Mandarin: Hood Road House

by Tim Gilmore, 7/20/2018

Rita says the house stares at her “with its empty eyes” every time she drives down Hood Road between Sunbeam and Hartley. She’s sure the house has squatted there on its vast open land between pines and gullies, new but unfinished, for a decade.

“Nothing should have been built here in Mandarin,” she says. “Besides being old plantation land, this is swampland. My house has water running under it. When I pulled up a plank from my kitchen floor, it sprayed me in the face. Nothing in Mandarin is about what’s here now.”

That place, she says of the Hood Road House, is how a house can be haunted when it’s brand new. “Walk down Mandarin Road or Sunbeam when the cicadas are high,” she says. “I dare you not to feel what’s underneath.”

The Hood Road House rambles, a suburban pile with second-floor balconies with balustrades, dormers with architraves, a façade with Corinthian columns and a wide pediment, dentilled cornices surrounding the entire house, and a copper cupola rising above a central double staircase.

The garage is not only attached, but gets its own peaked roof, topped with a spire, with dormer window and dentilling. The house has five porches and eight balconies.

Down Ferrell Lane in the subdivision called “Nature’s Woods,” directly across the street, a gruff man named Demby, wearing pinstriped sweatpants and a silk tank top, says he doesn’t know who owns the big house, but he’s tired of it “glarin’ down on me all the time.”

Demby’s lived in Nature’s Woods for five or six years and says the house has been sitting there unfinished the whole time.

“They was buildin’ on it for a while, and then they wouldn’t be,” he says. “Then they was on it a while, and then,” he makes a phttt sound with his top teeth and his bottom lip and chops the air horizontally with his hand.

“Ah jeez,” he says, when I ask him why he feels the house glares at him. The house thinks it’s better than those in Nature’s Woods. It’s been “joyful,” however, to see the house sit there for long periods of time, “fancy big concrete brackets and flower shapes” sitting untouched in the front yard. “That house ain’t so much better if it can’t get itself done,” he says.

He’s seen company vans come and go in recent months, but can’t recall the name of the company. Carpet something. Something carpet. Carpet Advantage. Something like that.

Stacks of concrete blocks, floral patterns, pieces of columns line the front porch and stand in assortments in the mud behind the house. A company van for Avanta Carpet and Rug Cleaners is parked against the tall back portico, tire tracks recent.

Here too Corinthian columns rise two stories to an ordinary pediment of cheap-looking stucco surrounded by triangular cornice. The same ordinary stucco of the walls behind the columns contrasts with the goals of neoclassical splendor.

If this house was built only to impress, how many old houses in Florence, in Rome, in Boston and Providence and Charleston, were built with the same shallow desires but are now revered for their historic architectural value?

It was 1972 when Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote in Learning from Las Vegas, an architectural musing on that most culturally reviled American city, “When circumstances defy order, order should bend or break: anomalies and uncertainties give validity to architecture,” and  “The Italian landscape has always harmonized the vulgar and the Vitruvian.”

Denise Scott Brown, before the Las Vegas Strip, early 1970s, promo Learning from Las Vegas

What does the Florida landscape harmonize? Shouldn’t there be alligator heads cast in marble? A wing of the house stylistically influenced by the house trailer? How does the above “Italian landscape” quote signify when Steve Daragjati tells me the architectural design of the house is “French Italian American style,” when his last name is Indian, when his first name was one of the ten most popular American first names for boys in the 1950s?

If you throw those elements into some kind of architectural algorithm software, would it not design the vast unfinished Hood Road House? And would a human being, architecture being a most anthropocentric art, need design such an amalgam?

Does running a carpet cleaning company garner one the wealth to build one of the largest houses in Mandarian, in the suburbs southeast of Jacksonville? Does it garner the need to build one of the largest houses in the ribcages of middle-class entrepreneurs? If President Dwight Eisenhower made “In God We Trust” the national motto in the 1950s, should not President Donald Trump make “Fake It ’til You Make It” the national motto in 2018?

Standing on the back porch beneath those towering Corinthian columns, doth a master call his slaves in 1850? Does Huey P. Long stand beneath his plantation pillars calling all Louisianans with “Every Man a King” in 1934? Is Steve Daragjati calling out to homeowners across Nature’s Woods in 2018, declaring himself king and master, and if so, is this not “the American Dream”? Is the voice of this house “the Kingfisher”? Is this voice the demagogue?

Huey P. Long

“I thought maybe some of those homeschooling types were building it,” Rita says. Or maybe like the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers out in Oregon.”

Demby says, “You digging for the truth and I imagine some sad tale of a drug lord who runs his sham biz to launder money and carpets while DIYin’ his suburban mansion.”

I don’t know either story’s not true. I don’t know Hood Road House wasn’t built by Hugh Crain, the madman architect of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, wherein “every angle is slightly wrong. Hugh Crain must have detested other people and their sensible squared-away houses, because he made his house to suit his mind. Angles which you assume are the right angles you are accustomed to, and have every right to expect are true, are actually a fraction off in one direction or another.”

The accumulation of a great number of slightly-off angles, or, as carpenters would say, woodwork not “in true,” results in an architectural madhouse with its own psychology and identity antagonistic to anyone who might stay the night.

I know, of course, how Hill House ends. I know the balconies, with external second-floor doors, bear no balustrades or railings on Hood Road House. He’s soft-spoken, Steve Daragjati, and says, “I was working with a contractor, but he had to retire. He was injured. He was sick. So I’m building the rest of the house myself.”

He hopes to be in the house by Christmas, though his previous contractor tells me Daragjati’s been saying “by Christmas” for years. Which Christmas, though Steve Daragjati invites me to circumnavigate his would-be home, he’s not yet specified.