THIRTY miles north of Manhattan, hard by the old brickmaking village of Haverstraw, New York, stands a mansard-roofed house that occupies a peculiar place in our collective store of images. The first time I passed the house, it stopped me dead: it was as familiar and disquieting as a recurring dream.
The house was built in 1885, near the crest of a hill that rises steeply from the west bank of the Hudson River. By the turn of the century it had been abandoned; neighborhood children called it haunted. During the First World War the house was used as an open shelter by vagrants, who slept on mounds of hay in the kitchen. In 1919 it was bought by the district attorney of Rockland County, Thomas Gagan. His eldest daughter, Amo, one of six children, occupied a room on the second floor, facing the river, and lived in the house for forty-one years. Recently she told me that in 1925, when she was thirteen, she looked out her bedroom window and saw a man sitting across the road, painting. The man was Edward Hopper; the small canvas on his portable easel became House by the Railroad , a dominant work of twentieth-century American art.
That canvas, acquired in 1930 by the fledgling Museum of Modern Art, was the very first painting in the museum's collection. In the years since, has become an icon in the dreamscape of American isolation. The picture's quality of solitude is due in part to the radical surgery performed upon the model by the artist, who reinvented the architecture of many of his subjects. In this case he amputated the entire right side of the building, leaving the central tower central to nothing, and removed the back rooms, the surrounding buildings, the trees in front of the house, and the hillside behind it. The house stands alone but for the tracks, themselves a sign of abandonment.
In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chose Hopper's version of this house as the template for the dwelling of Norman Bates and his mother in . Charles Addams drew a similarly sinister mansion for his cartoon family. Under a Technicolor Texas sky in George Stevens's Giant (1956) a reconstruction of the house is the focus of a triangle formed by James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. In Terence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) a surreal variant of the house rises from a bleaker Texas plain as home to a dying landowner, played by Sam Shepard. "The house shines with finality," the poet Mark Strand has written of Hopper's painting. "It is like a coffin."
Having passed the house often, I walked for the first time through the front door--obscured in the painting by Hopper's brush--one recent morning. The once-grand residence has been divided into six apartments, and is home to twenty people. In the central hall the only furniture was a discarded refrigerator; the ample arches leading from it had been filled with sheets of plywood, hollow-core doors fitted within them. The parquet floors were covered in linoleum, the high plaster ceilings hidden by acoustic tiles. The marble mantles, Tiffany chandeliers, and etched glass had been removed long ago, but a mahogany banister still beckoned up the stairs. On the second floor I knocked on an apartment door. The tenant, a working mother who lives with her four children, aged seven through thirteen, invited me in.
For some time I stood at Amo Gagan's old window, gazing at its broad view of the Hudson. The train tracks are still there, though the little Haverstraw station has been remodeled as a lawyer's office. Westchester was an abstract stroke of green between silver water and the light of river clouds. I imagined what young Miss Gagan saw when she spotted Hopper from this room seventy years ago; I know where he was sitting.
Behind me the children were watching a raucous confessional talk show. Through the window came the dull roar of traffic on Route 9-W, just steps from the front porch. Not far away shimmered the mirage of home promised by bright, familiar logos. It was as if time had fulfilled Hopper's vision of this house by the railroad, enfolding it in the cluttered landscape that is at once no place and everywhere.
Photograph by Paul Bochner
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1996; Someplace Like Home; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 40-41.