We often wonder who the man was with the insatiable curiosity about the world around him.
Huell Howser could get as excited about a single persimmon tree as he could about a state park, botanical garden, out-of-the-way museum or the ordinary lives of California residents.
We watched the late Tennessee native go underground in storm drains, learn about bluebirds with Orange County’s Dick Purvis and hug trees as far north as Humboldt in his long-running series, “California’s Gold,” for public television.
Visiting one of his own homes is a road trip to remember. Up the Cajon Pass, out to the Mojave Desert, you make your turns east along dirt roads until you come to a house you’re not likely to see anywhere except in the middle of nowhere.
The Volcano House outside of Barstow is built on a cinder cone, a volcanic bubble of sorts. It follows the form of the cone with a white domed roof, and from a distance it looks like a snow-capped peak from outer space.
“We like to joke with our friends that have never seen it before, that we’re not sure when it landed,” said nearest neighbor Spike Lynch, who lives a mile away.
Following the space-time continuum, but backward, a step inside is to experience the swinging ’60s, a decade many of us joke that if we remember it, we weren’t there.
The circular home with 360 degrees of sliding glass panels is surprisingly spacious for a house in the round – two bedrooms, two baths, living and dining rooms and a conversation pit. George Jetson would have been proud.
All the rooms are divided by floating interior walls that share the same domed ceiling. The top of the dome is an observation deck.
The house was built in 1968 by Vard Wallace, a Newport Beach resident who invented a drafting machine widely used in the aircraft industry during World War II.
There are 1,800 square feet of living space, 60 acres of desert, a small caretaker house and a man-made lake that could use a little landscaping. The view in some directions is the distant horizon, and it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop but for the lone coyote howling at dusk.
“Serenity is what attracts people to desert,” said Lynch. “There’s nothing like watching the stars come out here.”
The domed roof also shelters a 5-foot-wide moat that was intended as a swimming pool, but proved too dirty after the first few sandstorms.
Howser bought the house on the spot from its third owner, midcentury fan and British developer Richard Bailey, in 2003.
Caretaker Ray Laporte said Howser signed on the dotted line within minutes of seeing the place. An impulse buy, but he rarely used it.
“It’s pretty difficult getting up and down the narrow road,” said Lynch. “In fact, when they were pouring the dome, they couldn’t find a concrete contractor to go up. It was so steep the concrete would pour out of the back of the truck.”
The problem was solved by a man from Barstow who backed all the way up the 10-foot wide road to deliver the concrete. Lynch recalls that portion of the job took months to complete.
Howser had it on the market in 2009, but ended up giving the house to Chapman University over lunch at the Filling Station in Old Towne Orange with Chapman’s president, Jim Doti.
Register reporter Sherri Cruz wrote that in April of that year, while they sat on the patio, Doti asked about the house and Howser said something like: “Oh yeah, I bought that 10 years ago. I hardly ever used it, but I fell in love with the place. Why? Do you want it?”
The university plans to use the house for desert studies, astronomy and geology pursuits.
When flares fire into the sky over the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Air Ground Combat Center, the large white lights hang with the stars for minutes. Lynch likes to tell his guests that the aliens are coming back for it.