by Bill Batson
The building in Haverstraw that was the subject of Edward Hopper’s 1925 painting “House by the Railroad” still stands proud. The haunting depiction of the three story house by Hopper came to the attention of the cast and crew of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie classic, Psycho. Hopper’s painting inspired not only the design of the Bates Mansion in the 1960 production, but the mood of the film as well. “Psycho might be the most Hopperesque of Hitchcock’s films,” says Joel Gunz from AlfredHitchcockGeek.com. From Nyack to Haverstraw to Hollywood, Hoppermania is contagious.
This aesthetic virus afflicted me during the 2011 “Year of Edward Hopper” commemoration in Nyack. The public art event called “Hopper Happens,” a series of pop-up projections, flash mobs and readings conceived and organized by local artist and film maker Kris Burns, changed the way I looked at the world. Suddenly, a Hopper filter covered my eye, bathing the village in the portentous mood lighting that the artist captured in oil on canvas. Rust red and forest green color schemes sang to me, punctuated by the long angular shadows that are visible early Sunday mornings.
At the 55th anniversary dinner for the Chamber of the Commerce of the Nyacks last Thursday, the Edward Hopper House received an award for last year’s event. The art organization’s chair Victoria Hetrz encouraged the assembled merchants to reflect the life of Hopper in their products and promotions. So in order to honor Hertz’s compelling logic, I took a day trip to Haverstraw.
In Hopper’s painting this exquisite Victorian style home, located on 9W just south of St. Peter’s Cemetery, is cut off from the world by the system of railroad tracks that were rapidly dissecting early 20th century America. Today the building is still visually incarcerated by a heavily trafficked road, power lines, chain linked fencing and the railroad that gave the original painting its name and theme.
In Hitchcock’s film, a newly constructed interstate highway isolates the Bates motel and mansion, stranding Tony Perkin’s character to stew in his psychosis. Before the industrialization of transportation by steam and fossil fuel powered vehicles, every town in America was a stop along the route to any nearby destination. After these innovations, the location of railroad lines and highways determined economic winners and losers. If you didn’t have a depot or an off ramp, you were left behind by those seeking more convenient modes of transportation. Hopper’s painting and Hitchcock’s film portrays the abrupt transitions that swept communities of stately manors into the trash heap of history.
Rockland County Attorney General Thomas Gagan bought the house in 1919. His daughter, Amo, lived in the house for 50 years. According to legend, as a 13-year old, she saw Hopper seated at his portable easel on the gravel sidings of the train track creating the painting that would become a masterpiece of American art and prototype for an iconic image from American cinema. I chose the same perspective for my sketch.
The current owners have restored the exterior of the house to a pristine state that would have pleased Hopper and Hitchcock. The lawn is manicured; the original clapboard and the windows have been expertly restored. With its widow’s peak, curved mansard roof and shut blinds, I thought I had stumbled upon an architectural time capsule. The building came to life as the door swung open and I met the owner, Lori. I think she has Hoppermania too.
Lori and her husband Edwin are loving stewards of this American treasure. Edwin didn’t know the Hopper/Hitchcock connection when he acquired the property. He soon noticed that cars would pull into his driveway to marvel in silence at or snap pictures of his house. Now, reproductions of the Hopper painting, as well as renditions by friends and relatives adorn the interior of the house, except in the rooms that are formed by the hourglass shaped roof, that have sloping walls that cannot accommodate hanging picture frames.
At the conclusion of her remarks at the Nyack Chamber, the Hopper Center Board Chair announced that a sign directing travelers to Hopper’s birthplace in Nyack would soon be erected on the highway. Another transportation revolution, the proposed rebuilding of the Tappan Zee Bridge, threatens our way of life in a manner similar to the dynamic that Hopper recorded in House by the Railroad. We can hope that this highway sign will bring more economic activity to Nyack. Thanks to the efforts of the Hopper House, one of our greatest assets, the legacy of Edward Hopper, remains relevant. It would be the sweetest irony that the man who feared that small town America was dying, was the impetus for the revival of the village of his birth.