by Tim Gilmore, 4/3/2017
cont’d from Coquina Gates: 4, Last Chance
A Brilliant Mess
Barbara Mattison has lived in “The Gates,” the front house at Coquina Gates, for 27 years. She remembers Jim Russell. She knew Anna Russell well. She remembers well Anna’s last days.
Barbara refused to speak to me at first. Her husband William “Greg” Mattison died on January 16. He was 77. A restorative artist, he’d operated his studio in Coquina Gates for nearly three decades. Sometimes when he restored an artist’s painting, he received a painting in gratitude. A portrait of Greg at helm aboard ship by the artist Bill Reedy hangs near skylights in his studio. I could only respect Barbara’s decision not to speak with me in her grief.
In a sense, the gates at the front of The Gates are the entrance to the village. (Or, I could say the coquina gates at the front of The Gates are the entrance to Coquina Gates.) I walk through them and feel the vines that cover them reach for me.
Then I’m sitting with Barbara and Andrea on Barbara’s porch, drenched in April Fools’ sunshine and Florida’s deep and drunken green, looking at Anna’s funeral program.
April 27, 1915 to April 1, 2009. In Loving Memory. Then, inside, words from that too oft-quoted Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, so loved by religious liberals, that nevertheless speak seemingly personally, according to all I’ve heard, of Anna Russell:
She did “laugh often and much.” She won both “the respect of intelligent” adults “and the affection of children.” Certainly did she “appreciate beauty” and “find the best in others.” More than “one life has breathed easier because” Anna lived. She left the world better through a “healthy child, a garden patch [and] a redeemed social position.” Emerson separates the items in his series with “or,” but Anna was “and.”
Barbara and Greg moved to Coquina Gates a year and a half before Jim Russell’s death. Greg and Jim both loved the water and both loved boats. They’d gotten to know each other at a nearby marina. When a renter left Coquina Gates in 1990 and this house became available, Greg convinced Barbara they should take it.
“It was brilliant,” Barbara says, “but it was a mess.”
Coquina Gates had greatly declined, as had Jim Russell. Though he’d continued building and working on the houses into the 1970s, he’d finished his last full design when his daughters left home for college in the late 1960s. He spent much of the 1970s fleeing the village he’d created, covering more than 10,000 river miles from the Peruvian Andes to Tierra del Fuego.
The Mattisons renovated the existing house, then added a second half for Greg’s studio. Between the two halves, they enclosed the original courtyard with its stucco wall and large circular window so typical of Jim Russell’s style.
The last year and half of Jim’s life, Barbara recalls, he was not a happy man. He was frustrated, depressed. When the Mattisons first lived at The Gates, Jim tried to unwind a jalousie window, which Greg later removed, and growing frustrated that the crank was stuck and wouldn’t budge, he picked up a concrete block and threw it despairingly through the louvered glass.
When the Mattisons enclosed the courtyard and added Greg’s studio, they made sure to respect Jim Russell’s original artistic vision. When painters and sculptors came to call, or collectors stopped by to pick up the painting or statue Greg had restored, they never failed to marvel at the architecture of Coquina Gates.
Barbara walks me through the spacious living room. It’s floored with terrazzo Jim Russell salvaged, beamed with massive oak, and beset with the largest coquina hearth in the village, spanning as wide as an Indian elephant stands long. She says, “I just sold a collection of seascapes to a collector from Colorado. He said he’d never seen a place more magnificent and couldn’t imagine a greater crime than tearing it down.”
Glancing from the winged Samothracian figure perched on the living room table, surrounded by Greg’s books on boats and sailing, to sets of antlers shelved overhead to black-iron-hinged pecky cypress kitchen doors to lovely angles of elephantine oak beams, I move in awe toward the room that once was a courtyard.
A Russell-esque circular window lights the table, the artwork and the stone of the walls much as the insets in every village hearth light up to reveal old salvage resurrected, often ship’s portholes. In The Gates, it’s the rich worn chiaroscuro of an old copper alloy sink.
