Summer Writing Resident Julia Tagliere: Stories in the Walls
Julia Tagliere is the second writer of the summer 2020 cohort to spend her week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
Read more about Julia's experience on site below, including a poem, "Windows," and an essay, "Stories in the Walls." You can read more about Julia and her fellow residents here.
(for Charlotte Pope)
Dream a box of golden light
Bring the outside in
Unborn safe from windows, Charlotte
dreams his outside in
One mad man you might refuse but
Two, you stood no chance
Two men built their box of light
Brought the outside in
Open every window, Charlotte
Let the outside in
That spring day did you seek rest, did
he just seize the chance
Through those open windows did your
inside wander out
Open every window, Charlotte
inside, calling out
He left this box of golden light,
never stood a chance
Open every window, Charlotte
Tear the inside out
Keep every window open, Charlotte
Weep your inside out
That spring day I hope you kissed him
When you had the chance
Shutter every window, Charlotte
Keep the inside out
No more open windows, Charlotte
Shut the inside out
No glad fame to ease your pain but
those two grabbed their chance
Every window sealed now, Charlotte
Turned you inside out
Keep the windows shuttered, Charlotte
calling inside out
You fled this box of golden light
when you had the chance
Every window shows me Charlotte
weeping inside out.
Stories in the Walls
This may or may not be a ghost story. I’ll leave that decision up to you.
When I arrived at the Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey estate to begin my week as Writer in Residence, I already had a working concept of what I wanted to write. I’d toured Monticello and Mount Vernon in years past, and, like many white people, have been a past contributor to the Gone-with-the-Wind-ification of our nation’s deeply brutal history. I’ve spent time since then, listening and learning and conscience-wrangling about my part in perpetuating such a deeply harmful mythology, and as my week approached, I realized how conflicted I’d become at the thought of benefiting from time at yet another plantation. I decided I wanted to explore that conflict further through my writing this week; it’s often how I try to process the world around me and my place within it.
Monday, August 3, 2020, 11:17 A.M.*
After giving me a tour of the mansion, I follow Sylvia to the Pope-Leighey house. Given the home’s size, just 1,200 square feet, it is a much shorter tour, which is fine with me, because I’m getting antsy to work. In what she tells me was once “the children’s room,” Sylvia points to a set of Froebel
blocks on the small table beside the bed (apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother gave him a set, which he credited for his becoming an architect, hence their presence here in the home he’d designed, in the room where children once played). I listen politely to Sylvia’s explanation, but as I turn to follow her from the room, a playful chill tickles my neck. I blame it on the coming storm, but all the same, once Sylvia leaves me for the day, I don’t return to the children’s room.
One of the saving graces about the Woodlawn estate (or at least, one that makes its preservation and continued status as a tourist attraction/historic site somewhat less complicated) is the fact that when the family sold the estate in its entirety in 1846, “…[it] was sold to Quaker timber merchants, who purposefully operated the farm plantation with free labor, making a statement in Virginia on the eve of the Civil War…” and, years later, “Senator Oscar Underwood from Alabama, an uncompromising advocate for civil rights [who actually led an anti-Ku Klux Klan faction at the National Democratic Convention in 1924], lived at the mansion from 1925 until his death in 1929.” (from the estate’s website). Oh, Alabama.
This later history of the estate cannot erase the evil that once took place here, but because of it, as an educational tool, Woodlawn, unlike some other preserved plantations, delivers a unique and powerful reminder (desperately needed these days) that where we are as a people and as a nation at any given moment, no matter how soaring or how bleak, is subject to unimaginable change over time. What we are now, we may not always be. It is a conscious choice we make, the choice to change, and places like Woodlawn are living monuments to that capacity. That was another angle I wanted to explore, so naturally, I planned to spend most of my time on the estate at Woodlawn, rather than at the Pope-Leighey house. But plans change, too.
Monday, August 3, 2020, 11:23 A.M.
I haul my work bag and small cooler in from the car and look around for a place to stow them, mindful of the advanced age (80 years) of the Pope-Leighey house and its status as a preserved treasure. The only place that
doesn’t look potentially fragile is the open hearth of the red brick fireplace, but for some reason I can’t define in the moment, plunking my bags down there feels wrong, so I set them on the steps by the door and settle down to work.
The murders of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, and Elijah McCain earlier this year by police officers and the growing Black Lives Matter protests only deepened my interest in exploring the challenges that places like Woodlawn present. They are living reminders of painful, nearly irreconcilable contradictions of our history, our national identity, and our individual humanity: How do we hold so much within these spaces without tearing them apart? The oh-so-tenuous co-existence of our capacity for both brutality and beauty; our will to oppress and to liberate; our desire to forget and our obligation to document; the impulse to burn it all down for good and the hope to preserve the good that has survived—Woodlawn contains all of this, too.
Monday, August 3, 2020, 1:22 P.M.
I am sitting in the Pope-Leighey house before the wall of glass doors, working on my Woodlawn essay, when a sparkle of brilliant blue on the red bricks outside catches my eye, so quickly I might have imagined it. I watch and wait, seeing nothing at first, but then, a sly blue tail peeps out from beneath one of the bricks and disappears again. When it reappears, I recognize my cheeky, little neighbor: it is a blue-tailed skink.
He plays hide-and-seek with me for several minutes, darting in and out of the bricks, before he vanishes. His charming presence, like a tiny will-o’-the-wisp, beckons the child in me to follow him deep into the woods. When I turn back to my laptop, a faint impression lingers in the air, of a child’s chubby hands reaching out to try to catch the little blue-tailed imp. Though I know I am alone, I could swear I hear a giggle.
