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Sunday Journal: The haunting house

By MICKEY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2002


The grass hadn't been cut for weeks, but that didn't seem to bother the 15 or 20 people wandering the grounds of the old white house. A weathered sign among the weeds said it had been part of Daylily Farm. A few daylilies still lined the twisting driveway, but nothing was left of the farm except for the large hill surrounding the house.

The grass hadn't been cut for weeks, but that didn't seem to bother the 15 or 20 people wandering the grounds of the old white house. A weathered sign among the weeds said it had been part of Daylily Farm. A few daylilies still lined the twisting driveway, but nothing was left of the farm except for the large hill surrounding the house.

I was there among the curious that spring day because of an ad I had seen in the newspaper. I had come for the auction.

I parked at the Sears Warehouse across the street and climbed the steep driveway that had been hacked out of the side of the hill when Shady Grove Road was widened. At the top, sitting grandly in the shade of a dozen ancient oaks, was the house. Four sets of double doors opened onto a porch that spanned the front of the ground floor. Four dormers peeked from the slate roof on the third floor and, in between, another long porch on the second floor spoke of genteel early morning breakfasts, wicker chairs and summer lemonade. Ivy climbed the back walls of the main building, and a screened breezeway connected the house to the six-car garage and the living quarters above it. It was easy to imagine a time when the building may have been a stable for horses and carriages.

From the hill, I could see for miles, although the view of what had probably been fields of corn and pasture when the house was built was now filled with highways, businesses and congestion.

The auctioneer raised his bullhorn, breaking the stillness. "All bids are for the structure only. Dismantle it or bulldoze it into the cellar, I don't care, but in two weeks, it must be gone, down to ground level. The land belongs to the highway department."

With that, he began chanting, his singsong voice rising and falling in the breeze that ruffled the leaves overhead. I looked down at my shoes, damp from the long grass, wanting to be sure he didn't mistake any movement of mine for a bid. Everyone clustered around him just stood there, too. Nobody bid. Nobody moved.

Finally, the auctioneer dropped his bullhorn to his side. "Is anybody interested in this house? Are we going to have a sale today?" I lowered my eyes to the grass again. "What about for a dollar? Surely there's more to be salvaged from this building than that. It has a slate roof. Look at the copper gutters. Now, come on, people. What am I bid?"

Again there was no response. Had everyone come out of curiosity the way I had? Or was removing such an immense building more than anyone wanted to tackle?

The auctioneer waited in silence, then sighed. He handed out his business cards and headed down the driveway. The small crowd dispersed.

I walked across the porch and into what had been the large living room. Dirt crunched under my feet, echoing on the wooden floors. The walls in the room had been stripped down to the lath where paneling had once been nailed. The unfinished bricks of the fireplace were laid bare -- whatever had covered them had been removed. An oak banister and stairway still curved past the arched window, but in the kitchen, the stove was missing. A musty smell rose from the darkened cellar steps.

I looked around at what was left of the house. The once-grand old lady was now tired and desolate. Her innermost being had been exposed, and people were eying her aging parts rather than seeing the noble whole she once had been.

On my way out of the kitchen, something caught my eye. Although the entire house had been stripped of everything that could be removed, on a hook hidden behind the door hung a yellow flowered apron. Like someone devastated by a tornado or a flood who clutches the single photograph or child's toy to remember better days and happier times, it was as if the house was holding tight to that apron -- a reminder of when the kitchen was filled with the aroma of baking on a snowy day and children played in the warmth that was home. As I left, I gently pushed the door back to where it had been, leaving the apron hanging snug against the wall.

The big white house never did sell, although it remained standing for much longer than two weeks. Word was that vandals were chased out from time to time. Graffiti marked the walls.

Then one night, as I was driving home well after midnight, I saw orange flames leaping high into the darkened sky above the hill. I stopped among the fire trucks and hiked up the driveway. The house was burning -- too far gone to save. Firefighters stood guard, keeping the fire contained. I watched as the sparking walls fell inward, one at a time. And I was glad. I didn't like the idea of the house decaying and rotting from the inside, one piece at a time, as if attacked by cancer. Instead it went out in a blaze of glory befitting its earlier life.

There's no way to know now where the grand white house used to stand. The hill was leveled, the giant oaks cut down, and a six-lane highway built where it once stood. People needed to get to the new subway station, and they needed the services of the mail processing facility that was built down the street.

Daylily Farm? Most people have never heard of it. But when I look across Shady Grove Road from the Sears warehouse, I can still see the elegant white house sitting on the top of the hill, overlooking its fields and meadows. The grass is cut regularly, and the daylilies are still blooming.

- Mickey Davis is a freelance writer living in Palm Harbor.

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Sunday Journal is a forum for bright, lively, narrative storytelling. Most but not all pieces will be told in the first person.

Stories must be true and must not have been previously published. They should be 700 to 900 words, though that is a guideline, not a rule.

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