A SPIDER IN THE SAND, Paul Rudolph’s Antidote to Cold War Paranoia

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I set out on my auspicious little outing to Sanibel Island, driving across the lower instep of Florida, marshy light deflecting off the windshield, sheet-flow expanding incrementally as the car moves westward along the pencil-straight line of Route 75, otherwise known as ‘Alligator Alley’ (although I never spot a single gator along the way), past fences and swales and empty parking lots, the sky turning milky and oddly rippled with altocumulus clouds, sucking up moisture from the shallows of the Everglades.

I’m going to visit the Walker Guest House, Paul Rudolph’s little beach-house gem, built in 1952, just after Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House opened in New York City and the nightmarish “Tumbler-Snapper” nuclear device was detonated in the Nevada desert. Richard Nixon gave his infamous Checkers speech that same month and the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear submarine, was launched in Groton, Connecticut. Indeed it was the heyday of the Nuclear Age, the age of the “Good Bomb” and MAD (“Mutually Assured Destruction”) with the perceived threat of Communist infiltration and back-yard bomb shelters. Into this Faustian landscape, Rudolph’s little pod dropped as an antidote to Cold-War paranoia, open to views on all sides and liberating to the human soul.
The 24-by-24-foot frame of the original rests wistfully on a bed of crushed oyster shells, high enough to catch breezes off the Gulf of Mexico and also withstand hurricane floods. An outrigger structure provides support for the ingenious, Rube Goldberg contraptions that Rudolph devised for raising and lowering the large wooden window flaps. These are hinged along the top and operated with rope and pulleys. There are eight flaps in all, two on every side, and they can be set in a variety of positions.

****IMG_2124The most memorable elements of Rudolph’s design, however, are the eight counterweight balls (weighing 77 pounds each) that hang from steel cables and help to raise and lower the wooden flaps. This accounts for the nickname: “cannonball house” favored by family and locals, while others prefer the more prosaic “house with balls.” The spherical counterweights are said to have been cast in beach sand by pouring wet concrete into the negative form of a beach ball, a most poetic touch, but one that may be apocryphal.

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Rudolph’s single-family vacation homes of this period were thoroughly urban constructs with flat roofs and floor-to-ceiling glass. (The Miller Guest House in Casey Key, built in 1949, and the Cocoon House on Siesta Key, built in 1950, were the earliest examples.) They signaled independence, self-sufficiency, and a celebration of the natural elements: sun, sea and a well-shaken martini. While providing little more than shade and a place to sleep, the Walker house expressed an open-ended lifestyle for a generation who’d survived World War II and were intent on building a brighter, more hopeful future for themselves and their families. Today, the house can be seen as a prototype for sustainable living with its small footprint and simplicity of plan. It was inexpensive, self-cooling, raised against floodwaters, and easily closed up for hurricanes. Just as importantly, it was light-hearted, even whimsical, with its dangling cannonballs and flip-top walls, fitting seamlessly into the natural setting, and barely disrupting the sandy contours of the Sanibel beachfront.

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

Cocoon House, Siesta Key, 1950

The Walker house was the first independent commission after Rudolph established his own firm., and Walter Walker proved to be an ideal client: son of a prominent Minneapolis family, culturally sophisticated and with a love for the outdoors. He was the grandson of T.B. Walker, the Minnesota lumber baron who’d given his renowned art collection and part of his fortune to create the Walker Art Center. He went to Harvard medical school but ended up working in the family lumber business. In his 30s, he contracted tuberculosis; the family physician prescribed a warm, quiet place to recover. This was originally why Walter bought the waterfront lot on Sanibel Island as a kind of one-man sanatorium, but he didn’t think about building a house there for another few years. In 1950, he contacted Sarasota-based architect Ralph Twitchell, who advised him to hire his young associate, Paul Rudolph. “He’s fresh out of Yale and full of ideas,” said Twitchell. Walker took his advice and commissioned Rudolph to design a small guesthouse on a back corner of the property. (Later, in the 1970s, a much bigger house would be built on the dune overlooking the Gulf.)

