Friday was a tough day for my family (see the blog post immediately prior to this one). More on that later. Dad was supposed to go home with his sister, Aunt Shorty, to Greycliff for an extended vacation/clear-the-head session. Unfortunately, Aunt Shorty and her family couldn’t get out of their driveway. Too much ice.
Many of my friends know my Aunt Shorty (Arline Peeler-Fink). She’s a die-hard fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks (took me to my first game), went to WebHogs tailgates and football games with me for years, and is just generally a great friend, in addition to being a relative.
In 1958, Aunt Shorty and her husband, Cal Peeler, were on Dyess AFB in Abilene, Texas. Knowing they were about to retire, they cast about to decide where to go and what to do. A friend of theirs in the Army Corps of Engineers told them, “Hey, y’all ought to go to Northwest Arkansas, we’re about to put in a big lake up there.” They went up the treacherous, rural highways and looked the place over; there were tiny towns nearby like Rogers, Bentonville (there was a dime store there called “Walton’s 5 & 10”), and Springdale. The closest town of any size was the college town, Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas.
They bought their land and started walking it. On it, overlooking the (future Beaver) Lake, they found a large cliff of grey rock. They had an architect draw house plans for this site; they had in mind a Frank Lloyd Wright, mid-century modern style home for the spectacular setting. I remember them at our dining room table in Dallas when I was six; they were proudly showing Mom and Dad the plans for their spectacular new home.
They retired from the USAF and moved to a rental in Fayetteville. Cal returned to college, got his advanced degrees, and became a professor at the University (they say his math classes were pretty tough). Meanwhile, Shorty got a job as a secretary at the VA Hospital, working for the Chief of Surgery, Bill Fink. [The Peelers and the Finks became fast friends, and remained so (first Kay Fink, then Cal Peeler, died, and Arline and Bill wound up together for almost 20 years). ]
There was a “shotgun shack” on the property; it had been a farmhouse a hundred years before, but was mostly a hunting camp. They fixed the shack up and lived in it on the weekends while they cleared timber, put in roads, and mostly picked up rocks. Rocks, you know, are part of the EARTH.
They picked up rocks in the boiling heat of summer. They picked up rocks in the freezing cold of winter. They picked up rocks in the rain. They picked up rocks with flashlights. They picked up rocks, then they picked up more rocks, then (just for fun, when they had nothing else to do) they picked up rocks. They had rock pick up parties. They drafted young nephews to help pick up rocks. There were lots of rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks.
They used the rocks to build the house. Every exterior wall, several interior walls, the balcony half-wall, the massive fireplace---all rocks, picked up by hand by them, their friends, and family. Individuals had individual rocks identified (“I picked up that one!”).
The house was a triumph of the Wright philosophy. Flat roofed, it looked as though it were an extension of the hillside, part of the cliff. You drove up the steep rock driveway and suddenly encountered…a carport?? Walking along the rock (ahem) walkway by the carport, you came into a lovely open-air lanai. Unexpectedly, the lanai was paved with Florentine marble! They had a connection for marble, and used bits and pieces of marble left over from other jobs to form a beautiful floor that looked like nothing so much as a Mondrian painting.
That floor flowed through the beautifully carved front door into the entry hall and dining room. The dining room (featuring a beautiful teak table, tall white upholstered chairs, matching teak breakfront full of beautiful American Brilliant Cut glass, sterling silver, and other nice things. One wall was glass, overlooking the courtyard. The other was a half-wall (with a solid middle, the back of the massive fireplace) made of rocks. A stroll over to the rock half-wall revealed a two story living room, hanging off the cliff, with twin staircases (rock) leading down from the dining room into the living room; the outer wall was a wall of windows overlooking the lake.
To the left along the balcony was the kitchen, den, an extra bedroom, and a deck. To the right was a master bedroom, huge bathroom with marble five foot by four foot roman soaking tub, shower stall, and his-and-hers walk-in closets—and another large deck.
The story: a friend of theirs in St. Louis, named John, got this old sconce off the wall of a hotel that was being demolished. He thought of it for this spot, and brought it to them. They thought, “Mmmm, kay”, but liked it and hung it anyway—what else to put there and why the hell not? Later, another friend came to visit and oooohed and aaahhhhed and generally fawned over the piece. “What is it? It’s fabulous! What a work of art!” “Why,” Cal responded with characteristically totally straight face, “Don’t you know? That’s an original GIOVANNI!” (Cal was totally serious; everybody else was trying desperately not to howl). The friend bought it hook, line, and sinker, and the original GIOVANNI! had a permanent home. Note rocks behind it. (For those who don’t know, Giovanni is “John” in Italian…).
There were things wrong, of course. The builder got the kitchen wall 2 feet short---in other words, the kitchen was two feet smaller than was planned. It was always a tight fit. The fountain that was planned for the lanai never materialized until just a few years ago. The two decks proved impractical, and were enclosed as extra rooms.
Mainly, though, there was the issue of the roof.
Flat roofs are usually “built up” roofs; that is, they are made of layer after layer of tarpaper, literally “built up” to form a (hopefully) impenetrable barrier (theirs never was, it leaked constantly). Theirs was covered with…rocks. Lots and lots of gray rocks, picked up by hand. Rocks, rocks, rocks. Rocks which helped give the illusion that the house grew out of the cliff. Pure Wright.
