Mickey Muennig

Mickey Muennig.

Mickey Muennig has been called “the man who built Big Sur,” as well as one of the top 100 architects in the U.S. and the “unsung pioneer of California’s iconoclastic organic architecture movement.” Locally he’s been called the “White Elf,” and a “gnome.”

Muennig passed away peacefully in his sleep on June 10, according to an announcement from the Henry Miller Memorial Library where a celebration of Muennig’s life is planned for June 23. He was 86.

The celebration is being dubbed “Gnomeanomaly” by his daughter Michele Muennig, a combination of “gnome” and the word “anomaly,” explains longtime friend and HMML Executive Director Magnus Toren.

“Mickey was a gnome, or a wise man, or a magician, or a wizard. He had that kind of personality where he was very much living in his own space, in his own mind,” Toren says, adding that Muennig was a “walking anomaly in some ways.” The name Gnomeanomaly was Michele’s way of making a loving, heartfelt nod to her father’s unique personality.

Muennig didn’t always seem connected to reality to those around him but Toren says it was more an indication of the deep thinking Muennig was engaged in, reflected in his intricate and fanciful architectural creations—often with no right angles requiring exacting calculations—that became world famous. “He seemed to be a person who could focus extraordinarily on one thing in his mind,” Toren says.

The architect who came to Big Sur in 1971 was known for his ecological buildings that were designed with the surrounding landscape and views in mind. For example he often used undulating curves to mimic the water of the Pacific Ocean below Big Sur’s cliffs. He designed the Post Ranch Inn, built in 1992, as well as the Baths at Esalen and the Hawthorne Gallery. He also built homes for wealthy landowners along the coast and across the country, sometimes built into the earth or hugging vertical hillsides.

Architectural writer Dominic Lutyens describes Muennig’s own home built on Partington Ridge in 1971, as a good example of “organic, eco self-build architecture.” After entering a moon-shaped door inspired by Chinese temples, visitors were “confronted by — and forced to circumvent — a waterfall cascading just inside the door before walking into a living room full of banana trees and vines. This originally contained a dining table that was later inaccessible when the room became totally overgrown.”

Muennig was born George Kay Muennig in Joplin, Missouri, in 1935, and later nicknamed “Mickey” by his sister who thought he looked like Mickey Mouse, according to a 2015 profile of Muennig in The Joplin Globe. The story was published after the release of a book by the architect about his career, Mickey Muennig: Dreams and Realizations for a Living Architecture.

His hobbies as a child included collecting mineral specimens and building model airplanes. He left Joplin at age 18 to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology with the intention of studying aeronautical engineering. It was there he discovered architecture. After reading about architect Bruce Goff in a magazine and finding himself fascinated by Goff’s eclectic creations he transferred to the University of Oklahoma where Goff was teaching.

After studying under Goff, he later returned to Joplin in 1959 to build his first fanciful creation commissioned by a couple—a one-bedroom cottage overlooking Shoal Creek. The cottage’s rolling cedar-shake roof required a structural system never used before and took five years to build, according to the Globe. The rolling roof was meant to mimic the sound of water rippling in the creek.

In 1971, Muennig took a vacation to attend a workshop on Gestalt therapy at the Esalen Institute. He moved to Big Sur soon after and never left.

His daughter Michele is encouraging those who knew him to gather at the library at 7:30pm, Wednesday, June 23, for the celebration. Those attending in person should RSVP to Toren at magnus@henrymiller.org. Toren says anyone who cannot attend is welcome to send a video message to share a memory. They are currently putting together a slideshow of photos and videos to show that evening.

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