The Moon House Anitiquarium is as much story as house. Its battle-scarred façade points to an obscure, ill-fated history. But what happened? Wilson himself claims not to know, at least not at the beginning. “At first I was only thinking about the design,” he says, “creating a magical, ‘neo-archeological’ vision on a large canvas.”
Only when Wilson completed a detailed model, did he realize the house was telling a story, or perhaps revealing one. “It came to mind with all the weird lucidity of a dream—a cast of quirky ancestors, a grand house sliding toward ruination.
Not a word of it’s true,” he says, “but it seemed as real, as palpable, as if the plot, the characters, had been there all along—that in some corner of mind, I’d lived with them for years.”
At the story’s center is an earlier and much grander “Moon House,” a famed mansion built in 1917 by Wilson’s mercurial (and fictitious) great uncle Augustus Fenn (see below: “The Legend”). It was here, for two halcyon decades, that the reclusive inventor and his circle of eccentrics played out their days. The 36,000 sq. ft. residence in Glen Ellen’s eastern hills featured 11 bedrooms, 9 terraces, Tivoli fountain promenade, orangerie, indoor/outdoor natatorium, and spring-fed reflection pools.
The house was destroyed by a mudslide in 1937.
Architectural elements salvaged from the ruin gave rise to a new house in 2014, artist Douglas Fenn Wilson’s Moon House Antiquarium. A detailed scale model of the fictitious Moon House and photographic re-creations of the characters are on permanent display in the modern-day house.
Many years ago (1917) there rose a house. Or, more accurately, a dream—the all-consuming vision of the eccentric who built it—Dr. Augustus Fenn. His architect, the modest and private Julian Bhigg—the pioneer of Fusion Geometrics—regarded the house as his magnum opus and would remain under the doctor’s employ for the balance of his life. Together, patron and artist formed a legacy of both harmony and acrimony that gave rise to a Sonoma Valley legend. For six long years, brick by meticulous brick, 28 full-time laborers toiled at the site—a meadow high in the Mayacamas once sacred to the Wappo, where acorns were said to be sweet and plentiful. Below, in a light-struck ribbon of creek, steelhead darted silver across shadowy pools. [modern-day Glen Ellen] The Moon House is what the manse came to be called. Season after lovely season, for 19 years, its walls took on fame.
Then came 1936 with its brutal, weeklong deluge. On December 31, just before midnight, locals woke to an eerie roar and, some say, an ascending arc of light. At dawn the townsfolk climbed the old Stage Gulch Pass to see what they’d heard. Ghastly!—a whole hillside slipped away—a great wave of mud, still steaming and strangely malodorous. And below, swallowed in muck and slime, Dr. Fenn’s magnificent Moon House, now a slump of sheared off walls and scattered columns. For 48 years the house lay buried—looted, flooded, and ravaged––all but forgotten.
And then, in 1984, remembered. Or, more accurately, re-loved—mapped, cleared, and excavated by Dr. Fenn’s great nephew, artist Douglas Fenn Wilson. Bit by bit he salvaged what remained––columns, facades, porticos, sculptures, and artifacts––hauled them down the mount to the heart of historic Glen Ellen, where he pieced them together anew.
And then, as if never gone, there it was again—new from old—a celebration of fragments, luminous against the black Mayacamas.
Patron & Artist: The Coming Together of Fire and Water
From its imagined beginning to its brick-and-mortar realization, the Moon House evoked passion in both patron Augustus Fenn and artist/architect Julian Bhigg—two men of vision and equally strong willed. In the end, both got their house. But their decade-long journey was pocked with acrimony.
The Moon House’s daily management—hiring, firing, and bill paying—fell to Ms. Joellyn Dithers, or “Jo,” as she was known. Of Haitian descent—and notably lovely—Jo first joined Dr. Fenn’s staff as a domestic at the age of 26. Rumor hints at a love triangle between herself, Augustus Fenn, and Julian Bhigg, although evidence of such a trio does not exist. What do exist are records of Jo’s tongue—reputedly as sharp as her pencil. “Drool-wipe,” “sod brain,” and “dragon bum” were her tamer insults. The doctor frequently retreated to his suite rather than encounter her in the hall. A former prostitute, Jo had not a single educational credit, yet she brought to the table what Dr. Fenn and Julian Bhigg famously lacked—common sense.
In a 1928 letter to her sister, Joellyn Dithers wrote:
Genus folk are all well and good—the Doc and Mister Bhigg, I meen. But when it comes to bidness—I meen runnin’ things right and proper—coupl‘a fool pinheads is how they comes across to me!
When disaster struck on January 1, 1937, at 1:16 AM, Augustus Fenn was aboard the HMS Huntington cruising Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. Julian Bhigg was in Sebastopol, California, toasting the new year with a favorite cousin. Miraculously, no one at the Moon House was in residence. The archives of the Indonesia steamship company contain Bhigg’s urgent attempt to contact Dr. Fenn.
Augustus Fenn’s response—if there was one—has never been recovered. Two days later, on January 3, 1937, when the steamer left the port of Ambon, Dr. Fenn was not on board. The ship’s log simply states, “missing.” In fact, Augustus Fenn was never seen again. In 1948 a Japanese naval officer conducting postwar reconnaissance in the Maluku atolls snapped a photograph of “a jungle man” emerging from a crudely made house that bore an unmistakable resemblance to a Julian Bhigg design. The photo, when it reached the San Francisco press in October of 1948, prompted wild speculation. Had the eccentric inventor actually survived? The matter was never pursued through official channels, and in February of 1949, the Maluku atolls were destroyed by a tsunami.
Julian Bhigg, the Moon House’s architect, migrated to the Southern California desert community of Banning, where he lived for two years with his sister in a wind‑rattled, five-room clapboard house. In May of 1939, at age 63, he died of cerebral hemorrhage. If there were subsequent architectural designs, none survive. A statement from his sister reads: “I never again saw my brother take up a pencil.”
Following the disaster, Joellyn Dithers moved to Santa Rosa, California, where she started a bookkeeping business that would eventually boast a staff of 32. In 1953, after the Second World War, she returned to Glen Ellen to purchase a 157-acre ranch on the slopes of the Mayacamas—“Dithers Rise,” it would come to be known—a wide reach of hillside where she ran cattle and established walnut orchards. Just to the south—a sight she woke to every morning—was the high, shorn-off plateau from which the Moon House had once cast its long and striking shadow. She died of natural causes in 1967 at age 94.