Delusion and Disintegration in Edgar John Pettegree’s Flat River

Among the fifty-three paintings bequeathed the world by artist and architect Edgar John Pettegree, one stands anomalous: Flat River, dated just weeks before his death in 1917. While nearly his whole oeuvre is infused with an architect’s eye for detail, Flat River appears to break with his previous work, eschewing realism for a hallucinatory, proto-Surrealist view of another world, often claimed to present a Blakeian vision of the voyage of the soul through the afterlife, painted in eerie premonition of his own death. However, as I will show, Pettegree himself regarded it as no mere visual metaphor, but a depiction of an actual repository of human souls, accessible via the occult powers of a former employer, silver baron Henry Magorian. That this indicated a precipitous collapse of Pettegree’s sanity cannot be doubted; but it is also true that far from sinking into a lax or vague imaginative effort, he applied the same rigor of craftsmanship to his final painting as in all his prior works.

In fact, Flat River is so anomalous among Pettegree’s work that for nearly a century now, prominent experts have denied he painted it at all. “Edgar Pettegree was no more capable of creating this bizarre image than Da Vinci was of painting Guernica,” declares Richard McMillan. “[Flat River] is out of place not merely with Pettegree’s work, but with the whole artistic milieu of the 1910s,” writes Marie Screve, continuing, “Almost certainly, it is a either a minor and not particularly clever hoax perpetrated by a Surrealist admirer a decade or two later, or perhaps a reused canvas from whose reverse side Pettegree neglected to remove his signature.”

Now, however, extensive chemical and spectrographic analysis at the University of Colorado has conclusively determined that Flat River was indeed painted by Pettegree on the date indicated beneath his signature (August 8, 1915). If this scientific evidence is still not enough to persuade die-hard skeptics and art-history conspiracy theorists, Pettegree’s own journals of his final years have finally come to light, discovered in the attic of the recently deceased Emily Boose, a longtime Everston resident whose house Pettegree designed, and with whose grandmother, Jayne, Pettegree almost certainly had a long affair. These journals definitively put these claims to rest, and render an indelible picture of a man teetering on the edge of insanity.

Central to Pettegree’s delusions was the Everston mining baron Henry Magorian, then in his thirties, and in newfound control of a fortune inherited from his father, Ian. Pettegree had known the Magorians for decades, having designed and built Magorian Manor high on Mount Everston, completing the extremely costly mansion in 1895, after eight years of construction. Pettegree is best known, of course, for his Victorian Gothic houses, among them the McClure Mansion in Denver’s Capitol Hill and his own idiosyncratic home in Everston, the House of the Eye. But among his Gothic homes, Magorian Manor was both the last and most ambitious, with five floors, fourteen bedrooms, multiple parlors, and a remarkable great hall at its center replete with ornamentation and a custom chandelier by Perry & Co. Unfortunately, nearly no photographs of the mansion appear to have survived, the Magorians as a clan being determined recluses, and the mansion’s location too remote for casual sightseeing. Nor shall any new photos ever be taken, since the house burned to the ground on Sept. 15, 2013. Today nearly all that remains are charred timbers and Pettegree’s own drawings of its main facade.

Having completed construction of the manor, Pettegree seemed to have tired of Everston, for a variety of reasons – “too cold, too high, and too goddamned ignorant” he wrote once – and in the summer of 1906 returned to his ancestral haunts in Connecticut, living there with his wife, Evelen. They were never very happy, however, and in 1912 he took a commission to design and build a new bank in Everston, the Hart Bank on Main Street. (This was also nearly the last such grand building to be erected in the mining town, the end of World War I seeing a steep fall in the price of lead, which had sustained Everston since the silver had run out.) During that project he met the young and beautiful Jayne Boose; while Pettegree’s diary is reticent about her, Boose’s calls him “the most intelligent, clear-eyed and handsome man I have ever met,” waxing poetic about their “wildflower passion.”

While there he also reconnected with Henry Magorian, who with the disappearance of his father in 1910, had taken over the Magorian mines. Pettegree recorded the meeting in his journal, dated June 2:

Saw Magorian today. Shocked at the changes in him. He was always fat, but now he is grown entirely obese – the largest man I have ever seen. Met him in his study – shown in by his man Niven – and found him nested there like an enormous spider. He has lost what was left of his hair, his scalp glabrous and mottled, eyes like two black fish eggs glinting wetly from the doughy folds of his face. Was further astonished at the quantities of gold that surrounded him – gold pens on his desk, gold statuettes, lamps, picture frames. Small nations have less wealth, and are less apt to flaunt it.

What became of this hoard is cause for speculation, but mostly likely it was sold piece by piece by Henry’s son, Priam (at this time in boarding school in New Hampshire), over the decades that followed.

In any case, at that meeting, or perhaps a subsequent one, Magorian proposed employing Pettegree again, not as an architect, but as a painter, to furnish the mansion with a series of fine paintings. Pettegree must have found it irresistibly tempting; while he possessed national renown as an architect, his paintings had been, if not quite ridiculed, dismissed out of hand. “Pettegree no doubt has a great understanding of construction techniques,” wrote Edith Burr Wilkins in the Chicago Tribune, “but one can only wish he would stop setting about the canvas as though he were laying out a basement. His paintings are not so much stiff as cast out of concrete.”

