Feature

The Archivist: Wild At Heart

At home with Harry Gesner, world-renowned architect, waterman, inventor, explorer, archeologist, and the last of the original Malibu soul surfers.

The Journal has a thick dossier of editorial marching orders. Chief among them is to hunt down members of the tribe who might otherwise be hidden from the surf magazine landscape. The surfing press invariably trains their klieg light on champions and high-flying free riders. Cynics say it’s because of advertising relationships. Rationalists point out that they’re just serving their youthful readerships. We, on the other hand, enjoy aiming just inches above the head, leading our targets, trusting that our subscribers will be entertained and enriched by feature-length looks at accomplished, lifelong surfers who don’t fit neatly into a performance mold. Our investigation of acclaimed architect and Malibu surfer Harry Gesner is as good an example as any. Adventurous, consummate, and ridiculously visual, Gesner proved a perfect capstone to our early summer issue several years ago. The portraiture by John Balsom was superb, and author James Nestor’s survey of Gesner’s life was fluid and informed. If you didn’t catch it the first time around, enjoy it now. If you did see it, you’ll find that it has aged quite well. —Scott Hulet


Ten miles north of the tour buses, taco trucks, and carpet of sunbathing tourists at Malibu Beach, a one-lane road corkscrews down beneath a canopy of shaggy palm trees, ferns, and bougainvillea stuck in perpetual purple bloom. It’s quiet here. The traffic, bullhorns, and tinny static of jacked-up car speakers blasting through the rolled-down windows of rented PT Cruisers on Highway 1 are replaced by birdsong and the soft inhale-exhale of the ocean tide. Way down at the end of the road, just a few feet from the water’s edge, a round, two-story house of wall-size sliding glass windows and patinated wood looks out over 70-yard-long ribbons of whitewash lapping in with mechanical precision on a white sand beach. And not a soul in sight.

This is not some fantasized tableau cribbed from a New Age art fair, but the home of Harry Gesner, an 86-year-old world-renowned architect, waterman, inventor, explorer, engineer, archeologist, and the last of the original Malibu soul surfers. Here, in a “lighthouse” of his own making, Harry has spent the last six decades designing some of California’s most iconic residences, dreaming up world-changing inventions, raising a family, and surfing alone on his own perfect, personal pointbreak aptly named “Harry’s Rock.”

In one corner of his house is the spear his father used to hunt sharks in Maui, in another some gold Harry dug up in the Ecuadorian jungles. On a wall is a picture of a sailboat he “borrowed” from Errol Flynn, and shots of him surfing in Santa Monica in the 1930s.

I first came here five years ago while researching a story on Harry’s architecture career, which, at the time, spanned over 50 years. I drove away not only with a deeper perspective on how to design and build a home, but also how to live life full-throttle. No, really. Harry’s biography put the Dos Equis’ “World’s Most Interesting Man” to shame. Each whirlwind adventure seemed laughably so far-fetched, that is, until he showed me proof: In one corner of his house was the spear his father used to hunt sharks in Maui, in another corner some gold Harry dug up in the Ecuadorian jungles. On a wall was a picture of a sailboat he “borrowed” from Errol Flynn, and shots of him surfing in Santa Monica in the 1930s, his Hollywood starlet wife, his “Sinbad” actor son, and so on. And he was still going, still designing houses for Hollywood stars, still surfing, at 82.

“I’ve always been tied to the ocean,” Harry told me after we finished a fiery two-hour session at Harry’s Rock. We were sitting on his porch barefooted, watching the sun go down, sharing a 40 oz. Miller. “My whole life I’ve gotten inspiration from the ocean,” he said. “It’s where I get guidance and spiritual counsel.”