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Paul Rudolph’s design for the main Walker house, 1950 (unbuilt)

Rudolph worked with basic materials that could be found at any lumberyard. Standard lengths of two-by-four lumber were doubled up to create I-beam-style supports for the footings, and the hurricane flaps were made from plywood and peg-board sandwiched together. It was to be the simplest of pavilions. Its many openings were originally designed without screens, but Walker insisted on having them to keep out mosquitoes and sand flies. He spent the next 30 winters living there until finally building a larger house on the top of the dune.

Floor Plan, Walker GH

Up at the main house, the sun is bright, almost blinding, and Mrs. Elaine Walker, a spry 91 years old, sits on a shaded porch, looking out at the liquid light rising off the Gulf of Mexico. She is warm and welcoming with a mischievous glint in her eyes. “There was ****Mrs. Elaine Walker - photo by AG.2157 2nothing here. It was the absolute boonies!” she says, laughing. “There wasn’t even a telephone!” Wearing a blue-green dress and bone-white spectacles, she sits in a low-slung hammock chair and explains how she met her husband Walter in the 1960s. He’d recovered from tuberculosis by then but was going through a drawn-out divorce, as was she. “We kept going out to dinner and then we fell in love,” says Elaine. After dating for almost two years, they decided to get married, but when Walter brought her to his little escape pad on Sanibel Island, she was shocked. “He told me that he had this little house in Florida and when I came down from Minneapolis I thought ‘Why would anyone want to build in such a place?’ It was so isolated and I’m a city kid by nature.” The roof leaked when it rained and there were gopher tortoises living in the crawl space. When Elaine wanted to make a phone callshe had to walk half a mile up the dusty shell road. “You call this a house?” she said. “Not exactly what I’m accustomed to–only 24 by 24 feet–you must be kidding!” But Walt loved it small and simple, and he liked to lie in a hammock strung between two palm trees and watch pelicans skim across the water, counting them as they passed. By the end of the first winter season, Elaine was learning to adapt to the quirkiness of Rudolph’s little experiment. “It was just like camping and I learned to be a good girl scout,” she says. “I’d always wanted to be a Girl Scout.” She and her husband would go swimming in the morning, collect shells along the beach and read books. Elaine pinned up a few art posters and Walt made little scenes out of driftwood and shell. He even agreed to put in a telephone. “It was really quite charming, after all,” she admitted.

Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 3

Walker Guest House - drawing - archival 2

Even with only 580 square feet of internal living space, the house felt expansive with its all-around views and basic geometry. The interior was divided into equal quadrants for dining, cooking, living and sleeping, something like a well-ordered boat, with everything in its place. Rudolph had worked as a naval architect during World War II. He learned about thin-shell construction and how to make the most efficient use of space. “I was profoundly affected by ships,” he wrote. “I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world.” Rudolph would apply what he’d learned in the shipyards to the Walker Guest House and other projects. In early photographs you can see that he’d originally used a deep indigo blue in the living/dining area to create a cool, cave-like space and offset the sun-struck dunes that surround the house. He designed most of the furniture himself, including a steel-and-glass dining table, a low-lying bookcase as spatial divider in the living room, and several deck chairs. Floors were charcoal gray linoleum and the ceiling was covered in a pale grass-cloth to create texture. “It was just as cozy as could be,” said Elaine Walker, remembering the times she stayed in the house during inclement weather. The flaps could be lowered half way to keep the rain out but there was still enough light for indoor activities. “You know, Rudolph told my husband that sometimes it’s nice to be in a cave and sometimes it’s nice to be in a pavilion,” she said. “With the flaps down it was a cave. With the flaps up it was a pavilion.” With a few adjustments the flaps could also be made to funnel Gulf breezes through the house, as there was no air conditioning, but occasionally it was sweltering and Mrs. Walker remembers having to run down to the beach every half hour for another dip in the Gulf. “I never got out of my bathing suit,” she said.

