Several years ago, I called a real estate agent in my hometown, Newburyport, Mass., with (as one tends to bring to agents) a fantasy. I wanted to buy the Pink House.
I had first glimpsed this house as a child, from the back seat of the family station wagon en route to the beach. The foursquare single-family home sat alone on the road out to Plum Island, overlooking a vast flat landscape of pristine salt marsh. The sight unnerved me and became a mainstay of my nightmares: A lonely, unloved thing looming against a howling sky, its cupola a leering, all-seeing eye.
Over time, my unease had mellowed to familiarity, then affection, which deepened upon hearing its rumored back story: In 1925, a wife agreed to divorce her husband on the condition he build her an exact duplicate of the home they shared in town.
Because she didn’t specify where the house should go, he built it where it would cause her the most unhappiness: by itself, far from everything, no fresh running water (only salt). There’s a term for this: “spite house.”
It was listed for $950,000, about the price of a one-bedroom in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I had been living for nearly a decade. I had worn out the (limited) charms of renting a cramped apartment, but couldn’t afford anything bigger.
The more claustrophobic I felt, the more I fantasized about the Pink House. Looking at images online (an arresting vision in any season, it’s a popular subject for local artists and photographers), I’d daydream about how liberating it would be to live alone in high “Grey Gardens” style and own such an extraordinary view.
Ardor for such houses isn’t uncommon. Take 11 Spring Street in downtown Manhattan. Before it was sold in 2006 and converted to condominiums, the abandoned brick building covered in graffiti was a beloved reminder of a city that no longer is (and even made it into a Lou Reed poem).
Or picture the overgrown, derelict Granville mansion at the fictional 320 Sycamore in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “Oh no, George, don’t,” Mary Hatch pleads when George Bailey threatens to throw a rock at a window. “It’s full of romance, that old place. I’d like to live in it.” Lucky for her, she did.
The house party of ghost-hunters in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” got their wish as well, albeit at the cost of death by paranormal activity.
But the Pink House wasn’t haunted, like Jackson’s, so much as haunting. While a dream house tells us what we want, and a haunted house tells us what we fear, a haunting house sits somewhere in between: seductive rather than spooky, suggesting an alternate reality that is more adventurous or transgressive or fulfilling than the one actually being lived.
In my early 30s I was so exhilarated to have a place of my own that I happily scrimped and scraped to maintain my tiny foothold. Unsurprisingly, as the years wore on, my desires shifted. I longed for a guest bedroom, a washer/dryer … and to quit my job at the glossy magazine that seemed my only shot at affording such urban luxuries.
The Pink House beckoned, then, not only with a promise of escape, but also a solution to the problem of middle age. It was the perfect marriage of the shabby abandon of youth and the comforting perks of adulthood.
There would be no Farrow & Ball paint in my Pink House, no scavenged-wood floors, no ingenious Ikea-cabinetry kitchen makeovers. Falling asleep at night, I compulsively projected myself inside its weather-beaten walls, up the stairs to the cupola, 360 degrees of sky and marsh and sea. I could get Wi-Fi out there, right?
Alas, I couldn’t scrounge up a down payment. I called the owner, Craig Stott, to see if I could rent it. He explained that his family had moved there in 1960, when he was 2 years old, and rented it off and on after 2001, when his mother moved into an assisted-living center, but at this point it needed too much work to be habitable again.
I was surprised to learn that a place that appeared so forlorn had been inhabited all that time, and that it’s technically considered a Newbury address, not Newburyport. I pinned a Pink House photo to my bulletin board, paid brief homage to it in my first book and let it go.
And then, earlier this year, the inevitable: A Facebook group formed to “Save the Pink House.” At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. Other people love this place as much as I do? Yes, 469 and counting.
Over the phone, the group’s founder, Alison Odle, a Haverhill, Mass.-based visual artist who’s studied arts administration, explained that the house had sold in 2012 to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the government agency that’s maintained 4,700 acres of Plum Island beach, dune, cranberry bog and maritime forest since 1941.
As news of the sale spread, so did concern for the fate of the Pink House, which doesn’t fit the Refuge’s mission to protect migratory birds and therefore risks demolition. “I could tell people would regret it so much if something happened to the Pink House and they’d never been able to try and stop it,” Ms. Odle told me. “I wanted to organize a way for people to get together, talk, pool resources and see what could happen.”
Mobilized, the local artist Eric Hoover created an arresting pink and black logo for the cause, and Andrew Griffith built a Save the Pink House website.
In October, the group arranged a meeting with the refuge manager, Bill Peterson, who agreed to shore up the building for winter, as well as invite preservation specialists to assess the workload.
“Having that old structure is a liability and public safety hazard,” Mr. Peterson told me when I called him. He said that although the building is in rough shape, the structure is fairly sound, but even so it would probably cost more than the purchase price to remove the asbestos, lead paint and radon.
“And the purchase price was…?” I asked. “$375,000,” he said. I shook my fist at fate; 2012 had been an unexpectedly good year for me. I might finally have been able to afford a down payment.
Fortunately, my desires had already shifted again. When I gave up owning the Pink House myself, I had moved on to its opposite: communal arrangements. There was the entire 62-acre ghost town in East Haddam, Conn., that went up for auction in 2014, with a starting bid of $800,000.
Surely my friends and I could collaborate on a 21st-century Brook Farm, taking a page from founding member Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 fictionalization of it, “The Blithedale Romance.” When my friend Caleb asked the hard questions (“What about income tax? If we own the whole town, can’t we just declare independence or whatever?” and “Maybe we could be a diploma mill? It looks sort of campus-y”), I elected him mayor.
Indeed, I’ve come to prefer the idea of the Pink House as a shared property — maybe an arts center or writing retreat. This requires it be taken over by a different agency, presumably a long shot.
But then I called Jim Igoe, president of Preservation Massachusetts, a nonprofit organization devoted to saving historic buildings and landscapes. When I asked if there was any chance of preserving a place that lacks historical relevance, but captures the collective heart of a community, he said absolutely, that he and his colleagues field hundreds of such requests with “a high degree of emotion,” that indeed their advocacy requires they “do a lot of therapy,” and told me several stories with happy endings.
So I haven’t lost all hope. As it happens, that Connecticut ghost town, the Village of Johnsonville, is back on the market, asking price $2.4 million. Let me know if you’re game. I’m available as town crier.
Read More On This At “Paranormal, Ghosts, Hauntings” – Google News