He was a peculiar-looking man. Probably middle-aged, although his wire-rimmed glasses and attire made him appear older. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat reminiscent of a Victorian pastor. Over his left shoulder was slung a leather rucksack that had seen better days. A cross between a missionary and college professor, Lacey would later think, although at the moment this juxtaposition was far from her thoughts. She was distracted by what he had said upon her answering of the door, “This is my house.”
“Excuse me?” Lacey asked.
The man gazed up at the eaves of the porch, nodding to himself. “Unmistakable,” he said. “This is certainly my house.”
Her initial reaction was confusion, followed by a sudden urge to bolt the door and call the police.
Lacey had been a homeowner for the past five years and was certain that this was, indeed, her house. She had lived in small studio apartments for most of her adult life in order to save up for a down payment on a place of her own. Upon first sight, she knew that this house was the one: a three-bedroom stand-alone dating from the turn of the century, complete with neo-gothic décor and a wrap-around porch. The asking price had been slightly higher than anticipated, but a few years extended mortgage was a tolerable trade-off for domestic happiness, she wagered.
“You must be mistaken,” was all Lacey could say. “This is my house.” She was struck by how ridiculous the statement sounded.
“Yes, I don’t doubt that, but it’s also mine,” the man replied. “I’m not mistaken.”
Lacey leaned against the door with the intention of shutting it. The man cracked a thin smile.
“I realize how strange this sounds, and I could have done a better job of explaining,” he began. “What I mean is that your house resembles my house. But not just resembles . . . It is my house.”
She peered at him through the narrowing crack in the door. “I’m not following here,” she said honestly.
“Please, if you let me come in I might be able to elucidate what I am trying to convey.”
Sound judgment dictated that inviting a complete stranger into your home was a bad idea. However, Lacey had never been one to think of herself as “sound” in any strict sense of the word. Besides, did psychopaths use words like “elucidate”?
Stepping into the foyer, the man cast a sweeping look around the parlor, taking note of the furnishing, wall hangings, and other belongings that filled the room. He appeared to be sizing up the interior, framing it like a painter might before executing a masterpiece. Honestly, Lacey was dumbfounded, and it was only when the man began speaking again that she realized she was still standing in the doorway, clutching the handle’s brass knob.
“My name is Cyrus Case. Most people call me Cy.”
He slid the rucksack off his shoulder and began rummaging through it, eventually drawing out a brown paper envelope. “Please?” he said, motioning to the dining room table.
He dumped the contents of the envelope onto the table and sorted through an array of photographs, newspaper clippings, and scraps of paper filled with illegible writing. Lacey thought of offering the stranger a glass of water or a drink, knowing it was the customary thing to do in such a situation. For some reason, she couldn’t move.
He arranged a series of photographs on the table.
“This is my house,” he said, pointing to one of the photographs.
Lacey looked at the image. The gothic arches of the porch overhang—the latticed window on the front door— the distinctively carved newel posts at the bottom of the front steps: it was obviously a picture of her own house. A pang of fear gripped her, and Lacey understood now that she had made a terrible mistake in allowing this man to enter her home.
“Looks familiar, doesn’t it?” Cy continued, oblivious to her trepidation. “But, this house—my house—is located in Richmond Hill, Georgia, where I live.”
He pointed to a second photograph showing a wide-angle view of the house. Indeed, the surroundings indicated that it was not Lacey’s house. She lived on a scenic, semi-urban New England street lined with single-family homes. The house in the picture stood alone on the banks of a river dotted with drooping trees and flowering plants.
Lacey squinted at the picture. “It looks similar,” she agreed.
“Similar? It’s exact. I bet I can describe the entire layout of your home, from the small hexagon-shaped room on the eastern side to the stained glass window above the second-floor landing.”
“How . . .?”
“I know it because it’s also my house. Two houses, virtually identical in structure and appearance. Odd, right? But . . .” He tapped his finger on a third photograph, a faded black and white print of the same house, now situated on a hill surrounded by farmland. The neat writing on the yellowed border read: Willard, Kansas, 1948.