In July 2011, I returned to hang out with Harry seeking the same. By morning, we’re sitting at the banquet-length wood dining room table in Harry’s living room, more an observation deck to the sea and sky just outside. Behind us the half-circle of glass doors, which make up the walls of the “lighthouse” look like enormous LCD screens transmitting archival footage of Southern California from another time. Sure, there’s the waves, the sand, the sun, but none of the modern pollution—no fluorescent surf trunks, no trash, no sunbathers, no surfers. Harry comes over and takes a seat opposite me. He’s a little slower getting around than he was five years ago due to knee surgery, he tells me, but his mind is still razor-sharp and his lucid blue eyes are as piercing as ever. We both turn and look toward the windows at the sound of a large, crashing wave, and watch as the tide floods precariously close to the front deck.

“You should see it in the winter storms,” he laughs. “Waves slam against the porch, the house, the windows. But I just throw some dried bushes in front of the windows,” he pauses. “That diffuses the water, sucks away its power. My neighbors think I’m crazy, but I’ve always survived the storms. I can’t say as much for them!”

On D-Day at Omaha Beach, he stripped off his gear and dove into the ocean before his boat blew up. “If I hadn’t surfed my whole life, there would have been no way I would have made it.”

Creative solutions are in Harry’s blood. Born in Ventura in 1925, he grew up along the beaches of Malibu and Santa Barbara, part of a long line of inventors. His great-grandfather developed the repeating shotgun for Winchester. His uncle, John K. Northrop (yes, that Northrop), developed, among other things, the flying-wing airplane on which the B-2 stealth bomber was based. Gesner’s father built the first automobile supercharger. “It’s in the genes,” he says.

And so is adventure. As well as being creative savants, Harry’s father and uncle were dedicated sportsmen of the old mold. Ten years before Gidget was even born, Harry and his father were surfing the wide-open waves of Malibu and Santa Monica. “Back then [1930s] there were maybe 30 surfers—that’s on the entire West Coast,” he says. The board of choice was a 20-foot redwood plank, and the best break was State Beach below Santa Monica Canyon, that is, before it got cemented up. “Pete Peterson, Tommy Zahn, Rob Burns, Dave Rochlen, they were all out there. This was before any surf culture. Back then, it wasn’t about trying to get away from people—you wanted people to surf with you. No leashes either. You lost your board, you had to really watch your head.” He recalls hundreds of miles of breaks along the coast, most of them totally unexplored. “It was paradise.”

In the winter, when they weren’t surfing Santa Monica and Malibu, the Gesners would drive up to the eastern Sierra to ski. “Nobody skied back then. There were no lifts, no anything. We had to make our own.” Harry recalls his father and uncle lugging a car engine to the top of a hill and attaching a rope to the crankshaft to create a makeshift rope tow. They’d ski down, grab the rope, get pulled back up the hill, and do it all over again, as long as the gas lasted. “It was a little scary. You had to be careful the lift wouldn’t jerk you off the mountain,” he says. This DIY pulley system was the first ski lift on Mammoth Mountain.

Harry gave himself ten years to make it as an architect. He shirked formal education, opting to learn the trade hands-on by working manual labor with construction crews for three years. By the time ten years had passed, he was too busy designing and building houses to realize he’d made his deadline.

Gesner family inventions also stretched into the ocean. While vacationing in Maui around 1912, Harry recalls his father hatching the short-lived sport of “shark spearing.” With a ten-foot whaling harpoon and 50 feet of rope, his dad would drive out to an ocean-side plantation, parking on a cliff about 15 feet above the ocean. “He’d get a lame mule, lead it out to this cliff, shoot it in the head, tie one end of a rope to its neck, the other to a tree stump, and throw it into the ocean,” he says. “Then he’d wait.”

As sharks fed on the mutilated mule, Harry’s father would stand on the cliff above with the spear, waiting for his shot. Once he speared a shark, a two-hour battle would ensue. If Harry’s father was victorious (which he usually was, Harry says), he’d haul the shark up the cliff, butcher it, and deliver fresh shark steaks to appreciative plantation workers.

“You can’t really do this kind of thing now,” says Harry, laughing. “It’s really awful.”