Rocks are heavy. If you’re going to put rocks on the roof, you’d better make sure it’s braced properly. Their architect and builder assured them it was. It wasn’t.
One day, Aunt Shorty arrived on the jobsite to discover that her beautiful living room with the expansive view---had a pole in the middle of it. The pole held up the sagging roof. She screamed. She cried. She “spoke sternly”. She threatened. She pleaded. They apologized, then encased the pole in the same rocks. She named it her “Maypole”, and it bugged the hell out of her every time she saw it.
They moved in in 1967.
Everybody they knew came to visit. The joke was, if you wanted to go see the Peelers, you needed to make a reservation at the Hotel Peeler. They boated. They fished. They ate the fish they caught, expertly grilled, fried, or otherwise prepared. They hauled stuff around in their great old truck, a yellow Dodge named “The Yellow Peril.” They had everybody they knew as houseguests.
Shorty loved every minute of it. She was in her element as hostess; it’s her natural role in life. Anybody who’s ever attended one of her parties, or been a guest in her home, knows this to be true.
Ultimately, the roof leaked and sagged enough over the years that they had a “normal” roof of trusses, plywood sheeting, regular shingles, etc, built right on top of the old built-up roof. It no longer leaked. The boring beetles got to the beautiful cedar siding, and the house was re-sided with regular siding. No longer “Wright”, but still a beautiful home.
Cal died. Arline married “Pop”. They split time between Greycliff and Pop’s house in Fayetteville. When Pop passed away last year, Aunt Shorty moved back to Greycliff to live out her life overlooking the lake she loves.
Pop in the den at Greycliff; note rocks…
This morning (coldest on record), Aunt Shorty (now 91) was pleased to welcome her son Jack for coffee. I imagine they were discussing the weather and the fact that Jack had had to put a space heater under the pipes under Shorty’s bedroom, trying to keep them from freezing, and how they would be glad to welcome my Dad.
Dad was supposed to go home from Mom’s funeral with them yesterday, but there was too much ice on their road and they reluctantly decided they couldn’t make it. Accordingly, Dad came home with us last night on the Gulfstream and came home with me to Houston today. We all figured, the ice will be melted by Tuesday and I can pop him on a plane to Tulsa Tuesday morning; he’ll be at Greycliff before lunch.
So Shorty and Jack were sitting there at the breakfast table. The door to the dining room was closed (kept drafts to a minimum). Punkin, the miniature Pinscher, began to act strangely. She jumped up and down, barked, ran to the dining room door, barked some more, ran around, barked, and generally panicked. Shorty tried to calm her down but she refused to be calm. Jack got up and went to the dining room door, opened it, and said, “Mother, the house is full of smoke. Get the dog and let’s go.”
Greycliff burned to the ground today, January 9, 2010.
Here’s a link to the newspaper photo.
The space heater must have blown over in the WIND, contacted some insulation, which caught FIRE. The fire spread to the attic, the attic which had been dry for many years, the attic whose floor was a built-up roof of layer after layer of old tarpaper. Once the fire touch that tarpaper, it was only a matter of events taking their course.
Three fire departments responded; unfortunately, one of the fire trucks slipped on the still-slick, steep road and injured a firefighter; our family is praying for his speedy recovery. There just wasn’t much for them to do.
Aunt Shorty is the owner of acres and acres fronting Beaver Lake, a Lexus, a Prius, a sweat suit, a pair of tennis shoes, a miniature pinscher, a smoking, charred pile of rocks on top of cracked, ruined Florentine marble, an excellent insurance policy---and her life, for which we are all intensely grateful.
Punkin, already “somewhat” pampered, will (as far as I’m concerned) dine on steak the rest of her doggy life. Any puddles, poopies, hair, barking, or any other doggy foibles are hereby and permanently forgiven and forgotten.
I called Aunt Shorty today and told her that my house was hers as long as she wanted. Her response: “Oh, honey, I’ve got a ton of houses. All of my children and grandchildren want me to come live with them. All of the Fink kids and grandkids want me to come live with them. I guess now I’ll have to add your house to the list, but I just need a quick place to stay while I rebuild Greycliff!” I told her that was a good thing; now she’ll have somebody to boss around.
We’re just glad to still have our Shorty. I guess this means I’ve got to go to Rogers…and pick up some rocks.
Dad, at Greycliff, with the heroine of the day
P. S.---Why do I not have a picture of Shorty at Greycliff?
Greycliff was exceedingly difficult to photograph. As I said, a triumph of Wright architecture, it was difficult to get a photo of anything except the carport. The rest of the house hung off the cliff, or jutted out of it. The best shot was from the lake, but I never got any of those. The rest burned in the fire, along with all of our family photos (other than the ones I now have), part of Gramp’s fabulous cut glass collection, Arline and Cal’s extensive Hummel collection, the Haviland china, the flag that was on Cal’s coffin, dogtags, “wings”, 10,000 books, a huge collection of wonderful vinyl records, all those wonderful recipes and cookbooks….
Now, getting a picture of the Short One in her Natural Habitat---or out of it---is multiple levels of difficulty harder. She does NOT like to have her photo made. I’ll keep looking, but I promise nothing.
As Shorty’s daughter in law told her today: “New year, new house, new woman!”
GO, SHORTY, GO! I hope you live to be 130.