Of Opus Dei, Instincts, and Tiffany Mosaics

The theory has been put forth – at different times by different people, none of whom are named Yen Tran – that I move through this world largely clueless about my surroundings. Or to be more precise, that I am so focused on the minute details of the world (identifying this bird, questioning how long that fence has been there) that I miss whole, important happenings. Now, I will be the first to admit that victims will be better off if I do not witness the crimes visited upon them. “What did he look like? Well, he seemed sad. I think he was wearing a hat. It was cold, I can tell you that for sure.” I see details, not whole pictures, and I am forever inventing the backstory of everyone I see. So yes, I do often miss entire events unfolding, but every once in a while, I pick up a thread just as it’s dropped and follow it back through an entire sweater before the person wearing it has fully entered the room.

Let me give an example before I tell you about today’s adventure.

A few years ago, I was standing on a street in Paris while my companion attempted – for a very long time – to photograph what he considered an interesting roof (This also was not Yen. His photos are fast and numerous; there’s a difference.). Down the block, I saw a man walking toward us, and I made a rookie mistake, smiling as he passed us by. And in that second when our eyes met, I realized my mistake, and understood that I was going to have to pay for that smile. Sure enough, as we finally turned and began walking again, I saw the man up ahead, standing behind a tree. “Do not talk to this man,” I whispered to my companion. “Huh?” he asked, just as he neared the man’s tree, and the man popped out from behind and began speaking in rapid French. “No,” I said, and waved my hand in between them, trying to pull Companion forward and away. “What are you doing?” Companion asked me before turning his friendly American attention back to the man. “Please,” said the Frenchman, who was beginning to look more dark and mysterious with each passing moment, “I need your help. Come with me. My home is nearby.”

“Come to your home?” asked Companion.

“No no no!” I shouted, and I began pulling Companion along with me, who finally gave up trying to understand the man and allowed himself to be pulled away.

“What is wrong with you?” he hissed.

At the next intersection, I crossed and then turned back to look behind us. The Frenchman saw me and, cartoonlike, jumped behind a tree.

“Oh god,” said Companion, finally understanding. “He’s following us.”

I won’t belabor the story, but it took us several blocks before Mysterious Stranger finally gave up, and we ducked into a cafe to rest over espressos. It’s entirely possible he wanted nothing more than to steal the adorable purse I was carrying, but I knew my mistake the second I made it, and I saw that it wouldn’t be the end of it. The real victim here was me, because I had to spend the rest of the trip listening to Companion worry that somehow the man knew of his work and security clearance, and it was a never ending tirade. The lesson learned is, when I finally have an instinct, trust it.

Nothing so untoward happened today. In fact it was a lovely afternoon. But the whole reason I’m giving you this background is because I realized about two minutes into it that something was afoot. The clues assembled, and it was only when we returned to the car and googled that the whole thing finally made sense.

But let’s back up and go for a walk in Boston on a chilly February afternoon.

Whenever we visit the Comm Ave area, Yen brings his camera and does some light tourist photography. It’s particularly nice in the springtime, and we vowed again during this particular walk to come back when the flowers come out. The photo below, then, is not of the Ayer mansion, but of another interesting building in the vicinity.

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I insisted that Yen take this photo. That bike’s not going anywhere ’til Spring!

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Ok, here I am in front of the house. It’s 3pm, so we’re about to head in for the tour. See how jaunty I am in my little hat? Yen asked me a couple months ago how long I’ve had the hat. I told him I got it shortly before I met him, which comes to just over two years. “That’s funny,” he said. “You’re so attached to it I thought you’d had it forever.” Sometimes you just find the right accessory.

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I don’t remember how we first found out about the Ayer mansion. I suppose it was one of the many blogs I read about Things to Do in Boston. Or maybe it was just random googling. Anyway, we’ve had our eye on it for a while as a field trip destination, but it’s only open one day each month for a tour, and you’re encouraged to RSVP (I don’t know what happens if you just drop in – I’m sure they’d make it work).

The mansion’s claim to fame is that it’s the only remaining building designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany. He planned the entire interior, down to selecting wallpaper. That makes it different from, say, the Mark Twain house, for which his studio did discrete interior design projects (mostly on-the-surface stuff).

Our tour  began in the sitting room. We were invited to remove our coats and use a cute little bathroom if necessary (it was). I was pretty excited about the little hidden door in the wall that led to the cloakroom and bathroom. It had the wallpaper and wainscoting just like the rest of the wall.

Then we all sat in a circle in little Louis XIV chairs so the tour guide could give us the history of the house. She was very knowledgable and seemed genuinely excited that we were all there, touring the house. The tour was composed of me and Mr. Tran, and adorable couple that looked to be in their 80s, another couple that look like they were getting ready to retire to the Cape, a man about my age and his delightfully enthusiastic mother, and a very quiet, very thin girl who looked like she was about 20.

You know that feeling when you get on a plane, make pleasantries with the person in the next seat, and then suddenly they ask, “Are you a friend of Jesus Christ, our savior?” She had that look all over her. But I was confused. The tour guide seemed really excited that she was on the tour, and referred to her a few times when she couldn’t answer a question. Neither could the girl, but it made me start thinking that she was there to watch the tour.

We found out that the house is currently a “residence,” and that as a result we wouldn’t get to see the whole thing. Then we stood up to take a closer look at some photos. The one below is of the Ayer daughters. One of them later married George Patton (yes, that one).

