'Cabin in the clouds,' an overnight in one of Mendocino's mysterious water tower hotels – SFGate

The water tower room at the Weller House in Fort Bragg, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
Water towers were such a fixture of Mendocino’s architecture, I have no memory of registering them as unusual when I was growing up there in the 1980s and ’90s. I did admire them, though. I loved the way they added height and mystery to our tiny, rural town, making it feel bigger than it was. And I loved to imagine holing up in one, like a tree house with a utilitarian past. They were everywhere, but — back then, at least — I was never quite sure why, or what was inside them, or whether they would be fun (or, more likely, terrifying) to climb. 
These redwood water towers rose above the low-hung facades of historic main street storefronts. They overshot church steeples. And they had pride of place in the backyards of the grand Victorian homes that make Mendocino a frequent stand-in for New England in Hollywood movie shoots and television shows like “Murder, She Wrote.” But, for me, they were always just the backdrop to my childhood. Rural legends of teenagers scaling them, and falling — or leaping — to their deaths were passed down from one high school class to the next. 
The water tower room at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek in Little River, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
In October, I visited my home coast for the second time in two years. Though it’s only three and a half hours north of the Bay Area, the pandemic kept me away. Then drought concerns canceled the annual Fourth of July parade, a famously quirky event that functions as an informal homecoming for local “kids.” (Never mind that I’m approaching middle age, I’ll always be “Maria’s girl” in Mendocino.) Then those same drought conditions — including a record number of households with dry wells and the town paying millions of dollars to truck in water — raised my worry about outsiders being a burden on the area’s resources. 
But finally, wet weather arrived and the water crisis, while not solved, seemed less immediately dire. It had also raised a question: Why does Mendocino have so many water towers? And how does somewhere with that many places to store water — in one of the wettest parts of California, no less — have a shortage? And if those towers aren’t used as designed any longer, how are they used? 
So, after a day of adventuring like a tourist on the stretch of coastline where I spent the first half of my life, I drove south to Little River. Less a town than a hamlet, Little River has a single store, a cemetery and a grand, historic hotel — the multigenerational family-owned Little River Inn. I know each of these small communities along Highway 1 primarily as the place this or that friend lived — up one of the ridge roads, where most of the locals had their homes. 
The view from the water tower room at the MacCallum House in Mendocino, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
By the time I was in middle school, Mendocino village was becoming a tourist destination. Big old Victorian houses, long neglected, were being converted into bed-and-breakfasts and punnily named shops like “For the Shell of It,” which sold souvenir seashells, and a frozen yogurt spot called “A Cultured Affair.” Fewer and fewer people lived in the town itself.
The old water towers had started to be converted, too. At one point, Mendocino had about 100 of them, according to Anne Semans, the director at the Kelley House Museum, who has developed a walking tour devoted entirely to the village’s towers. Semans lived in San Francisco, where she worked at feminist sex shops like Babeland, before moving north — as a generation of back-to-the-landers did before her — to raise kids. Now a self-described “empty nester” on this quiet stretch of coast, Semans showed me around my hometown, teaching me a history I had somehow never heard.
Considering that unincorporated Mendocino village only has a population of about 1,000, the sheer number of water towers that once occupied its 100-foot-high bluff was startling. The town, once a timber port, overlooks a bay where ships were loaded with old growth redwood. Today, only a couple dozen of the town’s historic towers remain, but they still define its skyline. 
The view from the top of the water tower room at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek in Little River, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
By the time I arrived at my room for the night, the sun had already set. The “Watertower Cottage” at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek south of Little River, was just a silhouette against the blue-black of an early fall evening on one of the first chilly days of the year. I checked myself in with a key that had been left for me outside the office — a COVID-era precaution that seems to have become the new normal, the impersonal hospitality that I fear we may be stuck with even after the pandemic is finally behind us.
My water tower room, unlike many on the coast, was not in the tower itself, but tucked beside it in a standalone cottage with pale yellow walls, a gas fireplace and teal curtains. A simple, comfortable space, its real draw was the structure next door. A smallish tower, its novelty lies in what’s at its base, built into its bowels: a hot tub, entirely mine for the night. 
The water tower room at the Weller House in Fort Bragg, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
I was so tired from a 25-mile trip on a railbike ride along Fort Bragg’s Noyo River Skunk Train route, I was tempted to skip the soak and collapse into bed. But the water tower, and its tub, were my reason for coming. So I took off my clothes and lowered myself in, alone in the near darkness. The room was bathroom-sized, barely big enough for the modest tub, with a chandelier ceiling fan offering dim light. It was womb-like. So much so, I had to get out after only a few minutes. I was afraid I’d fall asleep.
Up above, where the water tank would have been, the tower has a roof deck with two chairs overlooking the big, bad Pacific — the perfect place to watch the sunset over the cypress-planted headlands. On a warmer night, I would have liked to sit there, under the stars. Instead, I lit the gas fireplace and slipped into bed. 
Watertower at Jade’s Tower in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
On our water tower-themed trek through Mendocino, Semans explained the difference between water towers — open frames without siding — and tank houses (enclosed, like the small tower at Schoolhouse Creek). And she described how the towers would have looked when they were operational, with large whirling windmills atop their curvaceous, cylindrical tanks. The windmills powered pumps that pulled water from underground wells. Some tanks provided running water to a single home, while others supplied entire blocks. 