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The skeletal structure fulfilled Rudolph’s desire to make the house “crouch like a spider in the sand,” with spindly legs reaching out on all sides, eroding all sense of mass. The house’s profile would change almost daily, depending on the weather, the season, the angle of light and the moods of the homeowners. The counterweights moved up and down so that when the flaps were shut, the balls hung high and when the flaps were open, the balls hung low. The wood bracing, pull ropes and tension cables also created narrow lines of shadow–a kind of drawing or delineation–that Rudolph used to further animate his three-dimensional composition.

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When construction was finished, Walter Walker climbed up on the roof and detected a slight lateral movement in the bones of the structure. He called Rudolph and the architect quickly devised a solution: crisscrossing tension cables were strung across the openings to strengthen the structural integrity of the framework.

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McCall’s Magazine

The guesthouse received an inordinate amount of attention for such a modest commission. McCall’s Magazine ran a feature in 1956 with color photos and a breezy text about the “house for carefree summer living.” (Plans could be purchased from the magazine for 25 cents.) It appeared in architecture journals and became an inspiration to a generation of young American architects. Peter Blake, architect and friend of Rudolph, designed his own house in Water Mill, New York, in the same configuration with a 24-foot-by-24-foot floor plan. Instead of hinged wooden flaps, however, Blake used horizontally sliding barn doors that could be moved back and forth on metal tracks, but it was essentially the same idea: a box that could be shut up for a hurricane or a season.

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

Pinwheel House, Water Mill, NY, 1954, Peter Blake architect

“I had no idea that our little guesthouse would become so famous,” says Mrs. Walker. “It’s really quite revered in the world of architecture so we try to maintain it as best as we can.” The counterweight balls were originally painted a bright pimento red, like an exotic fruit, and stood out in contrast to the white walls of the house. Now, they’re more of an aubergine or purplish red, while the woodwork has been painted a pale gray in place of the original white. “I like a little bit of change now and then,” says Mrs. Walker who has kept the house in pristine condition ever since her husband’s death in 2001. Windows are re-sealed; wood surfaces are sanded and painted fresh almost every year, while an assistant keeps the mold at bay with frequent doses of bleach.

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Apart from a few minor repairs, the house is made of the same materials it was built with in 1952. Even the fixtures in the tiny kitchen and bathroom are original. After years of exposure, the wooden flaps have become water logged and harder to lift. It usually takes two people to open them. “My husband would stand inside and pull the rope while I would go outside and push with my fanny,” explained Mrs. Walker.

****Jack Priest, son-in-law of Mrs. Walker, Photo by AG. 2152 2

****IMG_2190 2Jack Priest, her son-in-law, stands in the doorway of the little guesthouse, wearing pink rubber clogs and a marlin-print shirt. He points to a metal escutcheon in the ceiling and explains how one of the pull ropes breaks every so often and has to be replaced and threaded through a hidden pulley, out through a hole in the fascia board. “It takes real concentration,” says Priest, who’s learned how to guide the rope through the openings with a stiff wire.

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Elaine Walker and her family — her children and grandchildren — continue to cherish the diminutive scale and close-packed ingenuity of a house that forces everyone to slow down and return to the simple pleasures of waterfront living — picnics, swimming, outdoor showers, beach combing, living in synch with nature — so that winter vacations on Sanibel have become a beloved family tradition. “I didn’t come to appreciate the architecture for a long time,” admits Mrs. Walker. “But it was wonderful to be in a place that made my family so happy.”

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Paul Rudolph’s name has been tossed about in the news lately because several of his buildings are under threat of demolition. While the early beach houses are generally cherished and well monitored, the concrete walls and bulky forms of his later “brutalist” buildings are harder to love. Many find them cold and alienating, such as the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY (1967) that is scheduled to be torn down in the next few months. As a kind of precautionary measure, the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) recently announced that they are creating a full-scale replica of the Walker Guest House, one of Rudolph’s crowning achievements. Architect and contractor Joseph King is fabricating the facsimile in his workshop in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota. Sponsored by the SAF and Dr. Michael Kalman, the revision will be exact in every detail except for the fact that this 21st-century variation will be a demountable kit of parts, easily broken down and moved from venue to venue. King is milling all sections from micro-laminate lumber that will help to strengthen the structure. Parts will be attached with screws and bolts instead of nails, but as per the original, linoleum will cover the floors. (The Armstrong Flooring company happens to still make the same charcoal gray product.) When finished, it will be a walk-though artifact for the purpose of educating people about mid-century modernism and the architectural legacy of Paul Rudolph. Even the furniture that Rudolph designed for the interior is being replicated. The facsimile edition of the Walker Guest House will be unveiled in November 2015 and remain on the grounds of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota for another 11 months. After that, it is scheduled to travel to Miami in time for Art Basel Miami 2016. For info: http://www.ringling.org/