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Here are two photos of the sitting room. The lighting isn’t very good, but Yen has done is best.

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Next we went back to the foyer. That’s the main attraction of the tour. There’s a strong Moorish influence in the place, and I read later that Tiffany spent quite a lot of time touring North Africa and the Middle East (as did the Ayers). The mosaics and little sconces are definitely reminiscent of Alhambra.

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This is standing in the middle of the foyer looking up at the curling stairs that lead to the upper floors. Not pictured is a bookcase standing along the wall and off to the side. Sections of the bookcase were labeled by topic. The one I noticed before we were ushered back toward the steps said “Opus Dei.” I thought, “Hm. Residence. Weird churchy girl. And hey, aren’t the Scientologists right over on Newbury?”

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Oh wait! There’s the bookcase on the left. No big deal, really, but there it is. We don’t know where these steps lead – somewhere deeper into the house. The tour guide said originally the kitchen was in the basement, through a door to the right. At this point an older woman emerged from the doors you can see here, and closed the door to the basement that we were all peering curiously through. I began to get the feeling we wouldn’t be seeing very much of this house.

Those bright lights on either side of the door are actually lights designed to look like vases. The next photo is a better shot of one of them.

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This is in the foyer, looking back at the sitting room.

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Still in the foyer, now with your back to the dramatic little staircase above. About which more in a moment.

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Now here’s the main attraction of the tour. This is the landing of the main stairs of the house. Mrs. Ayer considered herself something of an artist, and there’s speculation that she held Shakespeare readings while standing here. In person, there’s an incredible depth and richness to the mural at the back – it looks as if you’re looking down a long corridor to a temple. In reality it’s all flat glass.

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At last we climbed the stairs, and the tour guide announced that we’d be allowed to see the library, which is currently being used as a chapel. She went on at length about what a very big deal it is, and how grateful she is that we’re allowed to go inside. We were told we absolutely mustn’t touch anything, and we had to stay at the back near the pews. Then she reiterated how special it was, and how grateful she was, and finally we were ushered inside.

From the perspective of learning about LC Tiffany, it is a fascinating room. It’s round and has the feeling of an old European home, rich and dark. The tops of the shelves are finished with wood carvings fashioned after book plates. The tour guide didn’t know who exactly did the wood carving, as that wasn’t a specialty of anyone at Tiffany Studio.

This picture is not conveying the complete creepiness of the altar. From here you’re thinking, “It’s like church. What’s your problem?” It is not like church. The icons are old and severe and scary somehow. There was absolutely no mention of the altar at all, and it was as if this omission made it grow and loom. We all craned our necks around staring pointedly at the carvings and out at the “screens” of Tiffany glass – anywhere but at the altar. Finally we were pushed out into the hall again.

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This photo is looking down the staircase, right outside the chapel.

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There I am! I’m on the left smiling back up at Yen. Really what I’m doing is freaking out slightly that he’s been left behind by the tour, because I was pretty sure if someone found him upstairs alone, they would have a fit. But don’t worry: he made it out again in one piece.

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If you can imagine standing in front of the glass temple/staircase shown earlier, and then also imagine looking straight up, you’ll see this glass skylight. It’s actually huge and very pretty. Hard to grasp the scale from this photo.

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Ceiling detail – was this in the sitting room again? I’m not sure.

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Mosaic details. Again, echoes of Alhambra.

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Here I am, downstairs again and posing in front of the “temple.” What am I doing back here again so fast? Well, that was the entire tour. We’re not allowed to see any of the rest of the house.

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Might as well check out the light again while we’re here.

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As people began to leave, Yen took as many shots as he could. He got a brief reprimand for using the flash, but he just kept working away. Our young friend came over for a chat, and we learned that she’s a BU student studying Classics. She wanted to know our names. I suggested she visit the Mark Twain house for comparison. Then the second stretched on and on, and it became clear we were meant to leave. I filled out a comment card to make the tour guide feel good, and found that I could give a donation directly to her instead of putting it in the box by the door. I guess I wanted to make sure it went to the house restoration and nothing else. I collected Yen, and we headed out again.

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Made it! Check out all the mosaics around the door.

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Now that we’d had the tour, some of the details of the front of the house made sense, so Yen photographed them while I looked through a brochure about the “residence,” which is called Bayridge. Then we carried on our way.

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This is just another random house. We’re back in tourist mode here. I felt sheepish about posing in front of these homes, and then I admitted to Yen how stupid I was being. If we were in another country, I would have posed in front of anything without worry. Why was I being such a wuss in my own backyard?

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Back in the car, we headed out to the ‘burbs to buy some vegetables, and I started googling. Sure enough, Bayridge is a “residence for women” run by Opus Dei. I read aloud to Yen from an essay about one woman’s experience breaking free from the cult as we drove. We had asked ourselves what someone does with a degree in Classics, and then of course it occurred to me: you go to a seminary.

I’m not antireligion – it probably seems that way in this post. But I am against doctrines that ensnare people, particularly young women. I think the combination of the strange feeling in the house, focused on that young woman, coupled with the frustrating fact that this important piece of architecture is largely inaccessible because of their occupation of it bothers me.

Now, ironically… I believe our next field trip is going to be to the Russian Icon museum. I’ve been there before and enjoyed it tremendously. Somehow it seems like a celebration of art, craft and faith (with some good history thrown in), and not a dark, sticky something that leaves a pit in your stomach. Stay tuned!