friends to help.
The Great Hall, for example, took about two years to design and two years to build. In 1998, about 20 friends pitched in to help him raise the arches and beams in two days.
Good work takes time, but there’s something almost spiritual about this place for Harich.
“I want it to be perpetually inspiring to live in,” he says.
It certainly draws a lot of questions. On a recent stunningly sunny day, neighbor Elizabeth Waddey drops around to introduce herself and asked if she could join the short tour.
“I’m absolutely fascinated with this place,” she said while looking out a south-facing window. “I see odd angles, different approaches to building. I think it’s so cool.”
Harich bought the lot at Amsterdam and Highland in 1973 for $4,250 and started building two years later. He’s been at it, off and on, ever since.
The city, he says, has been a pleasure to deal with. Inspectors, he explains, appreciate good building practices. The neighbors, as well, have been understanding and supportive.
With a little help, he says, maybe he’ll get there.
From the crow’s nest is a magnificent view of the Highlands, and downtown. The bright sunlight plays with the shadows cast from leafless limbs that form a broken canopy above the roof.
It is a still, warm and peaceful winter’s day.
Standing atop his on-going creation, he looks about, taking it all in, then says, “this house is designed to live with, not in.”