I became reacquainted with Lacey Andrews at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. It was winter, and Boston was still recovering from a nor’easter that had recently terrorized much of the North Atlantic coast. Cars were snowed under, and plows made regular sweeps of the streets, depositing their glacial mounds on curbs and along gutters. A stillness enveloped the city in those first few days after the storm, as though everyone was too stunned or too beleaguered to do much other than remain indoors and let municipal services attend to the aftermath.
The gathering I had attended was winding down. Lacey was standing beside the buffet table, staring at the discarded paper plates and empty wine bottles. She seemed lost in thought, but when she noticed me she smiled and made polite conversation, asking how I was doing and whether I was still working as a copy editor for a local magazine. I filled her in on the details of my life over the past few years and then mentioned that I had just been contracted to write a book on the historic homes of New England for a small press.
“Is that your specialty now?” she asked.
“Not really, but I received an advance.”
“Pays the bills then?”
“I’m not quitting my day job,” I admitted, “and I’ll have to do some research, since my knowledge of historic buildings in the area is minimal.”
“Historic Homes of New England. What a quaint title.”
“It’s a work in progress.”
“Huh, well, if you need a place to get started, I certainly have one,” Lacey told me with an uneasy laugh. “The last house I lived in. It had a history.”
“Don’t all houses?”
“No, I mean it definitely had a history. A man named Cy Case was working on writing it before he died. He told me a few things, and I also discovered a few bits myself.” She paused, and then added: “I had to move eventually though. I couldn’t live there anymore.”
I asked if it was because of the house’s past, and Lacey gave me a pained expression, as though uncertain of how to answer. “Not exactly.” she finally replied. “I learned that the house was not all that . . . exceptional, I guess is the word. That it wasn’t really my own house, because it was somebody else’s. Does that make sense?”
I told her quite honestly I had no clue what she was hinting at, and we both laughed at this. She told me to look into it myself, gave me the address and some details and left it at that. I wouldn’t be disappointed, she promised.
Historic Homes of New England
Entry Twenty-Five: The Montauk House
Among the many gems of Art Deco and Georgian style homes that northern Massachusetts has to offer, the Montauk House of Haverhill remains unique unto itself, in light of its gothic fixtures and customized design. The first known deed of sale for the residence dates from 1901, although the building was most likely constructed during the late nineteenth century by architect Clarence James Montauk. It features various stylistic flourishes representative of American gothic revivalism, a style for which Montauk was well known. Among its more distinguished residents have been Simon Greenleaf Whittier, relative of the renowned Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and the librettist and musician Barret Dorsey. 169
The most distinctive features of the building include the front portico and tympanum, the gothic spire attached to the eastern roof, and the four stained glass windows that adorn each side of the house. The tympanum and stained glass share a common motif. One might initially assumed that the content of the decorative pieces is Biblical, although further examination would quickly reveal that the images featured within do not correspond to any known Christian iconography or narrative.
C.J. Montauk, who both designed and built the house, was an architect of some renown in his day, although his notoriety has since diminished. A native of England, he immigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Records pertaining to his arrival in the country are scarce, although various municipal reports attest to his living in Boston by the end of the Civil War. His claims to have studied under the inimitable François-Christian Gau remain unsubstantiated, but certain stylistic elements of his work do recall both French and Imperial Gothic traits. In addition to architecture, Montauk was known for his works on theosophy and his naturalist writing. His study of the natural world compelled him later in life to travel extensively throughout North America, and he planned and commissioned a variety of buildings during these years of travel. His architectural work can be found today in cities as far-flung as Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Lincoln, Nebraska.
