December 7, 2023 in California

The Quaint Seaside Village with a Big Creative Spirit

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Early History

The Carmel area has a long history of human habitation. Archaeological evidence indicates the Esselen people lived in the region for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. The Esselen were hunter-gatherers who lived off the plentiful natural resources of the Central California coast.

In 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed along the California coast and claimed the land for Spain. Vizcaino named the area “Carmelo” in honor of a Catholic saint. In 1770, the Spanish established Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo just south of the modern-day town of Carmel. The mission was part of Spain’s effort to colonize and Christianize the native population. The Esselen were forced to convert to Christianity and build the mission. Many died from European diseases during this era.

Spain controlled the California coast until 1821, when Mexico gained independence. In 1834, the Mexican government secularized the missions, and their lands were granted to private owners. The Carmel mission fell into disrepair during the Mexican period.

Ranching Era

The land that became Carmel was originally inhabited by the Esselen people. In the late 1700s, the Spanish established missions in California and began granting land to Spanish settlers.

One of the first grantees was José Manuel Boronda, who received Rancho Las Manzanitas in 1794. This ranch encompassed the area that is now Carmel-by-the-Sea. Boronda built an adobe house and raised cattle on the land.

In the 1840s, two Americans – John B.R. Cooper and Nathaniel Davison – obtained Rancho El Sur on which the southern part of Carmel sits today. They introduced dairy ranches and agriculture to the area.

In the 1880s, the ranch was sold to Santiago Duckworth, who continued ranching operations. His family grazed cattle and sheep on the property into the 20th century.

In 1902, James Devendorf and Frank Powers bought 170 acres of Rancho Las Manzanitas. Devendorf had a vision for establishing a vacation community on the picturesque site. This land purchase marked the genesis of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Founding of Carmel

Carmel was founded in 1902 by Frank Devendorf, a San Francisco businessman. Devendorf envisioned the town as an arts colony and funded the Carmel Development Company to help populate the town. The original city charter was adopted in 1916 and established the City of Carmel.

Devendorf hired San Francisco architect Frank Powers to design an urban plan for Carmel including a commercial area and residential lots. The streets winding through the wooded area were unusual for the times and designed to preserve the natural beauty of the landscape. Devendorf built cottages in Carmel, inspired by a picturesque English village, to attract artistic residents and cultural charm.

The vision for an arts colony was soon realized with renowned California artists including Mary DeNeale Morgan, Armin Hansen, Theodore Criley, Rowena Meeks Abdy settling there. Writers like Sinclair Lewis and Jack London spent time in Carmel further establishing its reputation as a flourishing artistic town. Carmel incorporated on October 31, 1916 becoming an official city with Devendorf as its first mayor.

Arts Colony

In the early 20th century, Carmel emerged as a hub for artists and writers seeking escape from the city. The town’s natural beauty and seclusion attracted creatives who formed their own colony.

The authors Jack London and George Sterling were some of the first artists to settle in Carmel in the 1900s. They hosted others at an old whaling station called “The Abalone Shack”, drawing writers, poets, and painters to the area. Soon Carmel became known for its Bohemian atmosphere welcoming unconventional lifestyles and avant-garde ideas.

Other notable artists who made Carmel their home were photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, author Upton Sinclair, poet Robinson Jeffers, and painter Mary DeNeale Morgan. Jeffers was instrumental in the formation of the arts colony, building his stone Tor House and Hawk Tower which became a gathering place. The dunes, cypress trees, and rugged coastline around Carmel inspired many works of art.

By the 1920s, Carmel had become a vibrant center for creative culture on the West Coast. Art galleries, theaters, and studios opened to support the flourishing arts community. Their works captured the natural beauty and individualism that defined Carmel’s artistic spirit in the early 20th century. The town retains its reputation as an enclave for creativity and free-thinking ideals to this day.


The beautiful natural scenery of Carmel-by-the-Sea began attracting tourists in the late 1800s. The Hotel Del Monte opened in 1880 and was a popular seaside resort destination. Wealthy visitors from San Francisco would take the train down to Monterey and then travel by carriage to Hotel Del Monte to enjoy the Mediterranean climate and idyllic surroundings.

With the white sandy beach, dramatic cliffs, pine forests, and ocean vistas, Carmel quickly became known as a picturesque retreat. The Del Monte Forest offered access to outdoor activities like horseback riding, hunting, and camping. Local scenes like Point Lobos and the Carmel Mission also attracted sightseers. As word spread of Carmel’s beauty, it started drawing creative personalities as well as regular tourists.

Notable Residents

Carmel has been home to many notable artists, writers, and public figures over the years who were drawn to its natural beauty and creative atmosphere.

One of the most famous residents was the poet Robinson Jeffers, who moved to Carmel in 1914 and built a stone tower on a windswept point. He wrote many poems inspired by the dramatic Carmel coastline like “Hurt Hawks” and “The Double Axe.” Jeffers hosted literary gatherings at his Tor House and was an influential figure in the town.

The photographer Ansel Adams was a Carmel resident for many years and took some of his most iconic landscape photos in the area like “Cypress Trees at Point Lobos.” Adams co-founded the first gallery focused on photography in the United States in Carmel.