Then comes the studio. The Mattisons laid concrete and salvaged coquina from the grounds of Coquina Gates to build their own hearth. They formed circular windows around the rims of tabletops and fitted the ceiling with skylights.
“You invested so much into this wonderful house,” I say.
Barbara stands tiny, pithy, petite. Her silver hair, cropped in a pageboy, frames her polite face formed of a mannerly Midwestern childhood.
“Too much,” she says.
I ask her why.
“Because we might lose everything if Jim and Anna’s daughters decide to tear it all down.”
“That just couldn’t happen,” I say, looking around, as I’m instantly ashamed to realize, a little melodramatically.
I’ve spoken mostly to women in researching and writing about Coquina Gates, and this news somehow registers in my manhood. Though I hope to challenge and question and build something better than any traditional sense of gender, I was raised to believe that a man should make and provide for his home. Of all the childhood conservatisms I’ve left behind, the idea of my being a man as provisional to my providing for my family has stuck the strongest. I’ve no desire to disagree with it. I want to provide and therefore, selfishly, be the very concept of home. Whom I love I want to shelter and protect forever. Surely that’s why I find the idea of Jim Russell building these homes and infusing them with love so appealing.
“Well, but it could,” both women say.
Andrea received a phone call just before Christmas. A real estate developer was interested in Coquina Gates.
Correction. That developer was interested not in the land, not at all in the place. After all, Ms. Bachee’s little Victorian house had stood between Coquina Gates and Bartram Road amidst its ring of camphors until not even a decade ago. The develop was interested only in the property.
That developer could flatten Coquina Gates and replace it with profitable human beehives of condos or apartments. The world would gain another however-so-many interchangeable generic housing units and lose forever the only Coquina Gates that artists and individualists the world over should celebrate and love, to which and whom lovers of the earth and art, the world over, should make pilgrimage.
“You don’t really think these could be Coquina Gates’ last days?” I ask them.
Neither woman is sure. They hope Jim and Anna’s daughters understand how much Coquina Gates deserves the world’s acknowledgement and sacred protection.
“This is the miraculous site,” Barbara says, “of Jim Russell’s artistry and Anna Russell’s love and care for that vision.”
All These Years
Barbara, who so recently lost her husband, recalls for me Anna Russell’s last days. She’d led the charge, she says, along with her daughter Kim and husband Greg, to have Anna brought home from the nursing home.
Kristen Martini took the early shift. Barbara and her daughter split later shifts. Andrea filled in when she could.
Barbara and Andrea both remember Anna’s last New Year’s Eve party. She was so close to 94. Every year Barbara and Greg brought in the new year with style and great gusto at The Gates.
“She loved wine,” Andrea tells me on her porch at Last Chance. “She drank her wine that night and swiped Greg’s wine too.”
“She loved wine,” Barbara tells me on her porch at The Gates. She has no recollection of Kristen’s giving Anna wine in syringes her last night at Wild Cherry before she died, but says she gave Anna red wine in small glasses herself.
Barbara recalls Anna asking deliriously and repeatedly for her husband in her last days.
All Andrea remembers Anna telling her about Jim Russell was how she resented his being gone so frequently on some boat down the Amazon.
“Where’s Jim?” Anna asked Barbara again and again.
“And I’d tell her,” Barbara says, chin rising, a glint in her eye, “He’s on the Amazon.”
“Still?” Anna asked, incredulous. Jim Russell had been dead for 17 years. Nearly three decades had lapsed since his Amazon expeditions.
He’d built Coquina Gates from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s, after which, when his daughters left home for college, he’d traversed South America by water every chance he got for a decade.
Barbara laughs about it sorrowfully now. Her own husband so recently died. “He’s on the Amazon,” she’d told Anna.
“All this time?” And Anna’s face collapsed. “That’s where he’s been all these years?”