Sooner or later everyone is seized with the impulse to build, to create one's own monument. With state resources, grandeur is possible; even with private riches one can display original taste. Architects know the force of the freak-outs that affect many well-heeled ladies. Or consider the passion for burrowing that gripped the fifth Duke of Portland, when he succeeded to his titles and immense fortune. Under the park at Welbeck Abbey are more than a mile and a half of huge rooms and tunnels, picture gallery and ballroom, riding school, kitchens, dining-rooms, and a miniature railway to link them. A branch line leads to a distant subterranean lavatory. A two-lane tunnel runs under the ornamental lake to the railway station.
Jim Christy, an admirable writer hooked on junk, has found a number of idiosyncratic structures in the Pacific Northwest and assembled a charming picture book of some of them. Photographs are by Joe Ferone, Felix Keskula, Lionel Trudel, and Alex Waterhouse-Hayward. The text introduces some of the eccentrics who have created these queer works of art.
My own favourite is a castle built of embalming fluid bottles by a retired undertaker. The bottles are square in cross-section, all 600,000 of them. "Perched on granite high above Kootenay Lake," Christy tells us, "the house looks as if it might have been designed by an architect who caters to the sort of wealthy who have taste."
The architect, builder, and owner is David Brown, who had to retire from the embalming business because he kept falling asleep. In order to collect enough bottles for his project, Brown took to the road as an embalming fluid salesman. Once his castle was built he found he could charge visitors small sums to view it. In the late 1950s he could take in $1,000 in a good week. He died in 1970 and is succeeded by his stepson Eldon.
Other glass houses have been built by "Boss" Zoetmann, who constructed a whole village out of glass insulators; by George Plumb in Duncan, B.C., who used 200,000 bottles of any and every kind to erect towers and follies; and by Geordie Dobson in the Yukon, who used 30,000 empty beer-bottles.
Maybe Christy was unwise to introduce the concept of taste. Each of these builders and landscapers follows his or her own inner light, beginning with Bert and Gladys Stewart, who collect lawn ornaments-any lawn ornaments you can think of, from plastic flamingoes to the garden gnomes beloved of British suburbanites.
Dick Tracy, dit Richart, of Centralia, Washington, specializes in building ruins. "The result," says Christy, "is a unique terrain that looks centuries old, with a touch of Flash Gordon." Victor and Bobbie Moore of the same state have constructed a junk castle on a hill. It looks more wreck than ruin, with rusty roofs and candle-snuffer towers. It looks uncomfortable, I have to add. Vick Moore is an artist in the Picasso manner, the Picasso, that is, who can't see a toy automobile without thinking what a nice monkey it would make. For such an artist the garbage dump is a mine of treasures, in which everything is a possible something else. His work is a kind of poetry of junkyard metaphors. "This is that," as the Hindus say.
Karl Browning of Red Deer, Alberta, has laboured to build a mighty wall, with cyclopean boulders, to the memory of "The Fall of Je-Busi, a mighty fortress over Gihon Springs by Army Commander Davidum Jesse 1000 BC at Uru Shalem". His reason: "I am a Christian." Christy was able to identify the source from Genesis, which argues more erudition than many of us could rise to.
Most of the monuments are best seen from outside. But Lowrie Streatch, another original from Red Deer, has it all over the others when it comes to interiors. Tastes in interior decoration tend either to minimalist spareness or Victorian clutter. For Streatch, less is less. His dining-room, for instance, in which there scarcely seems room to devour a hamburger, is a cozy confusion of curios, from a sign announcing "Forgiveness" to a stuffed toy lion in a bird-cage. From Christy's description the man sounds charming. Streatch is proud of his collection of porcupine droppings, surpassed only by an elephant turd gathered at the circus.
Lloyd "Ace" Parsons of Vancouver, Washington, welcomes about eight thousand visitors a year to view the miniature Dodge City he has created in his backyard. "I'm used to working at something all the time," he told Christy. And nodding toward an electric organ, he added, "I did teach myself to play that." Still in the state in which it had come from the maker, it might be improved, Ace mused, with yellow and green stars or maybe black triangles.
Christy is not making fun of these artists. The book is funny all the same, perhaps from a kind of joy that seems to move the constructors. Again, it's interesting to see how far removed from official taste is that of retired working men who are able to show the kind of art and architecture they really like. Strange Sites is a study in the manner of the early Tom Wolfe.
Kildare Dobbs's first book of poems will be published by Mosaic Press. His most recent book is Smiles & Chukkers (Little Brown).