“Over the course of a year and sixteen days, while refusing all help from the locals, Henry James Stuart built for himself his odd little round house in Montrose.”
That’s the enigmatic line that I read in a fifty-year old newspaper account that chronicled how a man was told by his doctor in Nampa, Idaho, that he had about a year to live. The doctor was Henry Stuart’s friend and also advised him to go somewhere warm to die, knowing how Henry did not like the Idaho winters.
He took his friend’s advice and wound up in Fairhope, Alabama—a place he’d never been to before—and moved into a barn on ten acres he bought for $150. That was in 1924. Henry named his place Tolstoy Park. And, for some reason, while waiting for the end, he built the round house that still stands today. The enigma for me was why would he not let anyone help. And in time, I learned the answer.
Henry also did not die in a year as the doctor said he would. In fact, he lived in his hut, as some called it, for twenty years.
I wrote a novel about Henry that answers, among other things, why he built his house all by himself. The book is called The Poet of Tolstoy Park. And at a recent literary gathering here at Waterhole Branch, in the home of my friends Suzanne Hudson and Joe Formichella, author Mark Johnson introduced me to a friend of his, saying that I was slowly but surely ageing into the character I’d written about.
Maybe I had no shoes on. Henry went barefoot every day. Maybe my white whiskers were a little long that day. Henry’s Santa-like beard was snow white. Maybe I was standing with my hands behind my back. Henry often stood that way. Maybe I had on a blue shirt and it made my blue eyes bluer. Henry’s eyes were blue like Paul Newman’s. Maybe it was known that I have tried a baker’s dozen churches, including Baptist, Quaker, and Catholic, and I don’t attend at all now. Henry had a seminary degree and did not go to church.
On book tour, during a Q&A, a woman in Corte Madera, California, at Book Passages bookstore stood up and asked me what year did Henry Stuart die. 1946, I told her. She asked when I was born. 1949, I told her. “Ah, there you have it. You are him.” She meant I was Henry reincarnated. She said I could not have written my book in nine months unless I was him. “Furthermore,” she said, “if you will come with me to my past-life regressionist, I will pay for the session, and under hypnosis we will learn what you even had for breakfast everyday, Mister Stuart! You even look like him in the pictures.”
I don’t think I’m Henry Stuart. I did not go with her. The woman scared me.
I’m almost Henry’s age when he built his house. And I’m about to start building a little house for myself. I haven’t, however, been living in a barn lately. I’ve been living with my little dog Bobby for a year-and-a-half in a tiny cabin that I remodeled from a hot tub gazebo.
Henry’s round house was about 113 square feet, doing the math on his 13-foot diameter floor. Though I don’t know how you get square feet in a round house. The Roughdraft Cabin, as I call my place, is 108 square feet. Henry’s round house of concrete and brick was lavishly large, while my rectangular house of wood is modest.
Henry was told his end was near. My life is not under threat from the doctors that it will end soon, and if I match his 86 years in good health, that will be enough.
And, bigly, neither will I “refuse all help from locals” as I begin to build my house. The project got moving today, with a little help right off the bat from my friend Bruce Steiner. He loaned me a double-axle heavy duty trailer and delivered it to the job site this afternoon in a light rain. He loaned me a shingle shovel.
Henry began his house by excavating a round floor 18 inches below grade and hand-pouring a concrete floor. I’m starting by tearing down a structure, a boathouse on Waterhole Branch, that Suzanne and Joe wish to be gone. They told me I can have it if I make it disappear from their view of the branch, and from their homeowner’s insurance policy. I can make that happen. I’ll try to match Henry’s year and sixteen-day start-to-finish schedule.
Building the stage called Resurrection here at the Branch, under the watchful eyes of a family of five Red-shoulder hawks, has been my warm-up exercise.
And, as I deconstruct the boathouse, and devise a plan for building it back, changing its design to suit me (and, yes, I admit I have doodled a nine-sided roundish rendition), I am going to write about it here on this page. With little micro memoirs included that have some (at least loose) association to either building a house, or tearing down a house, I’ll write my own book.
This is Day One, page one.