Then came World War II. Word got out that the Army was looking for ski instructors. “I’d been skiing since I was 7. They needed me,” says Harry. “So I signed up.” At 17 years old, Harry enlisted in the 10th Light Division and was sent to Brenner Pass in Italy, the second most heavily fortified area per square foot in the world. “Better minds prevailed, and they said they weren’t going to go through with it, thank God,” he says. “It would have been a slaughter.” Instead, the Army sent Harry to the 1st Army, First Division. His first deployment was on June 6, 1944, on Omaha Beach in France, otherwise known as D-Day.

“They put us in a boat and just loaded us with equipment—backpacks, eating equipment, sleeping blanket, all this stuff,” he said. “Then they sent the boat to the shore. Nobody knew what they were doing,” he says, looking pensive. “It was just terrible.”

As the boat approached the beach, Harry watched as the soldiers in front of him were blown to bits by enemy fire. Those who weren’t tried to jump overboard but quickly drowned under the weight of their backpacks. “I knew I’d die if I didn’t get all that stuff off me,” he said. Harry stripped off his gear and dove into the ocean before the boat blew up. “If I hadn’t surfed my whole life, there would have been no way I would have made it.”

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Harry singlehandedly defined the cool, laid-back grooviness of Malibu architecture. His clients included Marlon Brando, Anne Cole, June Lockhart, and other Hollywood swingers.

With only a gun, ammunition, and a helmet, Harry somehow survived, only to have his legs paralyzed in an avalanche weeks later. He was shipped to England where doctors told him he’d never walk again and prepared to amputate his legs. “I told them not to, that I wanted to rehabilitate myself.” The doctors thought he was crazy, but granted his wish. For the following weeks he methodically massaged olive oil into his legs, trying to increase the blood flow to the paralyzed areas. Two months later, to the doctors’ amazement, he walked out of the hospital on his own and boarded a flight back home.

“Ever since then, I promised myself that I would celebrate each day of my life as a gift. Every single day,” he says. “And I’ve carried that with me my entire life.”

For the next few years after the war, Harry hunted down lost treasures in Ecuador (and found some), “borrowed” Errol Flynn’s sailboat to shuttle around tourists for a few weeks, and became the first-ever tow-in surfer using an oversize wooden water ski to dip into waves off Acapulco.

But for all of his cinematic adventures, perhaps none stack up to Harry’s influence in architecture. Upon returning to Malibu in the late 1940s, Harry gave himself ten years to make it as an architect. “If I couldn’t figure it out by then, I promised myself I’d give it up,” he says. He shirked formal education and even denied an invitation to study with Frank Lloyd Wright, opting to learn the trade hands-on by working manual labor with construction crews for three years. By the time ten years had passed, Harry was too busy designing and building houses to realize he’d made his deadline.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Harry singlehandedly defined the cool, laid-back grooviness of Malibu architecture—a quintessentially West Coast design of sunken living rooms, indoor fire pits, cathedral ceilings, and sun soaked solariums built for lavish cocktails by the pool, partygoers sipping cognac in cable-knit turtlenecks, shorts, and flip-flops. His clients included Marlon Brando, Anne Cole, June Lockhart, and other Hollywood swingers.

Harry’s 1965 house for famed inventor JR Scantlin—an airplane enthusiast and irrepressible playboy—demonstrated not only his intimate skill in understanding the soul of a landscape, but also how to reflect the larger-than-life egos of his clients.

To get to the “soul of a build site,” he’d surf the breaks in front of beachfront properties he was designing, giving him a perspective on the landscape and the area’s relationship with the ocean.

The living room of Scantlin’s Brentwood estate—which now belongs to the Getty Museum—looks out over a 180-degree view of Los Angeles. Beneath, a bright green lap pool extends 100 feet from the outside, beneath a submerged wall directly into the master bathroom. Here, Scantlin and female company could enter and exit the pool without ever leaving the house, or alternately, enter and exit the bathroom without ever leaving the pool area. Bent lacquered-wood beams arch upward and outward over the pool, mimicking the craning neck of a bird—an homage to Scantlin’s obsession with flying.