The novelist Henry Miller lived in Carmel in the 1940s and wrote “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” about his time there. Miller was attracted to Carmel’s natural scenery and bohemian spirit. His writing captured the colorful characters and way of life in Carmel and Big Sur during that period.

Other notable residents have included writers Mary Austin, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London, painter Salvador Dali, actress Kim Novak, and Clint Eastwood who served as mayor of Carmel. The beautiful seaside village has inspired and drawn creative souls for over a century.


Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its unique storybook architecture, characterized by quaint cottages, Tudor-style buildings, and fairytale houses. This distinctive architectural style emerged in the 1920s under the direction of artist and architect Hugh Comstock.

Comstock designed over 80 residential and commercial structures in Carmel, including iconic landmarks like the Tuck Box restaurant, Hansel cottage, and the Flanders mansion. His fanciful designs incorporated elements of European folk styles like English thatched cottages and Bavarian hunting lodges. Sloping roofs, irregular floor plans, and whimsical accents like climbing vines and flower boxes defined the storybook look.

The creation of Carmel’s fairytale aesthetic was also driven by the development of strict building codes in 1927 called CC&Rs (Covenants, Codes and Restrictions). These regulations ensured architectural conformity by dictating acceptable materials, height limits, and requiring pitched roofs. The city wished to maintain the village’s unique charm by preventing modern styles that might compromise the storybook appearance.

Over nine decades later, Carmel’s architectural codes remain in place, preserving the dreamlike quality of Comstock’s original vision. The town’s gently winding streets and idyllic cottages continue to enchant visitors and residents alike with a sense of old-world fantasy and magic.


Carmel-by-the-Sea was incorporated as a city in 1916. The city operates under a council-manager form of government, where the Mayor is the head of the City Council and has a mostly ceremonial role. The City Council is made up of 4 council members who are elected at-large to overlapping 4-year terms. The City Council is responsible for setting policy, approving budgets, and passing local ordinances.

The day-to-day operations are handled by a city manager appointed by the council. Some notable Mayors of Carmel-by-the-Sea include Herbert Heron, who was the first mayor elected after incorporation in 1916, and Sue McCloud, who was the city’s first female mayor elected in 1982.

The City Council meets on the first Tuesday of every month. Residents can attend and participate in these meetings to voice concerns or learn about issues facing the community. Major topics addressed by the council include the city budget, land use and planning, public safety, and preservation of Carmel’s village character.

The city has taken steps to limit chain stores and retain its unique small-town atmosphere. This includes capping building heights, regulating business signage, and prohibiting franchise restaurants. The governmental bodies of Carmel-by-the-Sea strive to preserve the city’s charm and quality of life for residents.


Carmel-by-the-Sea is known for its natural beauty and focus on environmental conservation. The town has taken several steps to protect its picturesque coastline and forests.

In the 1980s, Carmel banned the use of plastic bags and styrofoam take-out containers before most other cities. It was one of the first communities in the United States to enact this type of ordinance. The plastic bag ban has helped keep Carmel’s beaches free of unsightly and harmful plastic litter.

Carmel also has leash laws requiring dogs to be on a leash at all times, except at Carmel Beach where dogs are allowed off-leash to run free if accompanied by a person. This ensures dogs and their owners can enjoy the beach while maintaining safety and limiting disturbance of local wildlife.

The town aims to maintain its original forested character by preserving the Monterey pine trees and coastal vegetation. No street tree may be removed without a permit, ensuring no unnecessary removal of greenery occurs.

Through its conservation rules and focus on sustainability, Carmel has retained its natural scenic beauty while adapting to modern needs and visitors. The community continues to find innovative ways to preserve the environment for future generations.

Modern Day

Carmel-by-the-Sea is known today as an idyllic beach town and upscale destination for tourism and leisure. Its natural beauty, preserved architecture, and reputation as an artists’ haven continue to attract visitors from around the world.

Tourism remains the lifeblood of the local economy. Over 2 million people visit annually to stroll along Ocean Avenue, enjoy the white sand beach, browse art galleries, stay at world-class resorts, and dine at acclaimed restaurants. The town has repeatedly been recognized by publications like Travel + Leisure as one of the world’s top vacation spots.

Carmel is known for its quaint storybook cottages, European-inspired architecture, and strict building codes that preserve its old-world charm. With no street addresses or street lights, the village has a fairy tale aesthetic. Historic preservation has kept most franchises and chain businesses out, unlike many surrounding communities. The residential-feeling commercial district retains its unique ambiance.

While Carmel enjoys an enchanting setting, it also carries an exclusive price tag with real estate regularly ranking among America’s most expensive ZIP codes. Luxury estates and golf communities sprawl across the coast into neighboring Pebble Beach. Carmel is an affluent retreat, catering to upscale tourism and second-home owners. The neighborhood remains predominantly white and skews older.

Nonetheless, Carmel retains the artistic spirit of its founders. Art galleries, theaters, festivals, and concerts give it a cultural vibrance. The natural splendor that inspired the original artists remains intact. Carmel manages to blend world-class hospitality and amenities with a preserved sense-of-place, keeping its charm as both tourist destination and residential retreat.

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