Shell House

The house should have been nothing to me. She shouldn’t have mattered to me at all.

After all, I had no connection to her unless you count the hours I spent looking at the listing photos during the 18 months she was for sale, and I think we are all in agreement that this does not constitute connection. This is stalking. But I will admit I had become smitten and maybe even obsessed with her along the way–her age, her beauty, her history, her mystery—and I had begun to believe (as stalkers sometimes do) that we had something of a relationship, that we were friends. That I could somehow prevent, or at least warn her about, what was ahead.

It’s not like I was going to buy her or anything; it wasn’t like that. Her price was so exorbitant that even in a beach town filled with exorbitant prices, it was astronomical, it was excessive. Even if you had the money, no one would pay it. Even though everyone knew she was one of a kind, everyone also knew that the price didn’t make one bit of financial sense; it was way too much for her. And this is how I knew she was doomed.

Her millions-and-millions price tag was far beyond what even she and her DuPont ties and graceful 1920s curves and shingled self-possession could command. For she had been priced not for her established loveliness, not for the warm way she elled around a corner and welcomed you onto a square patio from a covered porch. Not for her swinging wooden gates and swimming pool and meandering brick garden paths, nor for the way her thick screened doors, as wide as your arms could reach, allowed you to look all the way through her. Not for the private dock on the lake where you could watch the ospreys return with their dinner or take in the sunset over cocktails. Not even for the private ocean view, for the sweetness of a small and weathered gate just beyond the patio, right at the peak of the grassy dunes.

No, she was priced for the land on which she sat—an almost-acre between the ocean and the freshwater lake which sits impossibly close to it–could be subdivided, and developed, and profited from, if only she would give up her ghost. The ghost of her gardens, of the paths that wandered between them, and of the walls that kept them all to herself. It would all be fine, if only she would get out of the way.

The listing photos had revealed a vibrant version of her, of rich decor and elegant living, and for a while, I visited them almost daily, swooning at the wide plank floors, the painted paneling and oil paintings, the gravitas of an old-money beach retreat. I Google’d her again and again, typing in “Shell House”, or her maiden name, “Carpenter House,” and finding articles mostly about her sale—the most expensive house on the market in Delaware, a Rehoboth house with DuPont roots, an acre of beachfront—but sometimes about her social life—photos of a charity event held on her patio, a society-page account of a family wedding reception. One article even included an oil painting of her in her youth, when the heiress owned both the house and the entire strip of land between the ocean and lake, when she stood alone, the only house south of the boardwalk.

By definition, I guess, the listing, research, and articles were gateway drugs to what happened next, which was that I ended up, literally, in her gateways. The first hit is always the best; will I ever forget the thrill of nervously pushing the gate on the lane near the realtor sign and, finding it unlocked, sneaking around it until safely hidden on the other side? In time, as I got to know her, as I got hooked, I began routinely, boldly pushing in the hidden gate on her other side where I was more likely to be scratched by a bramble but less likely to be seen. Sometimes I even brought friends to see her and sneak around, so they could see how amazing she was, so they could see what I saw. I knew, especially when the salvage guys started showing up, that we didn’t have much time.

But it was clear from the start of these illicit visits that something had happened since the listing photos; it was like the life had gone out of her, like no one had been by, like everyone who loved her had given up on her. I wondered how things could have grown so sadly neglected in slightly more than a year since they’d been posted; the once-manicured grounds had become wildly overgrown, and through the wavy-paned windows you could see that the house was the only thing worse than empty, which was littered with oddly recent household items and baby things and board games scattered on the floor. Riddled with odd collections of personal items no one had bothered to collect.

I grew worried when the cobblestones in front of the garage were collected, but when copper lights were removed and the wires left exposed, when paths that had been brick the week before became only sand and her doors were stacked in the backs of pickups, I knew the end was near. Eager (as stalkers often are) for even a piece of her, I tried to find out where the salvage was headed–perhaps I could buy something to remember her by, a memento of our time together. Approaching the open front door one emboldened day last week, I was greeted by a staircase with the banister and gracefully carved stair skirts in the process of being removed. “Hello?” I called into the open door, and listened carefully for a long time. There was no response.

As is so often the case at the end of days, I had gotten busy this week, and hadn’t thought about her much. I was walking on the beach this morning, thinking of other things when I heard a strange sound that didn’t make sense, or belong at all on a beach walk: it sounded like a train coming off the tracks sound, a metal-on-metal groan. Even still, I didn’t think of her exactly; I just reflexively looked in the direction from which the sound had come.

I didn’t know, at first, what I was seeing. Blue sky in a place there shouldn’t be blue sky. The old house. My old friend. Something was wrong. Something was different—missing—between the chimneys. Blue sky. And then the sound once again, the awful screech and groan. A giant, ominous arm with a toothed bucket, rising into the blue sky, cruelly presenting wood beams that looked like splinters, like a cat presenting a dead mouse. It was her, and her whole middle was gone, and from a horrifying, fatal gash in the side that remained, a single white curtain waved. Surrender. She was gone.

Look, the truth is, I didn’t even really know her. She didn’t belong to me or my family; I didn’t summer there, or even ever visit, not legally anyway. It’s not like I can remember when she was the only house south of the boardwalk.

But I do know that she was once beautiful and that always, she was lovely. That they do not make them like her anymore. She had been damaged by storms, sure, but she had survived, and if you looked past her wood rot and her water lines and the broken parts of her that were most obvious, you could see windows with wavy glass and chunky mullions, Dutch door hardware that swung down to let in ocean breezes, and the kind of beautiful woodwork no one bothers to do anymore. You could see that she had been built a hundred years ago, and had seen the Roaring Twenties when the twenties were a party, and everything up to when they returned, even to when they were a pandemic. For these and so many reasons, I thought–and hoped–that she was worth saving.

I didn’t really know her but still, I loved her, in my own pathetic, stalking, trespassing, old-house-and-Secret-Garden-loving kind of a way. I admired her standing and her old-school elegance and her classy looks and it became worth it to me—to me, a rule follower and bona fide scaredy cat—to trespass and to risk getting in some trouble, just to see her one more time. To honor her and to take her picture. To make sure she is remembered when the new houses go up, the ones that haven’t been through anything, the ones that look like all the rest.

To bear witness to all she’d been, when she was the Shell House.