Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why 'Murder Mansion' obsession is so persistent

Seabrook's former List Mansion property was back in the news last week, with stories about a disgruntled tenant who was allegedly unaware of the property's shocking past prior to renting a tract subdivided from it, stories that made their way all the way to publications in New York the United Kingdom (correction per reader observation).
The Houston Chronicle ran this teaser photo, but it showed photos of the present-day mansion, which is not the mansion with which local people are still firmly if not increasingly obsessed.

Photo screengrabbed from this Houston Chronicle article.  
That would be this mansion, the original as built by murdered owner Bill List.  To make a long story short, List was a wealthy business owner who was shot to death by a few of the young men he had recruited to stay with him and whom he had allegedly molested sexually.

Photo screengrabbed from this Travelers Today article.  
Here's what I find most remarkable about this bit of local history:  Thirty years after the murder that defined it, the interest in the long-demolished mansion is growing rather than fading.  About 10 years ago as I was sitting around with friends doing the typical beer-and-banter thing on a Friday evening, the subject of "the haunted house on Todville Road" came up, and we searched the internet for information regarding it.  At that time, there were a few references to the fact that it had existed, but nothing in the way of substantive content.  We had only our own memories to go on as we compared notes.  Each of us had independently been inside the thing because, back in the mid-1980's, it was a rite of passage that any consummate Clear Laker had to find a trespassive route into the massive abandoned structure for their own personal look-see.
I took this Flickr photo and attempted to photo process it to make it look more like I personally remember the mansion.  There's not enough dynamic range remaining in the faded photo for me to do it justice, but I remember the brick having stronger orange tones and contrast than the Flickr photos and most of the other historical photos show.  
By 2014, however, you can find all kinds of information regarding the place - it's remarkable how that information base has grown.  There's even a closed Facebook group called "Todville Murder Mansion" with almost 2,100 members!  And other online references to the place abound.
There's even this YouTube video which is a snippet from an obscure indie film shot (pun intended) within the mansion.  The movie does have an IMDB listing.

Image screengrabbed from the YouTube snippet.
So what does it all mean??  I'm not entirely sure, but I have a few ideas.  On its face, a wealthy eccentric builds a one-of-a-kind residential structure and gets murdered there.  This in itself is not radical by American standards - that kind of thing has happened before.  But what was radical was the structure itself.  The fact that it has been emphatically denounced as "a grotesque monument" and "a supremely depressing, tacky, hideous place" belies a deeper truth.
Tell me that there are not now a bunch of inner-loop residential lofts selling for $400,000 that bear a certain curious resemblance to this facade.

Screengrabbed from this site
That's right.  Bill List, as reviled as he is, was quite possibly the first person to ever attempt that residential design aesthetic which we now refer to using the phrase "industrial chic" or a similar term.  He certainly did not hit that ball out of the park, but if you delete the obvious dated and incongruent elements in his construction, there's a certain resonant familiarity to the residuum that people are just not ready to admit, but which preoccupies them subconsciously nonetheless.   When I stood in the middle of that mansion in 1986 or 1987, that was my dominant realization:  This place is way, way, WAY ahead of its time.  My fateful day of trespass, almost 30 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday, had an enormous and lasting impact on my own residential design aesthetic.
If you doubt me on that point, here is your head-slapping "HOLY SH****TTT!!!" moment of truth.
Stacked stone landscaping photo from this post.  
What's happening when people describe the List Mansion as "grotesque" is that they are combining their visceral reaction to the murderous events that happened there with their awareness of its obvious design flaws, and they are projecting the resulting emotional amalgamation onto the mansion as a whole.  They are consciously missing its corresponding strengths in the process, but the subconscious misses nothing, and so this tantalizing fragment of cognitive dissonance twigs at them, contributing to the persistence of the thing in their awareness.

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.  Thirty years after he was murdered, Bill List is still way, way, WAY ahead of his time.  But with the internet and social evolution being what they are, that may very well change.  I hope so because, criminal elements notwithstanding, he deserves more visionary credit in death than he ever received in life.

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