Where William D. White Lived

The casual observer might not notice the extra mailbox wired to the chain link fence. It’s painted white with a neatly hand-lettered red “228” and aligns with the other mailboxes along Weldin Lane. However, no two bedroom, brick-and-frame ranch home with manicured lawn stands behind this mailbox; only a slightly worn footpath.

The curious observer might follow the path alongside the honeysuckle-covered fence that marks the backyards of two homes facing Marsh Road. To the right, through gaps in the foliage, appears a weathered gray stucco wall with an inset red block, creating a focal point of sorts. On the back side, the wall frames a tiny courtyard paved in crumbling cement and marked by a pointed stone set upright like an obelisk. Eight round stones contain a shallow pool in the corner, and a large flat stone serves as a landing for the two steps leading to the front door of a small, reddish-yellow, adobe cube of a house.

Once the surprise has passed from discovering such a primitive dwelling tucked within suburbia, the careful observer may admire several unique design features. Five beams break the line of a gently sloping flat roof with a notched cut-out revealing a second red block. A smaller roof supported by four-inch square posts shelters a ponderous solid wood paneled door. To the left at ground level, a small alcove chiseled into the wall displays rounded river rocks.

The bold observer now walks up to the door and knocks. There’s a sound of shuffling feet and the turning of a tarnished brass knob. Then the occupant opens the door to greet his guest.

“Why, hello there,” says a Giuseppe-like figure with a broad smile, “Won’t you come in?” He tilts his head, bows slightly, and sweeps a welcoming gesture with his arm. The guest returns the smile and takes her place across the room on a Navajo blanket covering a low, lumpy mattress that doubles as a bed and couch.

The man sits in a straight-backed metal chair with vinyl-covered seat cushion, his back to a large, 12-paned window that doesn’t seem to open. To his right near the door stands a sturdy easel that holds a painting of a small figure in an apocalyptic landscape lit by a round yellow sun. The scents of oil paint and mineral spirits mingle with burning wood and stale cigarettes.

The artist wears a short-sleeved, button-down shirt; dingy, but not dirty. The shirttails almost reach over his round belly to brown trousers that collect in folds above worn leather slip-on shoes. He lights a Pall Mall and pulls air through the unfiltered cigarette, then absently flicks ash into the air, stirring a myriad of back-lit dust particles as it drifts to the bare wooden floor.

What strikes the visitor most are the artist’s bright, faded-blue eyes, framed by a clean-shaven, jowly face with a round fleshy nose. His white hair extends like a worn bristle brush around the back of his head and over his ears. Thick tufts grow from his ears, nostrils and above his eyes.

His conversation flows easily, punctuated with hearty laughs and an occasional rasping cough. Each person speaks when moved to do so, without urgency to fill space with chatter. After a while, the artist announces he’s going to the dungeon to make some witches brew and climbs down a set of stone stairs a few feet from his chair.

Curious, the visitor peeks over the wooden railing into an earthen cellar lit only by embers from an open fireplace. The artist pours water from a plastic bottle, as there is no faucet, into a charred tin cup reminiscent of lava-encrusted artifacts discovered at Pompeii. He adds several shakes from a jar of Maxwell House instant coffee, an equal amount of Domino pure cane sugar, stirs the brew, and sets the cup onto the fire.

The artist’s entire living quarters encompass a 20-foot square by roughly 12-foot high area, minus the 8 by 8-foot cut out to the dungeon, to the right of the front door. Walled off in the back right corner is the bathroom, a remnant from days when the house enjoyed indoor plumbing.

The visitor returns to her place, lifts the lid of a handmade wooden pencil box on the table before her and begins doodling on a sheet of copy paper. The artist emerges from the dungeon with his steaming cup of witches brew, sets it on his palette, and lights another Pall Mall.

Whites house.jpg

The visitor, Nancy Carol Willis, spent many enjoyable afternoons with her artist friend and mentor, William Davidson White, from 1964 until his death in 1971. She painted this watercolor of his house in 1972. White encouraged her love of art and nature. White’s home served as a hang-out for neighborhood children, many of whose parents helped the artist with meals or fuel oil. He admired architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as evidenced in some of White’s own house design decisions. He also admired Henry David Thoreau, preferring to live his own life of voluntary poverty without modern conveniences. He enjoyed writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea and Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

William D. White died on December 3, 1971 at age 75, from congestive heart failure. At the time of his death, his roof leaked and his bed, drawings, illustration clips, and photographs were wet, and stained. Penniless and without heirs, a neighbor arranged for the World War I veteran to be buried in the Gettysburg National Military Cemetery. William D. White’s date of birth on his grave marker was corrected in 2105 through the efforts of Harvey C. Smith, then the Director of Spicer-Mullikin Funeral Home.

3 Comments

  1. Patty Richeson Reich July 20, 2015 at 2:36 am #

    Nancy, I just found this site and information about Mr. White this afternoon, Sunday, July 19, I take it the exhibit is over? Is there anything of his available to see anywhere. Like many children Growing up in Penny Hill I used to visit him. I would love to see his art work. Patty (302-537-9183

  2. Nancy Carol March 6, 2015 at 2:59 pm #

    Albert, Thanks for your memories of Mr. White. I hope you can attend the exhibition between now and June 21. White was a truly gifted artist.

  3. Larry Lauser December 28, 2014 at 5:42 am #

    I had occasion to visit Mr White at least 2-times during my residence at my stepfathers parents apartment house at 212 Weldin Lane from 1957-63. It had taken me some years to muster the courage to just stop by and say hi. I found him cordial to me and at least one of my friends who accompanied me on the visit.
    He had been described as a hermit artist who lived in the remains of a mansion estate that had burned virtually to the ground some years before. I vaguely remember a staircase leading down to a basement-like dwelling with a furnace/heater that was lit by windows high in the space. He was kind and not threatening like the stories circulating around the neighborhood. The path back to his abode was narrow and thick with brush on either side. It afforded him the privacy he seemed to cherish. I also vaguely remember some artwork that was in progress in his studio home.

    Regards,

    Larry Lauser
    (925) 876-4053

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