Emile Norman’s greatest achievement was the house high atop Pfeiffer Ridge that he built with partner Brooks Clement.
Like many others who went to Big Sur in the first decade after the highway was completed, Emile Norman and Brooks Clement were just passing through on their way somewhere else.
The duo had left Whittier in 1946 because it was “getting too crowded” and were en route to Mendocino. They stopped in Big Sur, saw a sign saying “land for sale” and figured, what was the harm in looking? They fell in love with the place and never left.
After spending a couple of quick years on the initial piece of property by the roadside that they bought, the pair befriended Florence Pfeiffer, a member of the family whose name adorns many landmarks in the area. She sold the couple her late husband’s 120-acre timber claim high atop Pfeiffer Ridge, with famous words of wisdom: “If you stay down here at the river, you’ll get mold in your crotch.”
Norman made a living as an artist who specialized in plastics and epoxy resin. He had large commissions, including the mosaic window and exterior sculpture at the California Masonic Memorial Temple in San Francisco; the project sustained them through most of the 1950s and funded their ever-morphing house. Clement worked as an atomic engineer. Together, they could realize whatever they wanted.
They built the entire house by hand. Original ideas to construct a big house on top of Mt. Clemile were put aside in favor of a smaller structure which they just kept expanding.
Clement became ill in the 1960s with stomach cancer, and rather than casting a pall over their lives, his illness spurred them on creatively. The two were baroque music lovers, especially Bach. Clement was a keyboard player, and they had always wanted a pipe organ. His declining health gave them a deadline to complete the instrument, which Norman designed and Clement engineered.
The born entertainers had people for dinner two or three times weekly—right in the middle of all their big endeavors (including the organ). Following Clement’s passing in 1973, Norman remained up on the hill, making and showing his art until his death at age 91 in 2009.
Jeff Mallory, longtime friend and caretaker during Norman’s later years, describes their lives: “They worked like maniacs, and they played like maniacs.”
WRITTEN BY CAT DORAN.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY LISA EISNER.