Occupied by the Hart Bank project, however, Pettegree did not begin the paintings until summer 1914. In the meantime, he appears to have visited Magorian Manor only infrequently:

I am proud of what I wrought up there on the mountain; but somehow being there distresses me. I keep dreaming of young children being dropped into the maw of an abyss – like mice into a snake’s mouth. I wake in a trembling sweat. No idea what it signifies, except perhaps regret that I never had offspring myself.

The first painting of his commission was of the manor itself. A preliminary sketch, partially colored (and currently in the collection of Tipper Soltisyk), takes a surprising angle on the subject, standing quite close and looking up at the facade; clouds are streaming in the sky above it, and the great glass oculus of the tower, of which the “eye” in his Everston home was a small echo, is colored a multifaceted red.

Next he undertook a view of Everston Mountain for a landscape, of which no record remains besides mention in his journal; and another of nearby Onyx Lake, whose shores touch the northeast base of the peak. Of the latter, Pettegree wrote:

When I showed it to [Magorian], he laughed in that rumbling way of his, and pointed at the painting. “And who are all these?” I was speechless; for only when he pointed them out did I realize that I had painted, with their backs to the viewer, many small children facing the still water. I have no recollection of doing so. 

And here, for the first time, Pettegree doubts his health, if not his sanity: “Could I have had a fit? Could I be sick in some way?”

Perhaps he was. He complained often of migraines, blaming the thin mountain air, and often wrote of leaving. His lover, Boose, mourned that “the joy has drained out of him” and that “even when we are alone, he flinches from my touch.” A physical sickness – perhaps a brain tumor or the like – would provide a rational explanation for this sudden change in personality. The single Pettegree sketchbook from this period confirms the transformation; where previous sketchbooks were filled with neat landscapes and neater buildings, with sharp lines and careful crosshatching, the 1915 sketchbook is filled mostly with faces, many grotesque, many distorted, with expressions of torment or fearful uncertainty – a clear prelude to Flat River. Some have suggested the looming war in Europe was the cause; but Pettegree makes little reference to the war in his journals, being already in his forties, with a bad limp from a horse-riding accident in his twenties.

Possibly he was studying for the portrait of Magorian he was to execute, the last of his commissioned paintings for the manor. “I am ready to leave the moment the painting is finished,” he wrote.

While working on the painting, however, he decided to stay and work at the manor, rather than perpetually trekking up and down the mountain. On May 12 he went up; he did not come down again until August 10, the day before his death.

What exactly transpired at the manor in those four months we will likely never know. Pettegree’s old journal, which was full, ended April 15, and was stored with the rest of his belongings at his house. Presumably he took another with him up to the manor; but if so, it has never been found.

Two final documents remain, however. The first is a short note he wrote to Jayne Boose, dated July 28:

Jayne, you must leave this town. It is doomed and worse than doomed. Those innocents that were are gone, and those to be will likewise never have existed, lost in the flat river. I cannot explain it further – my hand burns as I write – and I cannot come to you. Magorian has set his mark on me. If ever you loved me, leave. And I am sorry, so sorry, for the son we never had. I see him in my dreams.

The second is the letter, somewhat longer, that was on the desk in his study. It seems he meant it as a warning, but it is, unfortunately, scarcely clearer:

Every moment I defy him my flesh burns. I cannot stand it much longer; it has taken all of my will to reach this house. But here at least I will die, and be remembered. 

He goes beneath the house with them. There is a passage from the cellar. How I never knew of it remains unclear to me; perhaps he took the workmen down it, when they were done, and thus I have forgotten them. 

I followed him down. I thought I was undetected, but perhaps he wished for me to follow. 

There is a tunnel carved with inhuman scenes; there is a city in the darkness; there is a still lake. 

There is something that dwells in the water, with a thousand limbs and one great Eye-mouth.  He called it forth, and it fed upon what he brought. But I cannot remember what – or who – it was. What the god sees, it consumes; and what it consumes, it consumes entire. 

Afterwards, Henry found me, and laughed, and showed me his secret: the red flower that hangs on a golden chain around his neck. He pressed it to my flesh, and made me his. Whenever I defy him, now, instant agony seizes me. 

But I will not be consumed in turn. I know where lost souls go; I have painted it. Every stroke was torment, but I painted the landscape of dreams, the belly of the god, the place where minds break down and memories are digested. 

My hand seizes. I can see my very flesh smoking. Remember me!

I have searched, as much as possible, the ruins of the old manor, but I have been unable to detect, amid the devastation, any kind of passage. Of course, that does not mean none exists; and interestingly, geologists confirm that Onyx Lake is fed from an underground river below Everston Mountain.

Pettegree was found, of course, dead in his study, chained to the radiator, his body covered in livid weals, especially furious above his heart. The cause of death was never found. Foul play was long suspected; but then, the record is strangely incomplete in this regard.

Did the police go to the manor?

Did they return?

Does anyone remember?

I have stared for long hours at Pettegree’s final painting. Really I cannot stop staring at it. There are so many faces, most very young, and all seem to be pleading, or screaming, or weeping; and among them crawl long-legged things like centipedes. I see them even in my dreams.

I am going back to the house tomorrow with more digging equipment. If that fails, I intend to enlist an experienced cave diver to find a way through that river – both rivers.

Remember me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s