‘Hero of the neighborhood’: How a Bonny Doon neighbor’s resolve helped save a Santa Cruz musical treasure
The name Boomeria comes not from the dramatic churchy sounds that emanate from the pipe-organ, but from the man, Preston Boomer, who built not only the organ but the bizarro playland that surrounds it. It was the 90-year-old’s neighbor Alexis “Lexi” Seath who took it upon herself to save “the Chapel” she grew up next to.
On a hot, suffocating Saturday afternoon in July, a few dozen people gathered in a redwood grove near Bonny Doon. Noshing on finger foods and sipping wine or sparkling water, they congregated outside a tiny house with a steeply pitched roof like a mountain chalet, known locally as “the Chapel.” A few were inside the Chapel, while others stood near the door, and a few more sat in plastic chairs nearby under the trees.
Of course, you didn’t have to be that close to hear the music coming from inside. It could likely have been heard for miles. The music was haunting, ethereal, vaguely Medieval, lending a kind of surreal majesty to a landscape still charred from the fires of 2020.
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Inside the Chapel is a massive pipe organ, a one-of-a-kind apparatus that has expanded like a living organism for almost 70 years. It’s a Bonny Doon landmark, and it’s an eccentric, irreplaceable California treasure. And it very well could have been destroyed, if not for one determined neighbor and a nearby swimming pool.
This is Boomeria.
The name comes not from the dramatic churchy sounds that emanate from the pipe-organ, but from the man who built not only the organ but the bizarro playland that surrounds it, including a castle, guillotine, catacombs, and dungeon, where friends and neighbors have been waging playful water-gun battles for generations.
He is Preston Boomer, aka “The Boom,” a former San Lorenzo Valley high school science teacher and master of this mini kingdom. In 1953, Boomer rescued the pipe organ that was set to be replaced at a church in San Jose. Over the years, he and his students at SLV added to it, until it collected close to 2,500 pipes. It’s gotten media attention both locally and around the world as a delightful cultural artifact in an unlikely setting.
For the last few decades, the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival has made a visit to Boomeria an annual summer event, with accomplished musicians invited to take a seat at the enormous pipe organ. July’s concert was a return to Boomeria after a one-year pandemic-related absence. And many on hand at the show were all too aware that they were witnessing something like a miracle.
This magnificent instrument, as well as the charming chalet that houses it, could have easily been consumed by the CZU fires that destroyed several homes nearby. But a year after the apocalypse, here it stood, completely intact, again filling the air with exalted organ music.
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That’s no accident.
Alexis “Lexi” Seath grew up on a piece of property a minute’s walk from the Chapel. Now in her 30s, she still lives on the site, in a small house she built near the much larger main house where her mother lives. The castle and the catacombs of Boomeria were a big part of her childhood.
In mid-August of 2020, when fires began encroaching upon the area from the west, Seath sensed danger. From her house, she had a view and a perspective from which she could make out the progress of the fire. One night, after midnight, she decided to take action.
“The fire came,” she said in her wide yard as organ music wafted in the air from Boomeria up the hill. “The sky was red and it came down this way. I drove around the neighborhood honking the horn. That was about (1 a.m.).”
“She’s the hero of the neighborhood,” said Preston Boomer who, at 90 years old, lives in a small house just steps from the Chapel. Boomer, like most of his neighbors, evacuated and, for days, knew little or nothing about the status of his home, Boomeria, or the pipe organ.
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Seath, however, stayed behind.
Her first priority was her home and her mother’s home. She put sprinklers on the roof, and applied Phos-Check fire retardant everywhere she could. She had set up a system to water the Douglas firs on her property and believes that the consistent watering saved them as well.
Over the course of the next few days and nights, working alone, Seath turned to her attention to neighbors’ houses. She used as many garden hoses as she could find or borrow to set up hose lines to the houses. Then she sensed Boomeria was in trouble.
Right next to the pipe organ, Boomeria had a swimming pool. Armed with a holster generator and a sump pump, she began to use the water from the pool to wet down the Chapel and Boomer’s house. All the while, she was keeping an eye on her own home, other neighbors’ homes, and perhaps most crucially a clear avenue for escape if and when she decided to leave.
She, in fact, did leave the grounds a couple of times, to get more sprinklers (“I couldn’t afford to pay for all these sprinkler things I was getting,” she remembered. “And I told the guy, ‘Look, I’m going back up to the fires.’ And people in line were all, ‘Hey, here’s 20 bucks.’”).
That was super sketchy. You had to hide from helicopters because you weren’t supposed to be out there.
At another point, running low on supplies, she decided to walk to Bonny Doon, several miles away, and carry back with her water, food, and supplies, taking a path that only someone who knew the area as intimately as she did would know about. Familiar trails had been obliterated by the fire. It took her about four hours to get back to her home. “That was super sketchy,” she said, “you had to hide from helicopters because you weren’t supposed to be out there.”
Armed only with a pump, a hose, and a generator, she spent one entire night at Boomeria making sure the fires didn’t reach the Chapel and the pipe organ inside. “The idea was to keep things wet and keep things from touching so they wouldn’t come and wick back.”
Almost a year after the fact, Lexi Seath doesn’t remember exactly how many days and nights she spent alone defending her and her neighbors’ properties. Ironically, the only damage from the main house on her property was water damage from her efforts.
At one point, the smoke was so bad, she found herself locked in an interior closet in the house wearing a swim mask and a wet towel wrapped around her face. “Smoke inhalation was one of the gnarlier things that was just overwhelming,” she said.
Smoke inhalation was one of the gnarlier things that was just overwhelming.
When it was all over, she remembers seeing Boomer for the first time since he had returned. “We sat down by the pool, and he pulled out a bottle of wine, about 11 in the morning,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Sure.’ I mean, what are you going to do?”
Seath was not able to save everything. Some houses in the area were completely lost. At Boomeria, the battle towers, the engine room, and a few other parts of it are gone. The ruins of the guillotine still sat in a pile in the yard at July’s Baroque Festival concert.
But Preston Boomer is back at home, ringing a large bell that can be heard as far away as Roaring Camp — or so he claims — every day at noon and 4 p.m., just as he did for years before the fire. The woodsy hills surrounding Boomeria are much more sparse now. Before the fires, many of the homes were not visible through the trees. Now, that’s not the case. But the grand old pipe organ still floats in the air.
Boomer isn’t planning on rebuilding the structures he lost. “The Lord must like kids because the playground is still pretty much intact,” he said. Of the debt of gratitude he owes the neighbor who grew up playing in the castle, he said, “We tried (to thank her). She won’t take money, or anything. She’s just a great person.”
This is an on-going Lookout series looking at the recovery effort and the stories behind the people who have been fighting their way through a difficult time to say the least. Send ideas to email@example.com.