by Tim Gilmore, 1/9/2021
The strangest sensation, what could better say Florida? For something so unnatural to be born of a natural disaster exemplified a vertigo made stable and secure. That some people felt this way all the time was unimaginable.
Across the roof angled toward sand and sky shouted the giant block letters, “THE ‘MYSTERIOUS’ HOUSE” and a brief explanation. The note on the postcard waxed barely more verbose. “This House was found in its present position after a severe storm October, 1922, at Atlantic Beach, near Jacksonville, Florida. It has mystified thousands who marvel at the queer sensation and natural thrill it causes.”
In this case, Atlantic Beach really was Neptune, part of Pablo Beach before Pablo Beach was Jacksonville Beach, out of which formed Neptune Beach on the former line between Pablo and Atlantic. The word “mysterious,” for some reason, wore quotation marks, as though the house weren’t really mysterious at all, just pretending.
But people shouldn’t be able to stand at such angles. Gravity didn’t work that way. The men in dark cloaks and brimmed hats stood upright in mid-fall. But they weren’t falling. They weren’t off balance. They seemed to walk against the world this way, at an angle, as though, as though, as though the earth were spinning on an axis in space.
So what if no hurricane hit the Jacksonville area in 1922? The operators of The Mysterious House claimed only a “severe storm.” A weak tropical storm blew ashore west of the Florida/Alabama line, but that was almost 400 miles away. Walk through that house, however, and you’d be convinced. You’d understand just what damage the wrath of Mother Nature, that primordial virago, could work.
There were also postcards and brochures for a similar house in nearby St. Augustine. They asked, “What is this power that haunts the mystery house? It makes a person shrink a foot before your very eyes…Toss a ball in the air and it travels away from you and then returns!…Walk at a 45 degree angle and feel the terrifyingly powerful pull of the Earth at this spot.”
Tim Hollis’s 1999 book Dixie Before Disney, 100 Years of Roadside Fun mentions both conundrums, calling the Atlantic/Neptune Beach house “one of those standard built-on-an-angle attractions that could be found in any good resort,” yet assuming also that “some enterprising soul” had wandered the beach after “a storm caused a large house to topple onto the sand,” and made that garbled geometry, “as is,” this attraction.
“Unbelievable,” people said. “You felt like you were walking up the wall.”
In a 2006 article called “Neptune Beach, Florida Before 1931,” beach historian Donald Mabry mentions The Mysterious House and its strange placement on the 1924 Sanborn Fire Insurance map.
The commonly accepted but still occasionally disputed story of the origins of Neptune claims an early resident named Dan Wheeler lived at the ocean at the current boundary of Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach and commuted daily to Jacksonville by train from Mayport, the fishing village north of Atlantic. Hating the hike, Wheeler built his own train station close to his back door and called the stop “Neptune” in 1922. Mabry calls that story into question, however, pointing to an Atlantic Beach Corporation map that included Neptune and was drawn possibly as early as 1917.
The 1924 Sanborn map calls the beach at Neptune “Ocean Boulevard” and shows a house crooked at the beachfront of Lemon Street, far out toward the ocean from all other built structures, and called “Mysterious House.” Houses from the 19-teens and early ’20s still stand on Lemon Street and at the foot of Cedar, but no houses, of course, stand out on the beach between the dunes and waves.
But that’s where the Mysterious House stood. Some said the storm sucked it out to sea and tossed it back up on the beach just there, just like Jonah, when called by God to travel to the evil city of Nineveh and preach, when he went down to Joppa instead and found a ship headed for Tarshish and fled the calling of God who always gets you in the end, when God hurled a great wind on the sea to break up the ship so a beast of the oceanic depths would swallow Jonah whole and vomit him up where God wanted him to be.
In recent years, drinkers at the foot of Lemon Street, a few of them, claimed entrance into the long vanished Mysterious House. Their vertigo and loss of proprioception is easily enough explained. Only so many double lemon gimlets—lemon juice, lemon curd, double gin—can 100 pound female college students sink before the world turns tipsy and topsy turvy and frat boys consume but so many boilermakers, rye and imperial stout, before their inner amygdalar baboon seeks to set all the rest of the world to its own dimensions. The Lemon Bar is best for a lazy drink on afternoons when all the rest of the world recedes.
Al Mosher, the landlord of St. Augustine’s Mystery House quoted visitors’ suppositions “that an atomic reaction has taken place,” though Shirley Jackson found the haunting of Hill House due to its being a “masterpiece of architectural misdirection.” Standing on the deck of the Lemon Bar, looking out to sea, you see where the Mysterious House collapsed into itself like a defeated accordion, far out toward the reach of higher tides. Some mornings, crabs skitter sideways through the living room angled against the fireplace. Jellyfish, in their suicidal season, cast themselves at the funhouse like martyrs. Now the Mysterious House is gone. Yet under the right conditions, you might draw its contours up from obsolete maps, desperate drunkenness and the approach, from continents thousands of miles away, of oncoming storms.