Biography of a House
The house was unusual for many reasons. Itslocation seemed odd, almost inaccessible in this era of motorized transport; itstood at the top of a long uphill footpath. It had peculiar scars which werenot immediately visible to the casual observer, but it could be seen on closeexamination that at some time the house had undergone major surgery of astartling kind. In style it was not remarkable: plain, rustic, foursquare,unimaginative -- but larger than might be expected of a simple country cabin.Originally named Oak Openings, it was known to many local people as AvalonCottage, to teenagers and transients as The Haunted House, and to us, itsclosest neighbors simply as the Old House.
It had at least 4000 square feet of livingspace including six bedrooms and a loft which contained two double beds.Completely furnished when I first saw it, its ambiance was very much that of apioneer dwelling, with many obviously handmade pieces. Chairs and tables werecleverly put together from saplings, peeled branches, grapevine, and polishedslabs of tree trunk. In the midst of these rustic surroundings, a fabulouslyelaborate grand piano made of rosewood, delicately carved and inlaid, seemedstrangely out of place.
Although it was ahouse well-loved by its many guests, absentee ownership, indifference, neglect,the Great Depression, the weather, and an undeserved ghostly reputation causedits shockingly swift decline and decay.
The Avalon was perched on a high duneoverlooking the west bank of the Kalamazoo River across from Moore's Creek
It was built around1900 -- give or take a few years -- by one of Michigan's last land barons, William Harbert. For a long time, he had acquired and continued toown great chunks of property all along the Lake Michiganshore. Travelers on the secondary roads and highways that parallel a 200 mileshore line still run across his name frequently, memorialized in parks,hamlets, and local streets. For his own vacation lodge in the forest he chosewhat he considered the most beautiful location of all: a high knoll on aheavily wooded hill between Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo Riveracross from Saugatuck. Views in both directions were spectacular. Even the hillsite which he gave to the local town council for a needed water tower wasappreciably lower than his lot. The water pipes serving the house actually hadto emerge from the huge tank halfway up its spherical surface.
The hill itself was probably about 150 feethigh, and very irregular in conformation. The trees and vegetation that coveredit were, at the very least, a couple of hundred years old, and the root, leafmold, and decayed vegetation layer was thick, but underneath, the hill wasunmistakably an old sand dune, with long curving ridges, deep ravines, andunexpected hollows. When the house was built, the transportation difficultythat later developed had not yet been foreseen. Then, horses could easily pullwagons on the sandy track that led upwards, and people could be delivered tothe door in a light buggy.
As the high swirl onwhich the house was sited was long and narrow, Harbertdesigned his lodge to be long and narrow also. It was to be about 75 feet longby about 25 feet wide, in two stories. Since the ridge on which it was to standwas clearly only sand, though deceptively firm-looking, a very strongfoundation was constructed, utilizing the wealth of smooth, rounded stonesthrown up on the beach by fierce Lake Michiganstorms. The stones selected were approximately the size of a football. Fittedneatly together with cement, they formed a reassuring base, visible from therear of the house, but not from the front, which was even with the top of theridge. The same kind of stones formed a tall chimney serving a baronial stonefireplace on the first floor and a slightly smaller one upstairs.
Fireplace in rustic dining-great room
According to the original plan, you enteredthe dining room, a room at least 25 by 20 feet, dominated by its fireplace. Acorridor led the length of the first floor, serving four small bedrooms, abathroom, an enclosed stairway to the second floor, and the kitchen, which,without electricity, boasted a neat kerosene stove and a shaft through whichshelves could be let down by ropes to a cooler place. Some of the bedrooms haddoors leading outside to rustic balconies. Upstairs was a huge lounge or livingroom, occupying two thirds or more of the length of the house, and its entirewidth. At one end stood the stone fireplace, and at the other, a spacious loftbisected by a central stairway. Intended for overflow sleeping quarters, it wasfurnished with two double beds, one on each side of the stairhead,and each one backed by a commodious walk-in storage space serving, among otherthings, as closet and cupboard for the loft dwellers. Between these twoenclosed closets was a short corridor leading to a window on the north wall. Asthe loft was completely open at its front, except for a rustic railing, and thegreat hall it overlooked was all windows on the western side, there was plentyof ventilation.
Under this loft, and closed off by a door on each side of the stair,was a kind of master suite comprising two rooms and a bathroom. Although notlarge, this section of the house presented a more finished look than the rest.It was paneled and appeared to be winterized. An old-fashioned pot-belliedwoodstove stood in one corner. If he wished, the owner would have been able tostay in the house for short periods even in cold weather. The rest of thebuilding was of simpler construction, with bare joists and beams, suitable onlyfor summer occupancy.
As a building design, it was not beautiful, and its height soon provedimpractical. Perched up there on its knoll, it must have resembled a monstrous,brown cereal box sticking up above the tree tops. It was too high, too narrow,and insufficiently reinforced to withstand the gales that often blow off thelake. Windows blew open or rattled their panes loose, cracks appeared incorners and around the chimney, and an examination of the heavy, stonefoundation revealed that the force of the wind had caused a faint shift eventhere as the upper story swayed. Something would have to be done.
