Home Is Where the Heart Is
By Paul Yeager
The last pictures of a house that existed for one woman.
The dancers are all gone under the hill
The houses are all gone under the sea.
T.S. Eliot, East Coker
On May 1. 1965, bulldozers began leveling the Delores Welder Crabb Mitchell house, built 50 years earlier on a hill at the corner of Troon and Pine Valley in Houston's River Oaks. Several weeks before, having heard that it was to be torn down, I went to the empty house to take a final series of photographs.
As I arrived at the old Italian walnut doors I was struck by how well-kept everything looked. The glass in the door-side lamp was clean, flowers bloomed in matching pots as far as the eye could see, the entryway bricks were freshly swept. It seemed odd that although the house had been emptied and sold several months earlier, someone was still caring for it, keeping it fed and watered and polished.
Douglas Mitchell, the former owner of the house, had not yet arrived to let me in, so I had a few moments to think. What kind of pictures was I going to take: and moreover, why was I really there? What did I expect to do or to accomplish? A batch of photographs would certainly never save the house.
I had only been to the house on two or three previous occasions. Douglas Mitchell had been one of my most outrageous and stimulating teachers in college, but our acquaintance had become more infrequent as our paths diverged over the years.
Several years after I graduated, he married Delores Welder Crabb: as he said it, to care for her and keep her company through an extended illness. I had never met her, and the first night my wife and I came to visit at the house, she was too sick to receive. But the Spanish colonial house she had commissioned John Staub to build in 1935 captured our affection immediately.
Douglas led us that night through the entrance hall. Delores had furnished the house with beautiful Mediterranean antiques, and decorated it with art and artifacts from all over the world. The 400-year-old doors into the dining room had been handmade in Florence. The tiles decorating the stairway were hand-painted after scenes from Goya. Everywhere the eye turned was some new delight, some worthy wonder, some fresh fascination; and framing it all was the house, like a series of landscapes, extending and disappearing, on and on.
We went down into the one-and-a-half-story living room with its timbered ceiling and ancient marble fireplace. A full-length larger-than-life-size fresco portrait of Delores, painted by St. Hubert, was mounted into the wall. And then we stepped out into the loggia. We were stunned. The garden was something out of a fairyland; a blue-green-pink-yellow dream of plants and pools and the play of lights in the dark evening air. It too was a series of landscapes, one opening and leading on endlessly to another.
The night echoed with past laughter and lost romance, and I wondered what other evenings in earlier years might have been like, when Delores was well and, like the house, in brightest bloom.
I thought of that night as I stood again before the old front door and waited, pondering still what I was doing there. The house waited too, patiently, for me and for Douglas, and perhaps for a miracle.
Finally Douglas arrived and we went in. The bare inside of the house had been as beautifully kept as the outside; the glasswork gleamed, the woodwork shined. there was no dust. Without furniture the proportions of the spaces were even more apparent. I felt it was here that the charm of the house began, in the proportions.
This house was made to be lived m. by genteel people to be sure, but people nonetheless. For while gentility demands the appearance of perfect comfort, there is often something in perfection that is a little too stiff for comfort. But for John Staub, the style of a house was more than the way the house looked: it was also how the house felt.
Houston architect Howard BarnsTone noted that "Staub's work is bewitching ... it speaks to a time when profit was translated into grace.. ' Staub's philosophy was that "an elegant house need not be an ostentatious house; a simple, traditional design, richly textured and carefully proportioned, was more beautiful than the most magnificent palace." (From The Architecture of John F. Staub by Howard Barnstone. University of Texas Press)
Some have said that a house is just a machine for living in, but I didn't really believe that I didn't think Delores had either. A machine is too utilitarian to be personal. And this house, while answering every mechanical need, was very personal.
The house began to speak to me, to show that its superb design could be filled with anything or with nothing and still remain quietly elegant and powerful. Pictures began to arrange themselves for the taking. I realized suddenly that the photographs needed to be of more than the proportions and the embellishments, even if that was all that was left: I wanted the walls to speak, to tell me light-filled stories of the people who had come to the house in friendship and had left a part of their laughter and tears in the polish of the tiles and the gleam of the lamps and the shadows in the hedges outside.
As I wandered through the house, setting up my tripod and photographing with the available light. I thought I could hear little snatches of conversation, the subsiding after-ripples of a good joke, the echo a roar makes after it bounces off a wall and silences a room. I sensed a surprising gaiety in the still air, and looked for images that moved in the viewfinder.
Outside in bright sunlight the effect was even more overpowering. The garden rose and fell, the hedge turned, the walls opened; each step had been planned to reveal or hide some new visual treat, some different facet of the house. I wanted a movie camera and a dolly, and actresses and actors, and a screenplay about a bright, wealthy, attractive young woman who had traveled the world, fallen in love, and built a beautiful home to live in . . . and then life had taken the reins away from her.
Home is where one starts from,
As we grow older the world becomes stranger,
the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living
Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment;
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered
— TS, Elliot, East Coker
Delores died, and Douglas had other interests and needs. The house and gardens were sold and leveled. I am told an effort was made to retrieve some of the more valuable treasures from the bulldozer's path — St. Hubert's fresco of Delores was removed and donated to Rice University — but other things like the Goya tiles and the elaborate gardens did not survive. Their fate was sealed with that of the house, as the house's fate was sealed with Delores's.
The new owners are developing two new houses on the site. Whether the new structures contain any of the grace of the old remains to be seen.
I don't know how much of my hopes these photographs have realized, but for those of us who haven’t a store of memories of the place, photographs are all that's left.