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MURDER IN THE SWAMP

Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken  trees.                                –  Peter Matthiesen

Could it be those fingers of swampy wildness that reach into the Metroplex with Saw Grass and Coontie? The whorl-shaped sloughs that surround Ft. Lauderdale airport? The drainage ditches along Route 75 or the mysterious savannah I first glimpsed through a chain-link fence on the way to Key West? Where do the Everglades begin?  Sometimes, strolling through Bal Harbour, I catch a whiff of jungle funk wafting on the breeze from an outlying swale and I think of Ponce de León, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and others who came here for conquest and glory, but only found mosquitoes, disease, and sodden camp sites. The Spanish were perplexed by the place and so were the English. It was a problem of entry, perception, discovery, mapping, claiming territory and finding familiar points of reference. Journalists and poets didn’t know how to write about it. Artists didn’t know how to paint it. There was no real center, no overarching theme or landmark, no mountain, canyon or picturesque waterfall. The Glades splayed and sprawled and seeped restlessly southwards from Lake Okeechobee in the river of grass that conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote about. But the river metaphor was misleading to many because one imagined a river as a meandering channel between two banks while this was more like a hundred-mile swathe of water without sides, only a few inches deep, continually moving southwards in a steady flow, what modern hydrographers call sheetflow or what the Seminoles called Pa-Hay-Okee, meaning grassy water.

Explorers, missionaries, surveyors, botanists and plume hunters used less dignified adjectives like dismal, barren, hideous, desolate, monotonous, lonely, lost, impenetrable, impossible, inundated, unnavigable to describe the “God-abandoned hellscape” that was the Everglades. “No obstruction offered itself to the eye as it wandered o’er the interminable, dreary waste of waters, except the tops of tall rank grass, about five feet or upwards in height, and which harmonized well with the desolate aspect of the surrounding regions, exhibiting a picture of universal desolation,” wrote army surgeon Jacob Motte who passed through during the Seminole Wars of 1836-1838. [*Journey into Wilderness: An Army Surgeons’s Account of Life in Camp and Field During the Creek and Seminole Wars, 1836-1838, via Michael Grunwald’s meticulously researched The Swamp, Simon & Schuster, 2006, p. 42.]

 Today there are numerous points of penetration, gateways of a sort to the placeless place: one to the west in Chokoloskee, another to the south in a ghost town called Flamingo. A raised wooden walkway leads through a flooded cypress landscape near Monroe Station or you can paddle your kayak through the mangrove tunnels of Nine-Mile Pond. There’s also a limited access through Lake Chekika and Grossman’s Hammock although they’re often flooded during the wet season.

Of course, the real obstacle is psychological, not physical. It’s a matter of adjusting one’s expectations and learning to paint oneself into the picture, so to speak, slowing down, catching the translucent layers and hidden hues. My son and I set out on Thursday morning with bug spray, sun block, and a copy of Peter Matthiesen’s Shadow Country as our guide, a novel infested with outlaws, drifters, ragged desperados, and the man at the center, Edgar J. Watson, also known as “Bloody Watson,” who’s more complex than Hamlet. What may have once felt like a mental barrier, an impossible transition from Bling City to Pa-Hay-Okee, now proves to be quite effortless.

You simply retrieve the rented car from valet parking and drive west along SW 8th Street until it turns into Route 41, continue in a straight line past Krome Avenue and the pastel-pink-and-blue blob of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino, last vestige of civilization before the horizontal sweep of the Everglades unfolds with only an occasional airboat ride and alligator wrestling joint, passing over weirs, sluices and drainage canals designed to control the uncontrollable. It’s flat and repetitive, reminiscent of the polders of Holland with the same translucent, water-saturated light that Jacob van Ruisdael painted. The sky seems vast, overbearing.