The Montauk house of Haverhill is Gothic in both design and spirit. Its decorative elements are eclectic, mixing English, German, and French styles to convey a sense of harmony through multiplicity. As with many Gothic Revivalist houses, the arrangement of the interior rooms is uneven and disproportionate. The design appears to have been based entirely upon the exterior attributes of the house, with the interior rooms planned to accommodate it. This technique might best be described as “Form over Function.” The result is oddly-angled rooms, the most obvious being a hexagonal chamber located in the eastern wing. The only exception is a perfectly symmetrical room on the second floor, the shape of which is made unusual in this structure only by its relative normalcy. At times, the effect of the overall design on the viewer is disorienting. At least one observer described the sensation as “vertigo-like.” Barret Dorsey noted similar impressions in the daily journal kept during his years of residency in the Montauk house. “I stared for a good twenty minutes, studying how the angles of the floor and wall came together,” he recorded in 1934. “It appeared all the lines converged in a corner, a single fixed geometric point. I wondered whether they might extend into an infinite distance, never completely touching at all but only giving the illusion of such from my vantage point. The spell was broken only when Maestro jumped onto my lap.”1 Later that night, Dorsey reputedly began work on “I’m Under Your Spell,” a jazz number that would become a standard of the big band repertoire during the late 1930s.
Lacey mulled over the seven photographs arranged in a fan-shaped pattern on the dining table. She listened diligently as Cy recounted the details of the book he was working on and afterwards did not object to his request to examine the interior of the house in detail. She watched detachedly as he unrolled a long tape measure and began recording the width, length and diagonal distances of all the ground-floor rooms in a dog-eared spiral notebook.
“Amazing,” he said after consulting the figures. “The measurements are exactly the same.”
“The same as what?” Lacey asked.
“As my house, as the house in New Orleans, as the houses in Willard and Lincoln… And despite the odd shape of the rooms too. They’re not random at all. Each one was precisely measured, down to the nearest centimeter.”
Lacey looked at the photographs once more and tried to hold back her disappointment. One of the most attractive qualities of her house had been its assumed uniqueness, she suddenly realized: its oddly-shaped rooms, its paneled walls and quaint stained glass windows. A certain pride—or perhaps arrogance—had come with the belief that her house was not like the generic buildings lining most American streets, that it was better than the uniform townhouses and split-levels that popped up everywhere like mushrooms after rain. For better or worse, Cy had shattered this illusion, revealing her to be the self-important dupe she was. And for what? To satisfy his own curiosity? Disappointment quickly melted into resentment.
“So what you’re saying is that my house is just like all the others? I had always thought my house was special and it wasn’t, right?”
Lacey didn’t bother to hide the disdain in her voice.
“That’s the problem, though. It was never your house to begin with,” he explained. “It was always Clarence Montauk’s.”
She found his pragmatic tone insulting and remained quiet as he finished his inspection.
Once Cy was gone, Lacey poured a glass of wine and began flipping through the photographs he had left. The anger she had felt earlier re-emerged, and rather than considering the matter further, she tore up the photos he had left and deposited them in the wastebasket.
Later that night Lacey was washing out her wine glass in the kitchen sink when it accidentally slipped from her fingers and shattered. She stared at the shards of glass for a moment, appreciating the way they glistened in the light. Then, picking up one of the larger pieces from the basin, she impulsively pressed it to the kitchen wall and carved a narrow gouge into the wood.
Screw you, Montauk, she thought.
Dear Brother Roderick,
I have traded in the familiarity of New England for the obscure meridional back-country. The savagery that one encounters here cannot be understated, yet with it comes a certain picturesque and virginal quality. The work is slow, with all lumber and resources necessitating a haul by cart across expanses of forest and swampland. Two horses have already perished. The countrymen complain daily of the arduous work, reminding me that in former days no white man would have been forced to submit to such menial labors. Many of the village elders do not hide their fondness for the recent past and evoke warm memories of days that are no more. Nostalgia infects the land like a blight. I have never encountered a place so populated with phantoms. The ravages of history remain fresh in the mind, especially as one wanders about the wreckage on the outskirts of Savannah.
Before my departure you had inquired as to the nature of the designs which have so fastidiously occupied my days and nights these past seven years. I confess I remained reticent on the subject at the time. Yet, after much contemplation, I have now considered how best to articulate my vision to you. Yes, I say “vision,” because a vision it is.
