September 28, 2010

A Futile Quest for Perfection

In Natchez, Mississippi, you will find a house that is frozen in time. It's official name is Longwood, but it is also known as Nutt's Folly. The owner was Dr. Haller Nutt, a man who was not blessed with good timing.

 Source: Wikipedia

At six stories and 30,000 square feet, it is the largest octagonal house in the United States. Work began on the house in 1860, but in 1861, when word came that the Civil War had begun, workers stopped what they were doing and walked out, dropping their saws and hammers on the floor and leaving paint brushes in open cans. Only the exterior of the house had been completed. Thirty-two rooms were planned, but Dr. Nutt was only able to finish nine rooms on the first floor, apparently mostly with slave labor.

In 1862, Dr. Nutt and his wife, Julia moved into the finished first floor, along with their eight children. Dr. Nutt died before the war ended and Julia continued to live in the house until her death in 1897. Many of the family's furnishings remain there for tourists to see. I remember seeing the house as a child, during Natchez's Spring Pilgrimage. As we went up to the second floor we saw the workers' tools strewn about, clearly showing the passage of time. I wondered what it would be like to live on the first floor, with those eerie unfinished floors above, serving as reminders of what would never be.

There is a house in my city that is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Oh, it's a another grand house, and it was built to fulfill someone's dream, but while it was completed long ago, only the caretaker's apartment has ever been inhabited.

I went to work for the original designer 20 years ago, while the house was still under construction. It was already on its second kitchen, as the Lady of the House was not happy with the results of the first. As far as I could tell, there wasn't much that made her happy. I had no firsthand encounters with her, but there were plenty of opportunities to observe her from a distance.

It was not unusual for her to reject upholstered pieces, despite the quality that went into them. She inspected the work of artisans who spent countless hours laboring over faux finishes - painstakingly created with 24 karat gold leaf - and often insisted that the work be redone. It was her dime, after all, so it was rare that anyone tried to persuade her that the work was indeed, beautifully executed.

After a couple of years, when the house was nearly finished, the designer and his wife divorced. The Lady of the House hired the ex-wife to take care of the final details. We later heard that she had hired another local designer to replace window treatments that had long since been installed. And, as the years went by, it was rumored that she was reupholstering furniture that had never been used.

And still, the couple did not move into the house. No matter what she did, the house was never quite right. It was never perfect. And it's my understanding that when she wasn't dwelling on her perception of imperfections within the house, it was her health. She wanted to move in when she was feeling her best, but she suffered from a chronic illness. Even though she would have hired people to make all of the arrangements, she wasn't willing to make the move when she didn't feel perfect.

The Lady of the House died a few years ago, a good 16 or 17 years after she could have moved into her dream house. It still sits empty, now the victim of a difficult real estate market. I often wonder if anyone will ever make their home there.

Both houses stand as monuments to what was not to be. Each story is sad in its own way, but I find inspiration in Julia's ability to make the most of her circumstances. Perhaps she understood that the quest for perfection is futile.

Until next time,

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. ~ Philippians 4:12-13


  1. Wow. I like that the Nutt family lived in their house, even if it was unfinished. I think it's a shame that the other family didn't live in theirs - to be "perfecting" a house for 16 years and never living in it? That's just plain crazy. Life is too short - why not live in the place and enjoy it and make changes "from within" - the house, and yourself?

  2. Wow a nice post. I am glad I came across your blog. Its a shame how there is abject poverty and then there's the problem of plenty.

  3. We (Mom and I) visited Longwood in '03. I love that house! The house in your city makes me sad. What a prison the lady's mind made for her.

    Someone here in blogland has a saying, "It doesn't have to be perfect to be beautiful".

  4. you worked on THAT house? we had a friend who
    created the staircase, which was a work of art.

    they had him tear the entire thing down and build
    a new one.

    such a sad story.

  5. Interesting stories, and a little sad! That octagonal house is gorgeous. Shame

  6. When I was little I loved going with my mom to tour old houses. Just imagining was it was to live in those places always fasinated me. Perfection is such a dangerous thing. We paint these pictures in our minds and then find we can never live up to our own imaginination.

  7. Kathy - It was tcool hat the Nutt family lived in the house and made the most of it.

    Budh.aaah - True, some have too little and others have way too much.

    Teri - Longwood is amazing, isn't it? Love the saying. Great point about the lady's mind creating a prison for her.

    Lea - The staircase was a work of art - what a waste.

    Laura - The house is beautiful, even unfinished.

    Katy - Perfection is a dangerous thing, indeed.

  8. I'm not a fan of the 'dream house' concept anyway. What a pity no-one ended up living in these houses.

  9. Oh, gosh, both are those stories are so sad. I always think of houses as living things -- like boats -- that need to be lived in and have memories created in them. Both of those houses are just filled with the ghosts of what was never to be.

  10. What a bunch of sad stories with some misquided people. The photo of the house itself is so neat. I would love to live in a house like that.

    And do you ever read Greg Iles? Many of his books are set in Natchez.

  11. It is sad to think of a house with no memories created in it.

    Jenners, I have not read any of Greg Iles' books. I may need to start...

    I have to confess to having an issue with perfectionism after I posted my previous comment. Somehow the "t" from "that" jumped in front of "cool" and I have had to fight the urge to delete it so I could repost the comment without the traveling t. I finally decided that I needed to take my advice and let go of the desire for perfection...but it's killing me. ;-)

  12. Wow - very moving post. Just this morning I had a discussion with my husband about how unhappy my own perfectionism makes me. I struggle with it every day. I know in my head that there is no such thing as a perfect person (not my husband and most assuredly not me!), yet that's my default mode. When I see a pattern of weakness in an area of his life, it's upsetting to me and I end up trying to "fix" him. Praying, praying, praying that somehow I can once and for all realize that only God is perfect and that I need to extend his grace to myself and to those close to me. God is in charge of "fixing" people; I am not. All I can do is "fix" my eyes on Him and walk in his grace. Why is this so difficult for me to learn??!!! This morning I read this part of Psalm 103:

    Praise the LORD, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits-

    who forgives all your sins
    and heals all your diseases,

    who redeems your life from the pit
    and crowns you with love and compassion,

    who satisfies your desires with good things
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

    So God forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies. That's where I need to rest.

  13. I had hear about the Nutt mansion several years ago and thought it strange and rather sad. The other house - the same thing. The question is why? It seems to me a psychologist could have a field day analyzing and coming up with a multitude of reasons.