To gain inspiration for the Scantlin house and other work, Gesner didn’t turn to his contemporaries—“my father taught me never to imitate,” he says—but to the ocean. Even at his busiest, Harry made time to surf most days, sometimes all day, and then he’d work at night, a schedule he keeps to this day. To get to the “soul of the site,” he’d surf the breaks in front of beachfront properties he was designing, giving him a perspective on the landscape and the area’s relationship with the ocean. During one of these “soul sessions” in northern Malibu in 1956, he sketched a design for a particularly wild and jazzy house with a grease pencil on the deck of his board. The result was his most celebrated creation, the world-famous Cooper Wave House built in 1957 and used by Jørn Utzon as inspiration for the Sydney Opera House.

The Cooper House especially pulls from an eclectic patchwork of design hooks—the buttressed beam framing of Notre Dame; Richard Neutra’s blurring of indoor and outdoor space; the fluid and refined lines of Frank Lloyd Wright; the space-age, B-movie psychedelia of Barbarella. Harry credits his style to a lack of formal training and to the improvisational skills he developed surfing. “I’m not sure my way of self education is the best for everyone,” he told me in 2007. “But I guess it speaks to originality and individuality.”

Back at Harry’s house, it’s mid-afternoon and he looks antsy. We’ve been talking for three straight hours about the past, and now he wants to look ahead to the future. He’s got some new projects to show me before I leave. As we walk easy steps past a row of vintage longboards, and up a hill to his garage, neither of us can help catching a glimpse of a new swell pitching chest-high waves out on Harry’s Rock. And, still, not one person is in the water or even on the beach.

“This is the new Malibu,” says Harry, referring to the dozen other neighbors with whom he shares the private beach. “The fact is nobody here surfs; they don’t even get in the water; they don’t even walk on the sand. They move here for the zip code and the view. Can you imagine? It’s so sad, but, then again,” he smirks, “I don’t mind having it all to myself.”

“With surfing, there’s an exhilaration and beauty and fabulous excitement. You are off enjoying one of the greatest experiences nature can give you. I just couldn’t imagine not having had that in my life.”

In one garage, Harry shows me a showroom-quality silver convertible Mercedes 190 SL. He bought the car new in the 50s, but just a few years ago converted it to electric using a model of his own design. “These oil men, they are just raping us,” he says, raising his voice as he puts on a goofy-looking pilot’s hat and goggles, which he wears when he drives the car. “We have the technology to do this; I figured, why not?” Harry claims the car can go over 100 miles per charge and reach speeds of more than100 miles per hour.

In another room is the rusted frame of a 1921 Ford Model T that Harry had shipped from a Minnesota barn two years ago. In his spare time, he and an assistant are taking the car completely apart, then putting it back together.

But the project Harry is most proud about is a new, top-secret motor he has invented that runs on no gasoline at all. “That’s about all I can say about it,” he says, explaining that he is now developing the motor under contract with General Motors. “I’m very excited about it. I just think it might have a large impact.”

Before I go, we walk back down to Harry’s house. He offers me coffee and we take a seat back in the living room. As if right on a cue, a flock of seagulls flies just a few feet above the blue horizon, heading north over the empty waves crashing along Harry’s Rock.

“You know,” Harry pauses, “being here, living by the ocean, it just transmits this energy, a creative energy to my spirit, psyche, or whatever you want to call it,” he says. “And surfing, there’s an exhilaration and beauty and fabulous excitement of dropping in and catching the wave—once you’re in it, you are off enjoying one of the greatest experiences nature can give you. I just couldn’t imagine not having had that in my life.”

I grab my keys and bag, shake Harry’s hand, thank him, and tell him I look forward to our next meeting, hopefully sooner than in five years. “Oh, I’ll be here,” he says, smiling, as I head out the door. “There’s so much more to do.”