While I was in Concord last week I took a tour of some writers’ homes, a thrown-together affair that included staring up at Louisa May Alcott’s place, tromping on the hill behind Hawthorne’s, walking Thoreau’s backyard, and, finally, taking the official tour of Emerson’s. That last was remarkable for the fact that I took the tour with just two other people and that one of them looked remarkably familiar. He was tall, with a long prow of a nose that almost perfectly matched the bust in the upstairs landing, and sure enough it turned out he was Ralph Waldo’s great-great grandson.
My home tour continued, less formally, in East Dennis, where I walked out to the bluff that faces Cape Cod Bay, a body of water that is as close as I’ll ever get to my own Walden Pond. It was a wild day, the water frothing with whitecaps, and the sight reminded me, not of another body of water, but, in terms of vastness and beauty, of certain spots where I have stared out at the canyon lands in Utah. Just the looks of the place, the ocean crashing against the shore as it has forever, the sand leading down to the raised cliff beyond, the rocks making walking difficult and guaranteeing privacy, the whole sense of strolling into a great painting, filled me with a sensation that it would not be so wrong to call love.
There was a long history with the place, too: here I had watched bird migrations shoot through, studied a dead coyote cadaver, and rescued stranded loggerhead turtles. Here I had walked with my daughter in that poorly-buckled Baby Bjorn and spread my father’s ashes off shore. And here, by connecting so deeply to one place, I felt connected to other places.
Which is a nice sentiment. But before getting too carried away I should add that the bluff, like so many places on the coast, comes with its own built-in irony. That is because the place where I feel most at home is actually owned by someone else. Whenever I walk to the bluff -- something I have done thousands of times over the years -- I cross an invisible line between public beach and private property. Which means that, thanks to Massachusetts’s archaic coastal laws, I am in fact trespassing as I walk out over the rocks to the bluff. And so, before I got too gooey with sentiment for the place, I should remind myself that my little nature walk could get me arrested.
In fact, above me, up on the bluff, sat one of the largest trophy homes in New England. I had a long history with the owner of the house above the bluff, the man who supposedly owned my beach. My wife and I had been renting the house next door when he bought his land and decided to tear down the old mansion and build one of the Cape’s biggest houses. One day at dawn, soon after the building began, I climbed the bluff to baptize his newly laid foundation, marking my territory as it were. In a more traditional form of protest, I attended town meetings and argued for imposing some restrictions on a project that was wildly out of scale with the land and buildings around it. During one of those meetings, the owner had turned to me with a beleaguered expression and said of his mansion: “I just want a home for my family.”
Pity the poor 1%.
The other day, as I stared up resentfully, I didn’t discount the possibility that I had simply been jealous. This was the place where I’d always wanted to buy a home, after all, but hadn’t been able to afford it. How come he got to? But it also occurred to me that a larger part of my objection was aesthetic. In George Howe Colt’s The Big House, he writes about his family’s rambling 20 bedroom mansion, built by his great-great grandfather on Wings Neck in Bourne on Cape Cod in 1903. Though the house was enormous, and would no doubt spark a great hue and cry (led by me) if anyone attempted to build it in on Cape Cod today, it had a certain shaggy style, “an informal style for an informal season,” and modestly hid itself from the street behind the catbriers, poison ivy, and trees that quickly grew up around it.
Until very recently this was the prevailing ethos of those who headed to Cape Cod in the summer; it was a time to get away, to at least play at the pretense of living a simpler life. It was only in the early 1980s that summer homes started to recreate the luxury of first homes, and it was then that I first heard the hum of air conditioners on Cape Cod. Until then, even the wealthy saw their summer lives as an alternative, not an extension, of their winter lives. Imagine a week without AC or e-mail!
