Nestled in the western hills above Danville is one of its more unique and distinguished landmarks, the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill, winner of four Pulitzer Prizes and the Nobel Prize, and his wife, Carlotta, lived in their beloved Tao House on that site from 1937 to 1944.
The O’Neill’s built the home on 158 acres using the stipend from O’Neill’s Nobel Prize for Literature—the only American playwright to achieve the distinction. The couple was attracted to the beauty, climate, and privacy of the hills in the San Ramon Valley. O’Neill, who had wandered his entire life, including time spent on the sea, called the home “his final harbor”, although it was not to be the case. O’Neill wrote his final plays in the privacy of his office there, including his most memorable play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In all, he completed five plays while living in Danville.
The couple named the home Tao House (pronounced “dow”), in part for O’Neill’s interest in Eastern thought, and Carlotta’s love of Oriental art and décor. The outside is a Spanish colonial exterior, but inside Carlotta painted the ceilings a deep blue and the doors red, stained the floors black, and filled the home with Chinese furniture. Gardening was one of O’Neill’s interests; the couple planted and harvested walnuts, almonds and citrus fruits.
The seclusion of the property was ideal for O’Neill’s need for privacy and focus while writing his plays. He wrote every morning into the early afternoon, breaking to walk with Carlotta outdoors, or swim in their pool. Sometimes he wrote into the night, or even days at a time. When he wasn’t working in the evenings, he and Carlotta read or listened to jazz and blues records.
Although the O’Neill’s had hoped to live at Tao House for the rest of their lives, Eugene’s failing health, and the impact of World War II forced them to leave. The couple, who could not drive, depended heavily on a paid staff, but the war had made finding and keeping workers difficult. O’Neill died in Boston in 1953. He never wrote another play after leaving Tao House.
In the mid 1960s a decade-long effort to save Tao House was undertaken by citizens and lawmakers, resulting in its purchase by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation and designation as a National Historic Site. The Foundation remains active, staging O’Neill’s plays in the Old Barn on the site, and sponsoring Student Days, as well as writers’ workshops and other events.
To visit Tao House, you must make an advance reservation for a free, guided tour. No private vehicles are allowed at the site, so you have to catch a free National Park Service shuttle from The Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 205 Railroad Ave., in downtown Danville.
The tours are offered at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays or Sundays. Allow 2 ½ hours for your visit. Self-guided tours are available without reservation on Saturdays. Shuttles leave at 10 a.m., 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. Allow 1¾ hours for your visit. The site is closed Mondays, Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.