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.