        

You continue west on the Tamiami Trail through Water Conservation Area #3B where the natural flow of the Glades has been interrupted by canals, levees and roadways so that water has to be transferred from the north to south by a complex system of pumps and sluice gates, a kind of artificial life-support system devised by the Army Corps of Engineers.

About thirty-five miles west of the Miccosukee Gambling Casino there’s a turn off for the Shark River Slough. You can walk or take a trolley out to the observation tower, and it’s really quite a beautiful, if absurd, monument standing out there in the middle of Motte’s universal desolation, a kind of deconstructed Guggenheim Museum built during the spacy 1960s (originally a fire lookout) with a ramp and two-tiered tower rising sixty feet above the marshy expanse. Here, in this place where there’s no there, as Gertrude Stein put it, the tower provides a kind of metaphysical thereness, a 360-degree frame of reference.

 

From afar, it has the presence of De Chirico’s Great Tower of 1913: lonely, spectral, melancholic, but as you get closer you can see that it splays out with a concrete pedestrian chute that makes a wide, cantilevered spiral over a boggy sump of sedges and spikerushes: needle spikerush, scallion grass, dwarf hairgrass, fewflower, false junco, umbrella hairgrass

And then there’s the humble but mysterious Periphyton, tubular, spongy algae that clusters in mats just below the surface of the water. It provides nutrients while filtering pollutants, retains water and helps to sustain the balance of moisture in the Everglades during the dry season.

It starts to rain again as soon as we reach the top of the tower and try to take in the panorama of flooded desert, sawgrass prairie with occasional pools, narrow canals, clumps of hardwood rising slightly higher but otherwise flat and featureless to the horizon in every direction. As a destination it remains unaccommodating, resists interpretation. On first glance it looks like nothing. Maybe it takes a day or more to get used to the ineffable scale and emptiness. Maybe then you finally catch the subtle gradations of sky and light across the broader expanses. In any case, it’s a long, slow read: muted strokes of pale ochre, viridian, with slightly denser patches of tea-green, pale sea green, asparagus green, dotted here and there by tiny flecks of berry, red, umber and yellow, and unusual plants that grow in moving water like bladderwort, spatterdock, maidencane, white water lily, and a few undernourished slash pines in the distance.

A group of geriatric Danes arrive by trolley and move up the ramp as if a single Viking organism. They take photographs and hurry back down. We stay a bit longer, gazing at the sub-wash of pink-tinged heliotrope that might be a result of watery light refracted through the shallows, somehow, I’m not sure, but maybe the matte grayness of the lowering sky acts as a sponge, a kind of optical Periphyton, pulling invasive hues up from the groundscape.

On my way back from the tower, a chatty Park Ranger offers me some type of edible brown berry. Will I hallucinate?  He laughs.  The Calusas used it in ceremonies.  It has the bittersweet tang of Scottish marmalade and leaves my mouth oddly dry with a zincish aftertaste. I jot down the name of the plant but lose the slip of paper.

We drive further west past Monroe Station and Ochopee, past America’s smallest post office, built circa 1916 for work crews on the Tamiami Trail , then left onto Route 29 and Everglades City, not a city at all but cheap motels and trailer parks with a current population of under 500. City founders like Barron Collier and the Storter family had high hopes, envisioning a marshy utopia laid out in a grid of streets and avenues–Storter, Copeland, Kumquat, Collier–with a traffic circle at the center and an imposing city hall, a bank, laundry, churches and a proper schoolhouse. They even built a trolley line through the middle of town anticipating the coming boom but no one came and most of the lots remain empty, awaiting urbanization.

Lunch of deep-fried gator tail and frog legs at creaky Rod and Gun Club–old homestead of George W. Storter, early settler and sugar planter. The lobby glows with an orange hue from a thousand coats of shellac over walls and stuffed tarpon, alligator heads and panthers, their jaws now slack and leaking dust.