But there is something else I object to in these homes. I can’t help but feel that there is something bullying, almost predatory, about them, the way they bulge to the edges of their property lines, peering down onto the beaches and into the neighboring homes. If these houses could be said to have a personality, it is that of the straining overachiever. It may ally me with the Yankees and WASPs, or someone who has fallen for the quaintness racket, but it occurs to me that modesty and neighborliness are not merely WASP or Yankee values. Nor is consideration for others, and many of these new homes jockey for position, muscling out the views of others like power forwards. They don’t seem settled in any sense of the word. They look ready to scurry off at the first chance.
In my last post I described a visit to Walden I made a couple of summers ago. What I didn’t mention was that that visit was just the beginning of a larger New England home tour. I used my visit to Thoreau’s cabin site, where he built his 10-by-15-foot shack, as a kickoff to a tour of some slightly larger homes. I started by driving from Walden up to Kennebunkport, Maine, in search of an easy target. Ducks in the barrel (or is it fish in a barrel? -- I forget).
I’d never been to Kennebunkport before, but of course I drove into that quaint town with a very modern sense of ironic self-consciousness. Having just visited Thoreau’s cabin, why not visit its opposite, the place where the anti-Henry had spent his summers? Perhaps I was planning on dashing off a kind of angry set piece upon first seeing the house that Bush built. After all, this was the home seat of the clan of oil sellers and oil-eaters, the great anti-Thoreauvians, that imperil Americans. As I drove along the coast, out toward the fabled Walker’s Point, I fully expected to be appalled and outraged by the Bush ancestral home.
Instead I was blown away. Who had built this thing -- this beautiful gray-shingled house that seemed to grow out of the gray rocks -- Frank Lloyd Wright? I pulled over and parked at a rest stop where I could stare at the house from across the inlet. It was raining which fit the scene nicely. Seawater sloshed against the granite boulders that defined the Maine coast. The house was large, no doubt about it, but it had a great sense of scale and seemed to grow down into the rocks that led to the water. Its shingles were the same color, the same shape as the coastline it segued into. Looked at another way, the house was a well-camouflaged reptilian creature emerging from the sea.
Earlier I had stopped for a lobster roll at a store called The Landing and asked a cab driver for directions to Walker’s Point. “Sometimes Old Bush comes out himself and waves,” he said.
At Walker’s Point there was no sign of Old Bush, but, to get a better look, I climbed out of the car and walked out onto the enormous rocks on my side of the little cove. It was a different coast than the sandy Cape beaches I knew best. Covered with rocks like the one I was now scrambling across and infused with that particular Maine smell -- what was it? A rank, low-tide seaweed smell. I listened as the water below sloshed in and out of secret rock caves, one of the thousands -- millions? -- of caves along this coast. Then there was a sound like thunder as the water boomed against the cove walls. A lobster buoy had been thrown up next to where I stood, and little tidal pools of rainwater filled the skull dents atop the rock. It was seaweed-slippery near the rock’s edge, so I backed up a few feet.
The Bushes must have long grown used to being constantly watched. Through my binoculars I could see a Dalmation puppy urinating on some bushes just outside of the property. Tents rose from the lawn for a wedding, and inside the compound some guy walked his golden retriever. Who could it be? Jeb? The butler? Lobster pots bobbed off the coast: waves kicked up off seaweed-wrapped rocks guarded by cormorants. To my surprise I found myself paying the place just about the highest compliment you could pay a house: It knew its place. Even the trees, eastern red cedars, were perfectly proportioned to the landscape. So there it was. My disdain for Bush was now balanced by my love for his house.
It was disappointing that the Bush home had not provided me with the expected rage, but I suspected the next stop would do the trick. I drove to the Breakers in Rhode Island to see the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though Vanderbilt’s house could swallow up a dozen Cape Cod trophy homes, it was once again hard to muster up the requisite outrage. Standing outside the fence on the seaward side of a yard three football fields long, and staring up at the huge building with dark red roof shingles, my first thought was, “Geez, I can see why Cornelius liked this spot.” While the view of the house was OK, the view from the house dazzled. Gulls flew up from the cliff below, and beach plum and rogosa rose and Queen Anne’s lace grew out of the craggy cliff top where granite was daintily splattered with gull shit. I stared out at the water for a while, watching a single sea rock being covered and uncovered by the tide, water splashing over it like unruly white hair. It would have been easy to be critical of Vanderbilt, and I was, but I was also impressed. Being the richest of the rich, the biggest of the big, having what must have seemed unlimited resources and having chosen the diametric opposite route from Thoreau, Vanderbilt had also had the good sense to pick this particular spot, this ledge above the sea. Not bad.