The 145-year-old tower at the Kelley House, one of the town’s oldest homes, stored the water for the Mendocino Hotel several blocks away. The one at the hilltop Mendocino High School, meanwhile, was built for fire suppression, not everyday use, and the pipes were made of redwood, not metal. (These marvels of engineering can still be seen in a side yard of the museum.) 
The view from on top of the water tower room at the Sweetwater Inn and Spa in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
This entire system was the result of Mendocino’s shallow water table and the town’s position on the windy North Coast bluffs. When the wind picked up, all of the windmills spun at once, creating such a racket that a traveling newspaperwoman, Ninetta Eames, was moved to document it in 1892 in the Overland Monthly.
“When the wind blows, and there is rarely a day here it does not, these diverse windmills set up a medley of discordant creaks and groans, each pitched in a different key, and whether heard singly or collectively, all equally nerve-rending,” Eames wrote. “It is presumable one could get used to the constant slapping, straining, and screeching, for nowhere are there people more serene, health, and home-loving, than in this breezy town of Mendocino.” (The account is reprinted in Mendocino Historical Review’s “Water Towers and Windmills of Mendocino.”)
The view from the top of the water tower room at the Weller House in Fort Bragg, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
I can’t speak for the serenity of the Mendonesians of the 19th century, but the combination of the noise from the windmills and the danger the towers presented — metal blades flying from the sky during winter storms, structures toppling from their bases — sounds less than idyllic to me. 
Semans’ tour was a revelation. Each of the town’s remaining towers has a story. And where the tank houses have been converted, they’ve taken on all kinds of second lives. Some, at places like the MacCallum House, are luxurious hotel rooms. The Mac House — as it’s known, rather informally, by locals — has turned its historic tower into a two-bedroom suite with views over the bay and a jacuzzi tub and sauna on the second floor.
The water tower room at the Sweetwater Inn and Spa in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
Over at Sweetwater Inn and Spa, there are three separate towers. All date to the 1800s, all can be rented, and all come with access to the inn’s clothing-optional hot tubs. Having retained some of old Mendocino’s hippie-era character, Sweetwater is loved by locals, who appreciate that you can still get a room here for less than $200 a night, even if it means sharing a bathroom, European style. Elsewhere in town, towers were turned into diminutive vacation rentals, artist’s studios and shops like Loot and Lore, a witchy apothecary selling “magickal jewelry, ritual supplies and curiosities.” 
Mendocino is full of these juxtapositions for me now. Everywhere I look I see the remnants of the old, weird, funky “Mendo” of my earliest memories. And, if I look again, I see the many ways that place has been supplanted by the bougie tourist town it would become. 
The water tower room at the MacCallum House in Mendocino, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
This tension leads me to miscalculations. After my night at Schoolhouse, there was a long line outside the bakery, the Good Life Cafe, where I’d planned to grab a quick bagel and coffee before my tour. Another nearby restaurant, Flow, had a wide open, ocean-view patio and a water tower serving as the staircase to its second-story dining room. Flow is also the latest incarnation of the restaurant where my mom worked, waiting tables, when I was a baby, where my high school boyfriend worked years later and where my family gathered to watch the parade of costumed, sign-waving weirdos — artists and activists, our people — on countless Fourths of July. 
Flow’s water tower, I’d soon learn from Semans, was actually moved, piece by piece, to its current location alongside the restaurant decades ago by local artists who bought it for a dollar — a factoid I’d never known. So, seduced by Flow’s tower and my nostalgia, I ended up there, spending $24 on a mediocre breakfast of braised greens and a single poached egg. 
I felt like a tourist.
The water tower at the Weller House in Fort Bragg, Calif., Nov. 4, 2021.
That afternoon, I drove to Fort Bragg. A metropolis by Mendocino standards, it’s the only place on the coast with a movie theater, a supermarket and a municipal water system — unlike Mendocino village’s network of wells. It also has far fewer water towers. But there’s one, looming several stories above its surroundings, at the Weller House — an 1886 farmhouse that was added to, bit by bit, by its owner, the banker responsible for the town’s company store, until it grew into an opulent home. Its water tower, my room for the night, supplied the whole neighborhood.
My room, dubbed the Raven Room, was only on the second story — the others were booked — but even it had a view across the rooftops and palm trees to the churning, frothing ocean. (A neighbor, apparently taking advantage of the captive audience, had strung a banner between the trees, warning against vaccine mandates: “Beware of those who will protect you by taking away your freedoms.”) 
The water tower room at the Sweetwater Inn and Spa in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
The room wasn’t huge — water tower rooms, almost by definition, can’t be — but it was awfully swanky for $125 a night. There were gold velvet curtains, an octagonal table overlooking Main Street (the famed Highway 1), an oversized jacuzzi bath and a fireplace. A bouquet in the window smelled of fresh sage. Above the king-sized bed hung a tide chart, playing on the view. 
My home coast’s water towers are no longer the tree houses of my imagination. They’re not playgrounds or the focus of teenage antics. They’re romantic in a way that befits their architecture: tall and elegant and above it all. They’re somewhere to drink sparkling wine and watch a winter storm roil the ocean. They’re a place to hide away from an urban adulthood, a cabin in the clouds. 
The water tower at the Sweetwater Inn and Spa in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
The view from on top of the water tower room at the Sweetwater Inn and Spa in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
Left, the water tower room at the Inn at Schoolhouse Creek and, right, the water tower room at the MacCallum House.
Watertower at Jade’s Tower in Mendocino, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2021.
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Freda Moon is the travel editor for SFGATE. You can reach her at freda.moon@sfgate.com.


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