House in the Hill

by Natasha Ball

03/30/2012

Here it comes, I’d tell myself. I’d know it was almost time by the way my parents’ car would begin to wind along Charles Page Boulevard toward downtown. I’d crane my neck so that I could get the longest possible view of the craggy house tucked into the crook across from Newblock Park, built right into the side of a hill. It looked like something someone would try to sell you at a crafts fair, handmade and a little sad, the fingerprints showing in the clay. “Who lives there? Maybe they’re artists or something?” I’d ask my mother.

When it rains, the light fixtures at what’s called The Cavehouse leak, and the walls bead up with sweat. The whole place was underwater when Linda Collier charmed her way through the front door. She’d told the realtor that she was a serious buyer, but really, she just wanted to see inside.

She showed me how she’d soaked plastic bags in paint and shoved them into cracks in the wall in the stairwell that leads from the kitchen to the hallway on the second floor. Before, she couldn’t get paint to stick, she said, but the wall finally stopped leaking when the bags dried.

When her only daughter was young, Collier installed a yellow slide from the bedroom upstairs to what she calls the porch room, a tree house-like space on the second floor that’s filled with plants, a giant terrarium and light. She used twigs she gathered by hand to build a bed frame for the bedroom and the window frames outside. Her collection of chicken and turkey bones she’s named for what they resemble—a giraffe, Sonny Bone Nose, the Bony Pony—sits on a shelf in the great room downstairs. Outside is a cross, magnetized to the front door. Linda, an elfin woman with long, stark blonde hair and smiling eyes, looks like maybe she came with the house, a relic of the quirks of some past resident.

I think I’ve done something big, she told her husband the day she spoke for the house. There’d been human feces on the walls, and the place smelled like, well, a cave. It was infested with bugs, frogs and snakes. The Realtor had refused to follow Linda to the second floor, up what she has come to call drunkard’s stairs for their pitch and irregularity. But she’d already been convinced. This was a gift from God, she was sure.

The Cavehouse is like a hotel for Tulsa stories. It originally opened as The Cave Garden, a Casa Bonita-like premonition envisioned by James Purzer and Joseph Koberling Sr., who Collier heard had decided that if he could butter a brick (he was a mason as well as a notable Tulsa architect), he could fry a chicken. Then there are the women who owned the home: one who collected keys in life and whose ghost reportedly steals the keys of visitors and stockpiles them in the yard, and The Rag Lady, who covered herself in fabric, all except for her eyes. She’d hang her scraps in the second-story windows to dry, Linda said, like stained glass made of the pieces from an old quilt. The house is an unofficial footnote in the history of Tulsa’s race riot, too, thanks to local lore that holds that victims’ remains are sealed by the structure into a passage carved into the hill. Three Halloweens ago, three men in white hoods showed up at her door asking how to line up a tour, Collier said. They told her that they thought the house had been a meeting place for the KKK.

And then there are the stories that are drawn in by Collier’s sign, propped up near the street, advertising her $5 “I’ve always wanted to see inside” tours. My grandmother was the cook at the chicken restaurant, one visitor said—my grandfather used to stop by here to get “water” during Prohibition, said another.

“No one is going to pay you money to go inside,” she’d told herself. But when she visited the house the next day to hide the sign, a line of people was waiting at her front door.

Linda is a survivor type—she and the house have that in common—and she has what haunts her, just as the house has its own baggage. Together they’ve battled cancer, thyroid disease and diabetes, break-ins, flooding, and ghost hunters. After her father died—a man who refused to go into the house when she first bought it—she took the memorial video shown at his funeral to the house to watch, alone. He was a baseball coach in the Petroleum League, and he played for the Skelly Oil Company team; part of the video showed him on the field, in his uniform. Over his shoulder was the house, peeking out from beyond the outfields of Newblock.

“I said, ‘Yeah, he’s watching over me,’ ” Collier said. “Through all of those things, I can come over here, and it truly does restore my soul,” she said. “It’s just good. Things are good over here.”