I learned a little about the Pope-Leighey house before I arrived, largely from the National Trust and estate websites: It is an original Frank Lloyd Wright “Usonian” home built in 1941 in East Falls Church, Virginia, for the journalist Loren Pope and his family; just five years later, the Popes sold the house to the Leighey family. When the expansion of I-66 placed the house in danger of demolition, Marjorie Leighey sold it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; it was disassembled and relocated to Woodlawn in 1965.
That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge, and I didn’t pursue more. An original Frank Lloyd Wright home is always worth the seeing, but for me the Pope-Leighey house was never the main draw; as I may have mentioned, I planned on spending most of my week at Woodlawn. When I arrived on Monday, however, the mansion was a swarm of activity around their annual needlework show, not at all the oasis of calm I’d been craving. The Pope-Leighey house, by contrast, was empty, quiet, and, (bonus!) air-conditioned, so I opted to work there, just for the day.
Monday, August 3, 2020, 2:16 P.M.
Hurricane Isaias is on the move as I work. This house, even with its countless windows, grows darker and colder, and I grow chilled. I bring my laptop to the bench outside the front door and settle into the warm, damp air. Several minutes later, however, a faint, tinkling melody rises from somewhere beyond the tree line; repetitive and lively, the music reminds me of a children’s nursery song. When I focus on the tune, it stops; when I ignore it, it begins again, teasing me. Gradually, the music is overpowered by the unmistakable wails of an infant, yet I know I remain alone here: Isaias is coming; it is beginning to rain in earnest; and the estate is closed to the public. I listen for a few more minutes, puzzled, then give up and return to the quiet inside.
The Pope-Leighey House website notes little of the Pope family. The description is truncated enough that, during Sylvia’s tour, I assumed that the majority of the period items in the house—dishes and books; an old, black rotary phone; the set of Froebel blocks and such—were Leighey family artifacts or props acquired by the Trust, not artifacts from the Pope years, which, after all, numbered only five in the end. But as I walked the main room that afternoon, reading book titles and admiring Wright’s ingenious floating book shelves, I found myself wondering where in the house the Pope family was hiding.
Monday, August 3, 2020, 2:38 P.M.
The main room is too cold now, so I decide to try the tiny office for the last hour of my day.
Someone has typed, “The quick brown fox jumped over the log” on the sheet of paper peeking out of the old manual typewriter, and I have just smiled at it when the old, black rotary telephone (which I’d mistakenly thought a prop) shakes the house with a colossal, shrill ring that makes me jump. I step out of the office and gingerly pick up the receiver. There is only silence on the other end. I say “Hello?” twice, but there is no answer; I place the receiver back in its cradle. I call it a day a few minutes early and begin packing up my things.
What woman hasn’t been unsettled by a random call like this (especially when you’re all alone in a strange house in a secluded setting with a hurricane bearing down on you)? But that unsettled feeling followed me all the way home. Clearly, something in the Pope-Leighey house was trying to get my attention, something quiet, but very, very persistent. I decided to do a little more research on the Pope-Leighey house that night.
Loren and Charlotte Pope moved into their beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home at its original site in Falls Church, Virginia, in March of 1941. Charlotte was seven months pregnant with the couple’s second child; their firstborn son, Ned, was three years old.
Two months later, on May 17, 1941, Ned wandered away from the home to a small pond nearby, where he drowned.
In 1946, the Pope family sold the home to the Leigheys, and the rest, as they say, is “history.”
When I read that first night of the Pope family’s terrible tragedy, the puzzling omission of this part of the house’s history from the plentiful signage in and around the rest of the estate made a sudden, awful sense. The unspeakable horror of such a loss is so at odds with the home’s serene, peaceful, harmony. But as my days on the estate—all in the Pope-Leighey house—draw to a close, I’ve come to understand that the Pope family’s long-ago sorrow seeped into the very bricks and walls of this tawny sanctum, adding an unmistakable patina to the home’s perennial golden-hour hue.
It is in a jumble of blocks in a child’s bedroom, forever stilled.
It is in the sparkling of a blue-tailed skink or a playful duck,** coaxing an effervescent toddler away.
It is in nursery rhymes and the cries of a baby drifting through the trees.
It is in an ancient phone, once answered by a younger brother the elder never met.**
It is in the walls of glass the Pope family left open 24 hours a day.**
It is in the brick hob of the fireplace, where a father sat and wept. **
I’m sure some of you reading this already knew the story of the Pope family and their terrible loss, but before I arrived, I did not; I believe the house wanted me to know. You see, I’ve never been one to believe that our stories just end, that they follow us into the mist and vanish. Places breathe in our stories, draw them deep into their yearning hearths and walls and window panes. They hold tight to them, waiting for someone new to listen.
Now that the Pope-Leighey House has finished with me, I’ll return to the essay I planned to write that first day, because that, too, is calling me. But this tale, that of the Pope-Leighey house, will continue to haunt me, too, and of that, I am glad, because when I find places like this working so diligently to get my attention so they can share their stories, I can honestly say I’m never truly surprised; I’m grateful they’ve invited me to listen.
* All times listed are exact, taken from photographic evidence on my cell phone.
** Details provided in All's Wright that Ends Well: The Pope-Leighey House of Northern Virginia, by Agatha Sloboda (2018) and A House Where Dreams Dwell, by Paul Hendrickson (1997).
Julia Tagliere’s work has appeared in The Writer, Potomac Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, SmokeLong Quarterly, WritersResist, various anthologies, and the juried photography and prose collection Love + Lust. Winner of the 2015 William Faulkner Literary Competition for Best Short Story and the 2017 Writer's Center Undiscovered Voices Fellowship, Julia resides in Maryland with her family, where she completed her M.A. in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She serves as an editor with The Baltimore Review and is currently working on her next novel.