Do you recall the old brotherhood? I can state with certainty that our efforts were never futile, as some of our fellow brothers have since come to profess. In particular, I reference the night on which Brother Sylvanus first became struck by the odd somnambulism that would afflict him for the rest of his life and, ultimately, drive him to the most immoral of acts. I do not doubt that his passing came about by his own hand. I only doubt that it came about through his own will. Surely we are not naïve enough to believe that calling upon the gods does not demand a sacrifice?
Upon the night in question, we convoked at Brother Mathew’s residence. We intoned the usual prayers and performed the ceremonies as was our custom. As we stood about the circle, a most startling form revealed itself to me in the thick shadows. I saw a shape completely perfect in its configuration, there in the darkness, light made visible. This particular form has since haunted me. It materializes before me in my waking moments and is conjured from the substance of my dreams. So familiar am I with it that I have committed its every detail to memory, studying it like a monk might study a sacred text.
I know now that what I glimpsed was an idea of perfect space, an abstraction capable of being willed into material existence. Imagine a space without a history, a space which collapses time and the singularity of experience within its very structure. I believe you now have an inkling of my plan and can perhaps understand the tireless work that I persist to undertake. We have been given a singular opportunity. Perfection is not to be found in the communal correctness of republics or the arithmetic of political economy but in the production and reproduction of pure form. Although our brotherhood has been dissolved, following the tragedy which befell Brother Sylvanus, I intend to imprint its legacy upon the sinews of this land. And for good reason; while still a young country, it is already acquiring geriatric habits. America is beginning to buckle under the weight of her accumulated memories and the refuse of her past agonies. Need I remind you that such is the condition of a people in its dotage? Those who seek solace in the reminiscence of youth resign all hope for the future.
De profundis vocat te.
In the winter, the house assumed an oppressive quality. The rooms felt constricting, the air stale. During this period, Lacey developed two odd habits. The first was an uncontrollable desire to mar the walls and fixtures of her house on a semi-regular basis. For no particular reason, Lacey would be suddenly struck by an overwhelming urge to mark the paneling with a butter-knife or make an incision in the doorframe. The nicks and scratches she left were always small and barely noticeable, yet they accumulated over the winter weeks, leaving a trail of her comings and goings throughout the house.
The second habit she developed was a proclivity for spending abnormally long periods in the cellar. It started one evening, when the living room lights went out and Lacey descended down the creaky wooden steps to examine the fuse box. Once below, Lacey realized that the fuses connecting the cellar lights had also blown. Squinting into blackness, she fumbled along with her hands stretched out in front of her. As she moved through the dark, she swore that she could feel familiar objects occupying the room with her: the downy surface of a blanket; a cold metallic smoothness; the contours of a human face. She knew that the cellar was empty save for a few boxes stowed away at the far end. Somehow, despite this, the darkness had become haptic, and stranger still, there was nothing threatening or remotely disturbing in this discovery. She wriggled her fingers and felt a rough, bristly texture. She moved her hands and touched the softness of well-moisturized skin. Each step further through the void yielded a new sensation.
She thought she might go on like this forever, until finally her fingertips grazed the metal covering of the fuse box. She managed to change out the fuses in the dark. The pale antiseptic light from the overhead exposed a stark and empty room, nothing more. She looked about, bemused and a bit disenchanted. Then she pulled the chain, restoring the room to darkness before making her way back toward the stairs.
They stayed in touch. Cy’s first letter arrived in the spring. There was an old-world quality to receiving letters via post that she liked. The letters continued for the span of a year, and through them Lacey learned a great many things. She was slowly fed details on the history of her house as Cy churned out his manuscript. She discovered what Georgia autumns were like, even though she had never been to the southern part of the country. She also learned of the submissive humility that comes when a doctor puts a definitive time limit on your life, the indignity of hospital rooms, and the tedium that solemn bedside visitors invite. Cy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer that winter. Lacey kept her replies light and optimistic. She knew that one day soon the letters would simply cease, an interrupted conversation never to be resumed.
One spring afternoon, after emerging from the cellar, Lacey was dusting the windows in the bedroom. Looking out, she saw a man standing in the street, his face hidden behind a camera. She took him for a bird watcher at first, before realizing that that camera seemed to be pointed directly at her window. Instinctively, she hid behind the drapes. It took a moment to admit that she was probably being foolish. When she returned to the window, the man was still there, too distant to identify with any certainty. He now appeared to be waving at her.
