by Tim Gilmore, 1/9/2020
For if, in fact, it’s a poor imitation of a Klutho, that’s because it’s no imitation at all. It’s a loving and gracious tribute. It’s also a sacred space, a private literary and family temple.
Yes, the face with which the house meets the street, if you know the work of Henry John Klutho, you recognize. You see in its shape, in its porch, in its windows and cantilevers, echoes of the house the master of Prairie style architecture in the South built for himself nearby on Main Street.
Jason Fisher, the young architect who designed this home, calls it “Springfield Usonian.” It was architect Frank Lloyd Wright who called for a “Usonian,” as against an “American” architecture, since Mexico and Canada are as North American as the United States. He also desired an art form clearly reflective of and derived from this North American continent, infinitely older than its nation states. For doesn’t the natural landscape signify, in the long run, much more than contemporary sociopolitical forms of thinking and design?
Ed Conner calls the house “Ellenelle,” partly because the el shape of the house stands head-to-tail with the el shape of the lot like a 69, like an ouroboros, like a lemniscate, that mathematical figure-eight that runs its autophagous course eternally, like a Möbius strip. The house, Ed says, like its name, is a palindrome. The name also refers to his aunt, who went by “Nelle,” not the name by which she was famous, the unusual spelling with that “e” on the end a result of spelling the name of her maternal grandmother, Ellen, backward.
Ed’s lived here since its completion less than a year ago, but the house holds a lifetime’s worth of having lived toward. It’s already home.
From the street, Ellenelle is narrow, tiny, modest. From above, the house rambles from a simple opening toward a complicated end, like stories so often do, buried in thick overhead green. From behind, in architectural drawings, the horizontal sweep of the house stretches languorously with multiple doorways opening to a swimming pool.
Ed’s always lived at the backs of his homes, and I get that. Inasmuch as historic houses in Springfield and Riverside so often face the public through a wide front porch, a verandah, that public-private space where Southerners once mythically connected to neighbors on their own front porches, home is also a burrow.
I clearly remember a book I loved as a small child about a bear who builds his home in the earth. Though he provides himself protection by burrowing, he fails to yield himself an out. His home has no back door. Despite its moral being a little odd for a four year old, I loved the pictures and concept of a house built underground. Perhaps it reminded me of the womb, not yet, at the time, such long-ago history.
Even so, in this great room, a tall and wide open cavern behind the corridors and libraries and flow of ceilings that led us from that humble façade, Ed and I drink Scotch and talk about Homer and Shakespeare and Toni Morrison and bemoan the politics of an empire whose leader brags that he doesn’t read. It’s not that “the emperor has no clothes.” It’s worse. The emperor’s illiterate, by choice, since the verb root of “ignorance” is “ignore,” and proud of that fact.
Our discussion returns to architecture. No part of Jacksonville is as proud of Henry John Klutho, the city’s most historically significant architect, as this old neighborhood just north of downtown called Springfield. So when Ed Conner, having decided to retire here, shared design plans for his East 3rd Street home with his adopted community, he wasn’t surprised that some responses were less than enthusiastic.
“A poor imitation of Klutho’s residence,” some Springfielders said. The “Klutho House,” moved around the corner from its original location to West 9th Street in the 1920s, one of the most historically and artistically significant homes in the city, an elegant human-scale architectural self-portrait, remains, in fact, Conner’s favorite house.
“Even more than this house?” I ask him, standing in the library at the center of his home. He doesn’t hesitate to say so.
Some of the people who first objected to this house’s design Ed now counts his dear friends. He’d moved to a house on Liberty Street in 2016. He’d retired from teaching in the School of Honors and Liberal Studies’ Great Books program at the HBCU (Historically Black College / University) Kentucky State. This Klutho tribute would represent the home he’d worked toward over a lifetime.
Ellenelle is also named for his aunt, whom he, and anyone else who knows her name, considers a great writer from his home state of Alabama. At the center of Ed’s home is the library, sacred to her memory, a family literary shrine.
Though I can’t name her, Ed says I can call him “a near relation of a famous writer whose name this eccentric bastard swore [me] not to reveal.” A whole wall of her first editions and biographies stands in low light from a central lampshade.
Meanwhile, to walk through Ellenelle is to engage a narrative, to read an autobiography of Ed Conner.
The front room features a “hodge podge” of leftover Victorian and casual “midcentury modern” chairs and mirrors and tables and lamps. It’s the way a home holds over furnishings from previous family meals and social milieus and generations, inadvertently merging eras.
Then comes the narrowing. To traverse this home narrative is to walk an acoustic story arc. Where the house bottlenecks early on, you realize you’ve been hearing the peaceful but moving sound of water since you first stepped into the foyer. You notice the placidity of water’s vocality has nothing to do with stereotypical stillness, but with motion and a sense of the eternal.
The sound of perpetually trickling water is old as the evolution of our brains, as is our perception of stone and font. It’s from the eternal, the poet Lucretius wrote two millennia ago, “come the particles.”
Now we’re in the library. If this new house seems often old, this room, center of this house, bears about it the ancient. It fits. All the oldest world is mute to us, though we may hold it in a piece of granite two billion years old, still young against the earth’s great age, and though poets and writers speak to us from millennia ago.
Ed had hoped that perhaps in his aunt’s last years, she might come to live here. The bedroom to the side of the library is hers, even if she never inhabited it. To the other side of her bedroom is the font on the stones. She knew about this house. She saw the designs not long before she died.
If the house reads like Ed’s autobiography, the library is the bibliography of his life. The Great Books program includes, amidst hundreds of other texts, W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk of 1903, James Joyce’s 1914 story collection Dubliners, Albert Einstein’s 1916 Special and General Theory of Relativity, Virginia Woolf’s 1927 To the Lighthouse and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart.
Even the two years, 1971 and ’72, when Ed lived at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, are represented here by D.T. Suzuki, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts and the literary Zen that moved through America in those years. He calls that time and that place “transformative in every sense.” Before living at the Zen Center, he’d “lacked the intellectual discipline” for grad school and fallen away from his studies, but Zen in L.A. enabled his Ph.D. in English at Vanderbilt.
Returning from my highball, walking through Zen on one side and the pocket doors of Ed’s office on the other, I note the acoustic difference of coming back into that central library. It’s the quietest room in the house. It’s the longest and most narrow. It feels like the sacred space it is.
On one wall hangs his brother Hank’s painting of their grandfather. Hank, Herschel Henry Conner III, worked to be an actor and artist in his early years, but was “forced by circumstances,” Ed says, “to settle down and provide for his little family.” He ended up teaching Broadcast Journalism at the University of Florida. Hank based this portrait on a photo of their grandfather, Amasa Coleman Lee, taken in 1960, two years before his death. Their grandfather “had to leave school as a child and was self-educated after that, studying law on his own and passing the bar exam in 1915.” He practiced law in Monroeville, Alabama, for the rest of his life.
This house, Ellenelle, Springfield Usonian, does not announce itself to the street. It develops into itself as you walk through it. What’s most precious about this house is private. It’s not what you may have thought it said publicly at all. Indeed the center of this house is Ed’s private life. One of his eccentricities, he says, is that “some matters” regarding him and his relations, he prefers “to tell people when and as I choose.”