It was true that, given today’s arithmetic of limited resources, the house was morally offensive, especially when you remembered it was a summer home. But it was hard to get too worked up. Yes, it is big -- really fucking big -- but if it had been a castle in Europe, or even a grand hotel, would I have happily checked my moral baggage? Either way, time’s varnish had me looking at the place in a way I couldn’t quite look at the trophy house back home on the bluff. Would people cut my bluff neighbor the same historical benefit of the doubt in a hundred years? That seemed unlikely. Because although The Breakers was wildly ostentatious, and the thinking behind it aggressively primitive, there was a certain obliviousness to that thinking, a lack of awareness of what the final toll would be. Could they have really comprehended that soon there would not be enough left? (Whether they would have cared is another question.)
These days anyone with even a dim degree of world awareness understands how limited our resources have become. Which was why today’s trophy homes and the next house I visited were so much more offensive. It now takes a real effort to squander, a rigorous and conscious decision to bury one’s head in the sand. That makes it hard to grant the same leniency to today’s trophy homes: if there is still obliviousness, it can only be willful obliviousness. In search of just such obliviousness, I took the ferry to Long Island, then crawled down a cluttered Route 27 into the Hamptons, all in search of the largest residential house in the United States.
The traffic and congestion were even worse than on Cape Cod, but once I turned off the main drag, the houses grew older, funkier, and more interesting, and you could start to see how people might fight through traffic to get here. They all wanted to get to the water, motivation I could understand. I crossed a nice old-fashioned bridge spanning a salt marsh, where a couple of old guys fished with nets. I pulled over and asked if they knew where a writer hero of mine, Peter Matthiessen, lived, and they pointed me toward a house that was modestly tucked behind a row of trees. After that I got lost and before I knew it ended up in the beach parking lot at the end of Sagg Road. I talked to a woman with a nice floppy hat named Rebecca, and when I told her I was going to write about the local trophy homes, she cautioned me.
“Just don’t stereotype us,” she said. “Remember there’s still a lot of beauty on this island. People don’t understand that. And there are a lot of us who don’t want these houses here.”
I asked her about the particular Sagaponack house I’d come to find.
“It’s a nightmare all right,” she said. “But the truth is, there are more ostentatious-looking houses. That one looks like the Getty Museum. Low enough so you have to try to see it.”
She led me to the house in her car. We made a few turns before heading down Peters Pond Lane, rolling through farmland and some beautiful old gray-shingled homes. Then we bumped down Daniel’s Lane toward a beach that the locals used. She pointed out the window emphatically, and I took it to mean that the hedges to our right were hiding the house I’d come to see. She was right about the house, too. There were many gates, and obviously the place took up a lot of space, but it was hard to be outraged at what you couldn’t see. The owner apparently shared some of Peter Matthiessen’s instinct to hide rather than to show off.
Of course I know that this modesty extends only so far. Before my trip I had read an article that told me that the house had 29 bedrooms and 40 bathrooms and topped out at 100,000 square feet. At a time when most people understand that there is a moral obligation to be small, or at least smaller, how could the man behind the gates rationalize this? But if I simply turned the other way, as with the Breakers, the view was pure delight. I was too tried for great moral outrage and decided on a swim instead. A small group of four wheelers clustered on the beach to the northeast, but I walked the other way, trespassing over the billionaire’s beach. His house was relatively well-hidden, and I felt fairly well hidden myself. Enough so to strip off my clothes and head out into the water. It was good there was no one to see me, because I wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t care. I swam out into the waves rolling in from Europe.
Image: the author's Walden, by the author