Above the reception desk hang photographs of several U.S. Presidents, earnest-eyed hunters and fishermen from the 1920s when the place flourished as a sportsman’s retreat. Hemingway came here, so did Zane Grey. Now it’s sour with ammonia and a family of possum scatter when I step through the back door, and tell myself it’s good background material for something.

But I can never claim this as narrative space for myself because it’s already been irrevocably staked and claimed by Matthiesen and his great swamp epic Shadow Country, so much so that I feel like I’m literally sliding down one of his sinewy sentences as we cross the causeway onto Chokoloskee itself: “…a baleful sky out toward the Gulf looks ragged as a ghost, unsettled, wandering.” And he’s right. The sky is ghostly, witholding rain and wandering in a way that gives me a headache just squinting at the steamy light. Maybe it’s the vapor from so many shallow estuaries, too many ions, the swamp gas or miasma that was thought to cause Malaria. I don’t have a clue. There’s a shirtless man in the shallows near the bridge, fishing with a butterfly net. A dull, blue-gray line marks the horizon as if we’d finally reached the end of the world.

Nothing much to Chokoloskee itself, more cheap bungalows, trailer parks, shabby pre-fabs propped on concrete pylons. We turn past the Havana Café onto Mamie Street and find the pitted track that leads to Smallwood’s General Store, a wood-framed building, painted red and raised high on cedar posts to escape flood. Inside, there’s one long and poorly illuminated chamber with hardly any windows but an open door at the far end, filtering swamp-brewed light from the Gulf of Mexico. The barge-like structure was built in 1906 by Charles Sherod “Ted” Smallwood with low-pitched roof, vertical boards of termite-resistant slash pine, all of it propped high on locust posts like Noah’s Ark, ready to float away in the final Deluge. I have a sudden urge to buy something, but there’s nothing for sale other than a few old postcards.

It housed the original post office and Indian trading post and is now open as a museum of sorts, frozen in time somewhere about 1941, the year that Smallwood retired as postmaster, and a decade before the causeway to the mainland was finished. Shelves are stacked along side walls, original counters and glass vitrines in tact and stuffed with dusty relics. It also provides the opening scenography for Shadow Country: the hurricane of 1910 has just passed and the novel begins with a kind of Biblical inventory-taking of objects ravaged and rendered useless by the storm: “Pots, kettles, crockery, a butter churn, tin tubs, buckets, blackened vegetables, salt-slimed boots, soaked horsehair mattresses, a ravished doll are strewn across bare salt-killed ground...” The grounds around Smallwood’s store are still puddled with a putrefying stench of death and rank corruption. “Vultures on black-fingered wings tilt back and forth over the broken treesstove-in boats, uprooted shacks… odd pieces torn away from their old places hanging askew, strained from the flood by mangrove limbs twisted down into the tide.”

There’s a similar tidal wash of inventory inside Smallwood’s store today: pickle jars, animal skins, moldy books and magazines, tobacco tins, old-fashioned tinctures and ointments in their original boxes, hurricane lanterns, axe handles, 1923 typewriter, sacks of raw sugar (Pearl White, Fine Granulated,) Miccosukee weavings, turtle shell, dried sponge, sawfish rostrum, gator jaws, photo albums, candy jars, coffee grinder, old pop bottles, egret plumes, ancient cash register, faded signs and photographs of how the place once looked–much the same as now–and a scale model that someone made from toothpicks and popsicle sticks. In fact, there are two scale models, one being quite elaborate and lit from within, something like the miniature spirit shrines you see along the roadsides of Southeast Asia, but in this case honoring the myth of self-sufficiency and the lost ways of frontier living.

The postmaster’s window is still there and so is Ted Smallwood’s bedroom in a back corner, gloomy with creaky bedsprings and threadbare quilt, Victorian undergarments hanging from a line over his bed. There’s also a life-sized mannequin of Ted Smallwood himself sitting in a rocking chair with a milky, infinite look in his eyes, staring out towards the bay.