That night, Lacey began a letter to Cy that she would never finish:
“Today, I imagined you on that day last year when you turned up at my door, when you were just the odd man with the pictures . . . .”
In the Boston library, a cream-colored envelope lays sandwiched between the mess of documents and notes contained within the Townshend Family papers. Nobody has been able to determine its proper place among the body of correspondences spanning generations. Its crimson wax seal remains unbroken, tempting the inquisitive. A single phrase is scrawled on the overleaf in faded blue pencil: received three days after death of Roderick P. Townsend, misc.
By late spring, the Louisiana heat was already thick and oppressive. I sat in a seminar room listening to the drone of an air conditioner. Out the window, shimmering waves of heat hovered above the macadam. I was the only person watching. The other five attendees sat at desks arranged in a semi-circle, concentrating on the seminar leader. They were all like me: mid-thirties, relatively well-educated, enthusiastic about starting a career in journalism despite having only a modicum of talent. The leader paced about the room, posing open-ended questions at us. The theme of the seminar said it all: “How to write for the New York Times (and why it shouldn’t matter).” Desperation hung over the room like a cloud. I reconciled myself to the fact I had wasted nearly a thousand dollars on the seminar fee and accompanying travel. By the third day, my thoughts were on packing and the impending deadlines waiting for me back in Boston.
I had been working on Historical Homes of New England for six months, and as the seminar wound down, I remembered from my research that C.J. Montauk had worked in New Orleans during his career. A quick search later, I was able to locate the address of the only remaining Montauk building in the state. Renting a car and driving from Baton Rouge felt like the saving grace of an otherwise fruitless trip.
I booked a cheap motel room in Maitre and then proceeded to Algiers Point, where the address was located. The neighborhood was quiet and scenic. Driving along the winding banks of the river, I believed that an authentic New Orleans could still exist just at the periphery of the tourist traps and vulgarized Dixieland heritage that drew visitors to the French Quarter on a regular basis.
My work on Historic Homes had sparked an interest in Clarence Montauk. By this point I was already considering writing a biography of the man, imagining it as an epic American story told through buildings. The problem was the lack of reliable sources. His life in Massachusetts was patchy, and his travels throughout the country were only recoverable through a mix of letters to unidentified recipients and extant work contracts in local record offices. The letters did, however, give insight into an interesting mind. By the end of his life, Montauk had become fascinated with Pythagorean mathematics and geometry. On numerous occasions, he provided details on his own work, suggesting that the designs were based on ideas communicated to him by God. If this was to be taken at face value, it painted a picture of the architect as a man driven by an attempt to reproduce an architectural structure based upon divine principles. A man on a mission, I liked to think, not unlike the Puritans who sought to reconstruct God’s kingdom here on earth.
Pulling around the bend, the house came into view. It was identical to the Montauk house of Haverhill. Even the weathervane crowning the spire appeared to lilt at the same wind-bent angle.
I got out of the car and snapped a few quick photos as the evening light descended over the Mississippi. Having become familiar with Lacey Andrew’s former house through my research, I couldn’t help but feel a certain connection with its twin sister. After a while, I began to feel mosquitos dancing across my bare arms and knew it was time to leave.
“So long, Clarence,” I said and waved. “You build a hell of a home.”
I got in the car and proceeded back along the river. I turned on the radio and listened to the voice of the broadcaster reading the evening news, paying only minimal attention to the empty streets. My mind was elsewhere when I saw the Gothic spire poke out from behind the tops of the trees ten minutes later. The entire house came into view as I rounded the bend with an odd sensation of déjà vu. I had driven in a complete circle. I stopped the car at the place I had taken the pictures earlier and laughed.
“Fancy meeting you in a place like this,” I said to the house.
It remained silent. Its features seemed more defined and angular in the evening light, as if I was staring at a detailed sketch, rather than the actual structure.
