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Capitol Hill drama over writer's site

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DANVILLE - Every year, 3,500 visitors make their way to the protected hillside home where Eugene O'Neill penned - with torturous effort - the works that would make him the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize.

What if a for-sale sign went up out front of the rambling, two-story Spanish colonial home?

In the heated Bay Area housing market, the 13-acre site with a to-die-for view of Mount Diablo and the San Ramon Valley and a literary legend in its past could fetch millions.

OAS_AD('Button20'); In a curious revelation recently from the halls of Congress, that very scenario seemed to be in the works: put the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site on the auction block along with 14 other national park sites to help balance the national budget.

The O'Neill home, named Tao House, was the only California site on the list. Loyal supporters in the valley surrounding the Danville house were stunned.

"The e-mails were buzzing back and forth," said Gary DeAtley, a board member of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House.

Low in profile, the homesite is nonetheless worthy of preservation, he said. "It's not Jefferson's home, and it's not Yosemite, but it is an important piece of American history."

How the sale idea got onto paper and how it became public is now little more than a bizarre story, insisted a spokesman for the U.S. House Committee on Resources, the original source of the notion.

Chaired by U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, whose district includes Danville, the committee is responsible for the nation's natural resources, including parks.

Like all Congressional committees, Pombo's was charged with taking inventory and suggesting ways to pinch pennies - $2.4 billion to be exact, said Matt Streit, the spokesman.

It's part of an annual ritual to shave national debt and balance the budget, and the $2.4 billion is Pombo's committee's share, Streit said.

According to him, the undisclosed money-saving schemes submitted to the Congressional Budget Office are not necessarily reality-based. "There are crazy ideas that are never going to see the light of day," he said.

True, the committee's staff members compiled a list of 15 national park sites - those with low attendance - for a suggested giant land sale, Streit said. After the committee's ideas were submitted to the Congressional Budget Office, someone there apparently leaked the list, he said.

"This document wasn't meant to be circulated," he said.

In a Sept. 23 letter, the Budget Office apologized to Pombo's committee for the "inadvertently disclosed" document.

Believe it or not, there are politics involved: Pombo is pushing a controversial proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which backers claim would produce $2.5 billion annually for at least five years. The committee's intent in making up the list was a way of illustrating the possibilities if the drilling option is rejected, Streit said.

Eventually, the committee will have to decide how to save the $2.4 billion.

"Selling national parks is not the best one," Streit said. "Obviously, the American public wouldn't see that as a good idea."

And so it would seem.

The National Parks Conservation Association commissioned a poll taken Sept. 30-Oct. 2 that showed that 79 percent of likely voters strongly disagree or disagree somewhat with the idea of selling national parks to developers or the oil and gas industry.

The overwhelming opposition is clear, said Craig Obey, vice president of governmental affairs for the watchdog group.

The possibility is still on the horizon, he insisted.

"The most important thing is that all people make their voices loud and clear that this kind of proposal is unacceptable," he said. "Next time, there could be an even more serious threat."

In an effort to quell the uproar, Pombo's office sent a representative to the recent O'Neill Festival in Danville, said DeAtley, who is pretty convinced the threat is gone. At least for now.

"I think there should be a discussion of where money could be saved," DeAtley said. "Maybe some parks could be turned over to nonprofits. That was not the environment that I would start that kind of discussion."

O'Neill is responsible for drawing respect to American theater, where before, European dramatists reigned, said Jon Rossini, an assistant professor of theater and dance at University of California, Davis.

He explored controversial topics, such as abortion in a 1914 play, and wrote serious parts for African Americans.

For artists and fans who see his secluded study behind three closed doors - the dual desks, the typewriter eschewed for pencils, it's like touching inspiration, Rossini said.

In his second-floor study, O'Neill would swivel back and forth between works in progress. Inflicted with a nerve disorder brought on by drinking, he struggled to put pencil to paper, sometimes using his other hand to steady the tremors in his writing hand. He refused to use a typewriter.

"There's something to be said about seeing where these plays were created," Rossini said. "If we start erasing these spaces, you're erasing the importance of these playwrights."

O'Neill called the 158-acre homesite his "final home and harbor." In 1937, with Carlotta, his actress third wife, he moved into the home, which was infused with Chinese philosophy and art. Carlotta O'Neill's 17 Louis Vuitton steamer trunks were stored in a specially built trunk house.

Inside, the faintly eccentric bright-blue ceilings represent the sky over darkly stained pine floors or earth-toned tiles. Here, O'Neill's wife tenaciously guarded her husband's privacy and creative process.

The couple bought an electric refrigerator that made its own ice, a splurge in those days; they quite literally did not want the iceman to come.

By 1943, the isolation proved too inconvenient. The home was sold, and the couple moved back East where O'Neill died in 1953.

He stayed put the longest, though, in the Danville home and ended his writing career there.

In the ensuing years, homes sprang up at the base of the hill, and now access to Tao House is limited to shuttles. That could be why so few people visit.

"I don't know if it's wise to measure a site's worth by the number of visitors it gets," said Rick Smith, the deputy superintendent for several East Bay national parks. "We have to preserve it, not just for 10 years, but for our children's children's children."

About the writer: The Bee's M.S. Enkoji can be reached at (916) 321-1106 or - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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