by Tim Gilmore, 1/23/2015
At the garden table beneath the magnolia, a man’s height above the limestone brick wall by the sidewalk, beside what she says is a “hog’s head plum tree,” Roxanne Henkle sits with a wineglass and talks about the unpublished letters of early 20th century horror/fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.
I’m here with my friends, the writer Hurley Winkler, who’s put us in touch with Roxanne, and the architectural portraitist Kiley Secrest, who immediately figured Roxanne’s place a former carriage house. We’re sitting where the large main house once stood.
Inside Roxanne’s house, a Lovecraft Film Festival poster hangs on the wall by the stairs and Lovecraft books occupy her bookshelves. She flips through director
Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities coffee table book and shows us a picture of the life-size Lovecraft statue in del Toro’s library.
Her house, built around 1911, and the absence of the main house on the grounds before it, could belong to nobody but Roxanne, and the jagged blue letters running sideways up one red wall beside the front door say, “SPAZ.”
For this is “Spazhouse.”
Roxanne hosts a biweekly podcast called Weekend Justice, which has featured such topics as suggested better days for the Rapture, a Cocktail Napkin Museum, and “Chopper-related art.” She’s also a graphic artist and creator of the Lovecraft in New York Project, which seeks to map Lovecraft’s New York walks from the detailed documentation in his letters.
Unfortunately, Roxanne says, Lovecraft left little detail about his brief time in Jacksonville, though a few remarks remain from his stay in nearby St. Augustine.
Roxanne has a charmingly creaky upper New York accent, with which she shares strange Riverside tales and urban legends, like the one about the casts for the Winged Victory statue by Charles Adrian Pillars in nearby Memorial Park being buried behind the nearby 1919 house with the two dormers opening onto a second-story open-air porch. Riverside is full of urban legends and secrets, and every now and then, the two intersect in truth.
When she came to Jacksonville 25 years ago, she moved into Riverside because its old houses and architectural styles and walkability reminded her of her hometown of Binghamton. Since that time, she’s seen Riverside gain greater gravity as one of the principal cultural hubs of Jacksonville. A decade after she started renting the carriage house in the early 1990s, she bought it from her landlady, and says, tantalizingly, without prompting, “I can tell you how much I paid for this house.”
When we lean forward in interest, Roxanne says, “I bought the land, and I got the house for free.” She nods her head of full wild hair and says, “50 grand,” the deal of the new century.
We walk into the front foyer, face the stairs, the front of each covered in stamped metal, an off-Klimt painting to the left, a waist-high Darth Vader standing at the first landing.
She points out that between the foyer and her studio space to the west, the wall comprises three separate walls, for which there’s no real explanation. She points to the multiple layers of lathe, from which she and a friend removed gobs of old plaster, and the change in slab level from her front desk to her back first-floor library. She refers to the slab as the cryosphere, since it stays cool until June.
Roxanne has sheeted the walls with thin metal where her former landlady had veneered them with T1-11 plywood siding. In the first-floor back library, the greenish gray concrete floor bears in red the words “Ex Libris,” and shelves hold globes and horror-film figurines, while one armchair holds a bow and arrows, and a most comfortable and ragged leather armchair blocks the storage door beneath the stairs.
Upstairs, Kiley notices the kitchen was once a back porch, still ceilinged with beadboard, with a person-sized sitting room off the exterior stairs by the kitchen, where Roxanne sits outside and has coffee in the morning. You might as well paint the kitchen ceiling “haint blue” to keep out the spirits.
Roxanne’s not sure what happened to the main house, and though Spazhouse was divided up into rented rooms for decades, she can only imagine what lives were lived in this space before her.
We marvel at her own Venus de Milo, whose head comprises teeth models she salvaged from a prior dentist’s office. That, after all, is the nature of reclaiming from the destruction of Riverside in the second half of the 20th century. When
residents fled the center of the city with the post-World War Two suburban explosion and “white flight,” old central neighborhoods like Riverside became the dumping grounds for halfway houses and medical clinics. So salvaging the
decline of the slumlord-medicalization of Riverside means constructing a Venus de Milo whose head is mostly a dentist’s model of the mouth. Hurley and Kiley ogle Venus from each side and we laugh uncomfortably and marvel and contextualize her.
As we stand upstairs at the landing, the kitchen behind us, Roxanne’s bedroom and a book-and-art-filled sitting room before us, our conversation turns to Virginia King, the strange little woman who lived in almost 20 buildings across Riverside and spent decades photographing and chronicling, often erroneously, Jacksonville’s growth and the old neighborhoods’ regressions in several versions of her odd book Interesting Facts about Leading People and Families of Duval County: Also, Where Progress Has Changed a Lot of Homes and Buildings.
As an infant Virginia lived right here, but whether she toddled through the main house long disappeared or across some room in what’s now Spazhouse, at this point, seems impossible to determine.
Roxanne seems to have heard most strange stories of old families and eccentric characters, but not Virginia’s. She does remember one Riverside character, “the Hair Man,” about whom I’ve now heard three versions. Wayne Wood, founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation in 1974, remembers him walking Riverside streets, his long hair hanging down past his waist into a sack or a bag that he carried with him everywhere. Wayne recalls him from the 1970s.
Roxanne remembers him from the early 1990s. She says he wore a trenchcoat. She says he wore baggy khaki pants down which extended his full-body-length hair into “some kind of mass” down by his feet.
Discussions of urban legends and strange Riverside characters bring us back to Roxanne’s podcasts, pseudo-Sherlockian deductions about urban villains, and the symbolic accidental subterfuge of Spazhouse not being visible from Google satellite images.
You can’t see Spazhouse from above. You probably won’t see it from the street. You might see its bright red paint diagonally across another Oak Street property. Roxanne speaks of the Hiddenness of the Home of the Pragmatic Villain, the last three words I suggest might be the title of a darkhorse newspaper editorial column, or that of her portrait, which she claims she’s always wanted, “in the John Singer Sargent tradition.”