Atlantic Beach: Dunehouses and Pyramid

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2012

The detective walks along the line between recent high tide and the beginning of vegetation on the beach. She walks at the edge of the dunes. She looks through the sawgrass and sea oats and palmettos until she sees the two conjoined dunes looking back at her. She has just left the houses inside the dunes, and now the dunes look at her, either side of their conjunction opening toward the beach in a large egg shape with living room-sized window just inside. The effect is of two giant eyes looking out of the conjoined dunes at her.

Courtesy William Morgan

Having spent the last three months compiling all the evidence of chapters one through 45, the detective feels the first part of the novel as a long, long case nearing a close. She has investigated the architecture, the graves, the out-of-the-way locales. She has collected depositions and ephemera. She will soon be able to talk about Juan Alonso Cavale in Riverside, and that will bring Part One to its close. Still, the case will continue for a long time, and she has to be smart enough to look in the places someone else might not think to look.

Courtesy William Morgan

But now she is here to speak to one more person in one more place before presenting the ephemera in the penultimate chapter of Part One.

The house William Morgan built for himself now almost 40 years ago is next door. But first the Dunehouses, which he built in 1974 and ’75. The houses go so much against what so many people in this city want from a house.

Courtesy William Morgan

So many people want a big house, a “McMansion,” though critics have derided such houses as all about being seen and impressing with size and (often) size alone. Maybe such housing trends in the future lie already dead, since the 2008 housing market crash that followed unsustainable home value appreciation and irresponsible credit lending. In any case, the detective thinks, the early and mid-1970s were a different time, and the Dunehouses were different houses. They don’t announce themselves with a fanfare. The sloping sides and roof are covered in green grass. It’s easy to miss them and walk right by them. And they were built with energy conservation and environmental concerns in mind.

Courtesy William Morgan

The two houses are built like housing pods inside their dunes, side by side, and they look out at the ocean with the appearance of eyes. Even so, each house has two levels inside, the upper one for sleeping. They are as wide as they are high. The inside walls are blond wood and white concrete softly contoured.

Courtesy William Morgan

At Morgan’s own house next door, the architect will tell her the proportions of the rectangular interior of the Dunehouses are golden. Does she know what this means? The detective says she does. She understands the Golden Ratio, the Ratio of Pheidias, the Divine Proportion, the Fibonacci Series, the spiral whose proportion is 1:1.618.

Courtesy William Morgan

He names several natural structures that adhere to Golden Section, the spiral: the tusk of the narwhal, the spirals in pine cones, sea shells, and daisies, the double helix of DNA itself. A square added to the long side of a rectangle produces a golden rectangle.

Morgan’s own house is a partial pyramid. More accurately, it’s two massive triangles meeting to make an A-frame. Inside the lovely reddish brown of cedar-planked walls, beneath an extraordinarily high ceiling down from which sunlight showers from a clerestory, the detective and the architect look through great windows toward the ocean.

Courtesy William Morgan

“It’s not buried in the earth like the Dunehouses,” he tells her from behind the bar that fronts the kitchen from the spacious living room, “but the dunes generate the form of the house.”

“And this house is also a dune house,” she says.

The house looks forward out of the dunes, on six levels, toward the sea. The clerestory windows are thirty feet up from the living room floor. The house is small, but the house is enormous.

“Your style is distinctively yours, but you want basically what Frank Lloyd Wright wanted in terms of the relationship between a building and the earth,” she thinks aloud.

No house should begin its life in direct challenge to the geography that supports it. Such a house would haunt itself. This house is the exact inverse of haunted.

She believes she’s got what she came to get. The city is determined by its secret places. No one will understand the personality of Jacksonville and how it treats you and what makes it make you laugh and makes it make you weep and the particular kinds of visits it pays you when you dream—no one will understand these things without investigating Yukon and Lackawanna and Public School Number Four and the Dunehouses.

The detective and the architect walk a short distance into the sea oats on the dunes. A great blue heron sits above the Southern eye of the Dunehouses, and the wind blows against the ragged feathers beneath her long, sharp beak. The detective and the architect watch the tall bird walk a few slow steps and then lift off clumsily into the softly buffeting wind like a small dinosaur left behind.