After much dithering, the problem was solved in a surprising way. Ayoung carpenter, a local man who was already known for his quality work and hisindependent attitude, proposed to slice off the top story and relocate it infront of the first floor. Although this sounded like an impossible task, it wasfinally accepted as the only suggested solution which might have any chance ofsuccess. The carpenter had a reputation for quick thinking and resourcefulness.What he said he could do he could usually accomplish, and he said without boasting that he would be able todecapitate the structure, reassemble it in a new form, and leave it in finecondition for many years of use. Furthermore, he would accept no time deadline,preferring to work almost single-handed, hiring what little extra muscle hewould need for any especially crucial aspects of the job. He would not workfast, but he was sure that his results would be satisfactory.
They were. He rigged a block and tackle arrangement to support andevenly distribute the weight of the second story. Most of the time, as he hadpromised, he worked alone, needing help only from time to time to tighten theropes, or to move his temporary scaffolding to its next position. The actual"surgery" he did with an ordinary hand saw. When it was time totransfer the top part of the house to its new location, on deep-set posts directlyin front of the original first floor, he hired a team of farm horses to supplythe necessary power.
The join was hardly noticeable. Where the heavy Dutch-style front doorhad led directly into the dining room, there was now a French door opening intothe great hall. The Dutch door itself was simply moved across the living room,taking the place of one in a long row of windows. What was now the rear part ofthe house was given a flat roof and a rustic railing, forming an extensivedeck, which actually sported its own outdoor fireplace. The worst scar was thatof the south wall in the living room. It was here that the stone fireplace hadstood, now left behind on the deck, and the replacement wall presented a ratherstark, barn-like appearance. Also, the floor at that end of the longhigh-gabled room was raised, making a kind of platform or dais, which may haveoriginally surrounded an elevated hearth.
To utilize, beautify and give purpose to this, the only disfigured partof his house, Mr. Harbert decided to bring into theserather primitive surroundings an astonishing contrast, a magnificent example ofcabinet-making and instrument-making art. The Viennese grand piano, constructedof carved and inlaid rosewood, and fit to grace a palace, had recently been onexhibition at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Placed on that dais, it successfullydrew all eyes. It gave the great hall a balance that the loss of the fireplacehad destroyed. That it was also criminal treatment of an irreplaceable objectof beauty seems not to have occurred to its autocratic owner.
Judging by the stories that were told me byolder people who had known the place in its heyday, it must have been a veryhappy house, often filled to capacity with guests, many of who made lengthystays. Mr. Harbert was so fond of surrounding himselfwith agreeable company that he prepared three leveled tent sites close by, eachwith a standing faucet, for a convenient, individualized water supply.
Even after Mr. Harbert's death, many of those who had bestknown the house continued to vacation there, renting it for different periodsof time during the summers. His heir, a daughter, had moved to California and seemed totake little interest in the condition of her property. Although she accepted --indeed, required -- rent from former guests, it never seemed to occur to her toprepare the house for their tenancy. The renters themselves took thatresponsibility as a labor of love.
As time went by, however, these peoplebegan to find it increasingly difficult to get up the hill with their luggage,and to stock the larder. They were getting older and no longer felt likeroughing it. Horse-drawn transport had given way to the automobile, and carswere useless in the sand. Walking was the only way up, and while not steep, thefootpath was long. Also, letters to the owner about the need for minor repairswere simply ignored. The house, always empty in the winter, was soon largelyabandoned in the summer too. Only one stubborn die-hard continued to pay twoweeks rent for a "vacation" which she spent nostalgically cleaning andrefurbishing the old place, while her two boys played Indian in the woods.
As with any empty and apparently desertedbuilding, the curious, the souvenir hunters, the thrill-seekers and theromantics seem to feel impelled to seek entry. Where one break-in has occurredthe next is easier. Although some local people took an interest in trying tokeep it locked up, the house was in an isolated location, and it wouldsometimes be found to have been left open for several days in rainy or windyweather. Its neglected appearance gave passing hikers what they consideredcarte blanche to appropriate anything moveable. Because of broken locks andmissing window panes, it soon became truly impossible to close the place up.Ghost hunters crept in frequently to scream at creaking timbers, tilted floors,and unexpected shadows, and, like the other unauthorized visitors, they werenot empty-handed when they left. Letters to the daughter in California still elicited no response, andfinally, even the faithful "caretaking" tenant had to give up. Bythis time the roof leaked in a dozen places, and the floor under the oldestleaks was rotten and unsafe. The rear part, despite or perhaps because of itsheavy foundation, had developed a definite list, so that the kitchen could notbe used, even if there had been anything left of a once large supply of dishesand utensils. Furniture had been carted away, piece by piece, or burned in thecrazily slanted fireplace during "parties."
Finally, only the piano remained, like abedizened Miss Havisham in the midst of decay anddestruction. The vultures couldn't move it; not until some one of themconceived the notion of hacking off pieces of carving and elaborate inlay. Likea body attacked by piranha, the piano was then quickly reduced to its innerworkings, which lay broken and hardly identifiable on the splintery boards ofthe dais.
Shortly afterthe end of World War II, after having stood too long as a broken shell, anattractive nuisance, and a fire hazard, the house was finally torn down and itsboards carted away. Taxes on the property had not been paid for many years, andthe local town council took what it saw as necessary action. Although longlooked on as ancient, the structure had actually lasted fewer than fifty yearsup there on its hilltop knoll.
Its passing was, ironically, neverunderstood by the one person who could have prevented disaster. the Harbert daughter, many yearstoo late, arrived on the scene, breathing empty threats of litigation in herfutile search far something she herself had allowed to melt away.
The house was gone, but not forgotten, even today. It was an unusualhouse.
--Helen Gage DeSoto