I put the car in reverse and went in the opposite direction this time, imagining that I had missed the turn for the highway at some point. The news broadcast had ended. A southern preacher discussing the benefits of a personal relationship with God now murmured from the radio. I listened for amusement, considering it a little “local color” to complement my Louisiana adventure. The preacher had a thin voice, and I found it difficult to imagine him sermonizing before a congregation. At some point he transitioned into the subject of how and whether we could know with certainty what God intended for us.
“In the beginning was the original idea,” the crackling voice continued, “the idea of form that structures God’s universe. And although obscure to us, God’s master architecture embraces and includes us in its infinite design and wisdom. The unfathomable will . . .”
Twisting the dial to lower the broadcast, I cast a gaze toward the treetops in front of me. The point of the spire stood silhouetted against the failing light. The same abandoned street stretched out in front of me. I stopped the car. The low buzz of the broadcast was barely audible.
“. . . to know the symmetry of its form. For as it is written, He has inscribed a circle on the surface of the waters at the boundary of light and darkness . . .”
She awoke to the sound of a pebble striking glass. She ignored the disturbance at first, but felt obliged to crawl out of bed when the noise repeated. Padding into the hall, Lacey saw a zig-zagging crack stretching across one of the stained glass windows. The snaking fissure had misaligned some of the glasswork. The window usually contained an image of a man standing on the shoreline, pointing out to sea, where a whale was rising from the depths of the ocean. The man now seemed to be pointing at a star-studded sky, while the whale keeled over in the water.
Lacey pressed her finger to the cracked pane. She noticed a faint glow coming from the hall below and a man walking the corridor. He held a candle, and in the flickering light she was certain the intruder was Cy Case. He moved through the house quietly, his feet shuffling on the floorboards toward the cellar door. Lacey waited until the glow of the candle subsided and then followed him down.
Yet once she was in the cellar stairwell there was no sign of Cy. The candlelight had been extinguished, leaving only a scorched scent on the air. The empty darkness enveloped her body like silk, its consistency denser with each forward step.
After walking for an indeterminate amount of time, she glimpsed a doorway filled with starlight. She exited into a balmy summer night. A field extended before her. In the distance, shadowy trees sat pitched against a star-filled sky. She could hear the chirping of night insects and the faint sound of rushing water. The shadow of the house loomed behind her. It was dreaming, Lacey thought as she walked through the field and felt the wet grass brush against her ankles. The house was dreaming of her, and not the other way around.
Her feet moved along, treading a familiar path. The scorched smell she had first detected in the cellar became stronger as she walked through the woods. Eventually the trees receded, and Lacey entered upon desolate streets lined with ruined buildings. Houses with roofs caved in, walls blackened with char, exposed beams protruding through plaster like bones: an image of absolute destruction. The burnt smell lingered over everything, seared into the landscape.
Among the wreckage, Lacey saw one building untouched by the devastation. Tramping across the rubble, she ascended the front steps, running her fingers over the newel post in a familiar way. She knocked on the front door, admiring the latticed window and the shadows cast by the eaves overhead. A woman answered. Her face was familiar, but Lacey could not say how she knew this person or in what capacity.
The woman cast an inquisitive glance at her. “Are you lost, dear?” she asked.
Lacey shook her head. “No, this is my house,” she told her.
“This is certainly my house. I receive letters here,” Lacey laughed; as if this detail corroborated her claim.
The woman looked at her placidly, and some instinctive part of Lacey already knew that no further letters would arrive—that they hadn’t arrived here for a very long time. She would never hear about another Georgia autumn, never know the complete story of how Montauk designed and built his perfect house.
“You must be mistaken,” was all she said before closing the door.
1. Further entries reveal that “Maestro” was the name of Dorsey’s house cat, a long-haired blue-point Siamese.
“Montauk’s Design” by Alistair Rey appeared in Issue 38 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Alistair Rey is an author and rare book collector. In the past, his work has appeared in Juked, Rumble Fish Quarterly and The Lowestoft Chronicle, among other publications. He currently resides in Cardiff, Wales.
One thought on “Montauk’s Design”
I loved the story line. Well done!