On the other side of the store, someone has put together a little display, almost an altar, dedicated to the Watson legacy with letters, photographs and drawings, a charcoal rendering of the man, an oil painting of his house at Chatham Bend, newspaper clippings, letters, old pamphlets and books that tell the story. There’s even a box of shells and a shotgun that was supposedly used in his execution, and a hand-drawn sign that proudly states: “KILLING MR. WATSON WAS A COMMUNITY PROJECT.”

 

 

The crudely marked map has circles and arrows that point to locations where Watson’s victims were said to be buried: Lostman’s Key, Storter Bay, Opossum Key, Deer Island and if you have a morbid curiosity you can paddle your kayak down the Wilderness Waterway and visit these sites or go to the Watson place on Chatham River, twenty miles south of Chockoloskee.  How many bodies did he bury in the inlets and shoals around his homestead?  How many did he really kill? There’s a sign and a little dock that the park service maintains. The house burned down a long time ago but  the foundation still exists as well as a cistern and some spooky remains of the Watson sugar works.

There’s a photograph of Watson himself set in a Victorian frame with a  floral pattern embossed around the olive-gray matting. He’s sitting upright, wearing a tightly fitted jacket, high lapels and short tie, but I find it hard to look at the face. A surprising face, not what I’d imagined, wide and urgent, clear brow, receding hairline; high, square forehead. Wary of ambush, Watson was said to never turn his back on anyone, even a child, and there’s a cant to the head, slightly to the left, as if the photographer caught him off guard, in motion, ready for a turn, retreat or drawing of his pistol.

“He was a Scotsman with red hair and fair skin and mild blue eyes,” wrote Marjorie Douglas in the 1940s, after interviewing people who were old enough to remember the man. “He was quiet spoken and pleasant to people. But people noticed one thing. When he stopped to talk on a Fort Myers street, he never turned his back to anyone.” Was he glaring at the nervous photographer? There’s  a resemblance, not unlike a certain paternal grandfather,  but it’s hard to look at the old tintype and not see a serial killer. Without such foreknowledge he might be mistaken for a mid-level banker, fish-oil salesman or prominent planter, which is what he was, but there’s something in the eyes that blows that illusion. The eyes are high and creepily close together, intense and penetrating, verging toward madness.

A 19th-century phrenologist would read Watson’s high, broad forehead as obdurate, stubborn, willful and prone to outbursts of violence. The pronounced ears were said to signify lude passions according to Owen Squire Fowler, phrenologist and octagon-house pioneer, but the mouth and jaw are impossible to read because Watson sported such a thick moustache and mutton-chop sideburns as if to conceal his true, ornery nature. Were his lips full and fleshy or were they thin and coldly pursed? Did they smirk with an ironic foreshadowing of his own demise or were they locked in a permanent frown? It’s hard to tell.

The waxy, end-blown light inside Smallwood’s makes me feel like I’m standing inside an overexposed sepia tintype myself. My stomach is rumbling. The fried gator from lunch is crawling back up my gullet in a bid for reptilian revenge. I’m relieved to walk onto the back porch that hangs over Chokoloskee Bay and look down to the very spot where Watson pushed his boat ashore onto a bed of broken shells, just before he met his violent end that day, October 24, 1910.

We climb down a rickety staircase and stand on the murder spot. The sun is setting over the Gulf and I peer into the subfusc crawl space (more like walk space) where Smallwood kept his chickens. They were all drowned in the hurricane and the postmaster was cleaning out the sorry mess when the shootout started. “Wincing, Smallwood arches his back, takes a dreadful breath, gags, hawks, expels the sweet taste of chicken rot in his mouth and nostrils.” No chickens now, only sand and the smell of salted pine down there along with a Miccosukee dugout, beautifully carved and propped on a wooden stand. This was where the neighborhood posse gathered in twilight and gunned down E.J. Watson in cold blood.

“He never crumpled but fell slow as a felled tree… You never seen a man so dead in all your life.” More than thirty-three bullets were pulled from the bloated corpse and plunked into a coffee can. After that they stopped counting.

                                            “If nobody is innocent, who can be guilty?”
                      [*Quotations from Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen, Random House, 2008.]