In Newbury, Massachusetts, a lone house stands only a few bubbles short of round on the giving surface of acres of marshland.
In daylight’s glare the exterior is a Pepto pink not found in nature. Decades of gusting winds with nothing else man-made to stand in their way have aged it less than gracefully, peeling striations away to a jaundiced layer of naked wood.
I had passed by this house for years, but it was not until last year that someone described it to me as a “spite house.”
Now every time I see it I can think of nothing else.
An oxymoron: a gift of spite. Like sending black roses, or purchasing a roach in an ex’s name to be fed to a meerkat for Valentine’s Day.
It may be that one should never look a gift horse–or house–in the mouth, but the lingering story of this bright pink edifice’s creation is one of malice.It is said that in the mid-1920s, a divorcing lawyer agreed to build his soon-to-be ex-wife an exact duplicate of their downtown New England home. He reportedly availed himself of what, in legalese, comprised a contractual “gotcha” in the absence of a term (here, location). In 1925 his former spouse found herself the owner of this unusable twin, in a desolate location so unfit for human habitation that its pristine pipes could access only salt water, the better to continue malevolent mockery of the marriage’s corrosion.
Salt marsh in the wound.
My own work involves people who have committed violent felonies, yet even I had to pause and marvel at the concept of building something–and I wince at the word “building,” because it embodies creation, an inherent affirmative and additive–for the very purpose of spite.
It seems a betrayal of human expectations and decency, particularly if the back story here is true: that someone could stir the embers of a human connection that began in love and turn them into a “gift” of hate.
I am stymied by the kind of person who would expend assets and energy not in a burst of creating–or even in an off-the-cuff emotional release of tearing something down–but in twisting something so far from its purpose. A home as hate, not hearth. It seems several steps into an abyss beyond neglect, or even retribution.
But I am somewhat heartened not to have encountered anyone who remembers the name of the villain in this story. He seems to have evaporated but for the community’s collective memory of his misbegotten treatment of a fellow traveler in this world (and that it was an attorney who, as it were, did the deed).
Nearly a century later no one pays any heed to the original marital home, or seems even to know if it still stands, while the orphaned pink house remains tenderly cared for notwithstanding the physical disrepair that attends its inaccessibility. There remains collective support of a symbol of the person who found herself so abandoned and alone. At least one society is dedicated to the house’s preservation, and pink stickers of support abound. Children leave hand-made Valentines fluttering by its worn front post. Snowy owls protectively cast their golden eyes from its roof.
When the rising sun completes its winter rotation, it bathes the house in such sublime bright orange-gold that one cannot focus on its imperfections, much less its poisonous origin.
The house is no longer a monument to spite; it is more even than a single house, just as Virginia Wolff’s lighthouse was more than a lighthouse:
“The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.”
The other pink house is true, too. A thing of enduring beauty and imagination, a memorial to the person whom it was designed to isolate. A symbol of one man’s unkindness alchemized into the kindness of strangers.