Michael Mathers Photograph from “Northwest Style” copyright 1999
A few weeks ago I had occasion to go calling at our old house at the bay. It is a house that was designed for me by Noel Thomas more than 35 years ago. That was ‘back in the day’ when Noel was known for the miniature houses that he and his wife Pat designed and built and sold to collectors and museums. It was before they had moved to Astoria and had become better known for other artistic endeavors – Pat for her poetry and Noel for his stunning watercolors.
In 1977, Noel and I sat on his couch in Seaview and he sketched as I told him what kind of house I wanted. What my needs were. What I could afford. The feeling I wanted the house to evoke. A real-to-live-in-for-the-rest-of-my-life house. He asked a question now and then but mostly he attended to his pencil and, as I watched, my concepts took shape. A young architect friend of my folks translated Noel’s sketches into architectural drawings suitable for county permits and other practical matters.
House image on leather-bound book by Nancy Lloyd
Ossie Steiner and the Mack Brothers built the house in 1979. I acted as ‘general contractor’ and with Ossie’s gentle guidance I made the decisions that eventually turned Noel’s drawing into a three-dimensional reality. It was truly a work of art in the simplest form-follows-function sense. Every board, every window, every stair step was meaningful, had a purpose – a reason for being. When it was finished, Noel used a wood-burning tool to sketch its likeness on the interior stairway post and signed his name. All the other workmen signed, too, and Ossie wrote a blessing. It was truly a signed work of art!
Circumstances caused us to sell the house in 2002. It was a very difficult decision – like selling a child. The new owner kept everything just as it was, even most of the furniture, and even continued to call it “Sydney’s House.” We all should have been calling it “Noel’s House” since the beginning. But maybe not now.
It was sold once again a few years ago to another owner who claimed it was the perfect house. But gradually, things have changed. I didn’t realize how much until I approached on that recent visit and found that I was totally disoriented – almost sick to my stomach with visual confusion.
Reconfigured House, 2013
The steps up to the entrance had been moved! Instead of being at the southwest corner and coming from under the deck, they were now at the northwest corner. They were new and spiffy-looking but they led to… nowhere. Just like the “Winchester House of Mystery” in San Jose, California, I thought. Not only that, they were no longer an integral part of the deck and they were positioned right in front of a window! Unbelievable.
I couldn’t help but think that “there ought to be a law!” In some places there is – or at least there is a court case that flashed to mind. In 1958, French Impressionist Bernard Buffet was invited to decorate a refrigerator for a charity benefit auction. He painted six panels: three on the front, one on the top, and one on each side with fish, fruit and other still life images. Buffet considered the six panels to be one work and, accordingly, signed just one panel. The refrigerator was auctioned and purchased for $2,200 by Danish painter Haag Fersing.
The Stairs to Nowhere, 2013
Six months later, one of the panels, a piece titled “Still Life and Fruits by Bernard Buffet” appeared in a catalog. Fersing had dismantled the refrigerator in order to sell the work panel by panel. Buffet brought court action in Paris and was successful; Fersing was ordered to sell the work only as a whole, not in parts.
Well, I know my analogy is not perfect. A house is not a refrigerator and moving a stairway is not selling individual appliance panels. Nevertheless… once again I realize that Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. Or, in this case, you can go up the entrance stairs but they won’t lead you to a doorway.