When my parents were my age, they owned a home. It wasn’t new, and the kitchen was always terrible, but they owned it. It had a big U-shaped yard, and I lived there most of the days of my childhood that I can remember. My room ruled because it had a big window seat and in the front yard was an absolutely giant willow tree. My dad had to cut its branches in the summer with shears. A haircut. Because I was a child, and because I did not surround myself with assholes, I wasn’t really aware of the fact that our house was older and smaller than almost everyone else’s. It was still our house, and I loved it. I loved the way the backyard always flooded no matter how many times it was re-leveled. I loved that the giant tree that toppled over one night in the back yard, narrowly missing the house, had raised the earth up where its roots had forced their way out. I remember almost every inch of that house.
My parents sold it when I was in college. Of course, they did. The exurb where I grew up turned from one with plenty of pastureland and wildflower fields into one riddled with strip malls clearing land for housing developments with houses that started at $600,000. While I loved the house, it was never really a great house. It was one of a few designs in our neighborhood, and one of the smallest ones. My parents never had the money to redo the kitchen like my mom wanted to, so it stayed ugly and terrible until they sold it.
But houses are places we build a history, especially as children. We learn their nooks hiding in closets and searching for Christmas presents. As we grow, we see the house at almost every angle it can be seen from. We know everything about it. I could still, more than a decade after my parents sold that home, draw for you every nick in the baseboard, every hook left in the ceiling from the previous owners who loved plants, every corner that had drawn blood.
I think a lot about the transience of the middle class, because I don’t like transience. I think about how my grandparents sold their house to move into a smaller one. How my parents sold their house and now after a few years of choosing to rent, the markets are so insane I don’t know if they’ll own again. I think about how there aren’t any great houses in my family history. The houses with the most lore are the ones my grandparents grew up in: a small, terrible clapboard house my grandmother hated in Mississippi, an even smaller house owned by the power company in Mobile, Alabama where my grandfather grew up. When I fell into an Ancestry.com rabbit hole a few years back, I found that both sides of my family have been in the U.S. since the late 1600s and not one of them managed to leave behind a good house. I hate that none of these houses are mine to know. I love history and I love old things and I absolutely fucking love a great house. I remember visiting my rich friends’ ranches in high school and lying in the beds dreaming about what it would be like to have a space your family had made their own for generations.
At the time, I was too young and too naive to realize that this was not my parent’s fault. I thought we didn’t have a ranch because my parents had chosen not to have fancy careers. I thought these friends’ parents had given more to have these things. I didn’t realize that generational land is wealth: that to have spaces you’ve been able to settle in for decades and generations is a privilege few people in the world have the capital to enjoy. I also didn’t understand that often, almost always, having that kind of generational wealth as a white person in America, means that you almost certainly have something you should be ashamed of.
I’m not sure exactly what W.J. Montgomery had to be ashamed of but I have some pretty educated guesses. He was a lawyer, a South Carolina senator, a member of the House of Representatives, and a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention. That convention was convened by none other than U.S. South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman who you may remember from earlier this week. The whole purpose of the convention was racism. Tillman and his cronies (including Montgomery) didn’t like that black people were free, and this convention laid the ground work for all of South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws. Montgomery, was … uh … extremely loud at this convention. So it’s safe to say that he was a racist, and a piece of shit. He was also rich. I tried to find some information about how exactly he made enough money to be a lawyer and how exactly he (a South Carolina man who hated black people) kept up the 7,000-sq. ft. home he would have retreated to after that convention. That information wasn’t available to me without paying for Ancestry.com again, so we will just have to use our imaginations.
But here’s a paragraph from the listing’s description that I encourage you to read with your eyebrows lifted:
His family and descendants occupied the estate for just short of a full century. His son was a pioneer aviator and his daughter was an author and photographer…so there is no doubt, based on their social statue, the Montgomerys had the financial strength to build a home of the finest materials and hire the best workers that could be found in 1895. There are two barns outside…one full of tools that would have been used in bygone days to run a farm. The other includes a simple apartment.
Montgomery’s house, in Marion, South Carolina, which is 2.5 hours from Charleston and Charlotte, N.C. (not a hot real estate market) is listed for $650,000. For some context, most houses in Marion are listed at around $100,000, and the only two other houses close to it (in the $400Ks) are a whole complex of townhomes and a fancy ’70s home with a big nice pool. Montgomery’s house was finished the same year as the Constitutional Convention. Like many U.S. Senators he returned from a session of stripping rights from his people to his luxurious, beautiful, fancy-ass home.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
Unfortunately, this house is gorgeous. It is made of brick. It has a turret. The walkways to are all made of brick. The stairs are made of brick. There is not one, but two immaculate southern porches with exquisite carved wood railings and detailing. One of them wraps arond the house. The detailing is mirrored on the sides of the front door.
Inside, the house is just as beautiful. The floors are shiny and dark. The stairs have the same kind of perfect bannister and railing that we saw a few weeks ago in Montana. There are windowed doors that flank both ends of a grand entryway hall? I don’t know what to call this room because it’s just a series of arched doorways into other rooms. It seems like an excellent room for a party. The wallpaper is terrible because it feels monotonous, but this could be fixed. There is a spooky headless mannequin with an old muslin dress. Let’s not look at that too long.
Through a pair of pocket doors is the study. This room, I have to admit, absolutely slaps. It is almost entirely wood (the ceiling, the fireplace, the window coverings(!!) the built-ins, are all made of wood. There is an American flag and a sword and some kind of military jacket that are all a little propaganda-y, but it’s a gorgeous room. Lots of light streams in from the windows, and the fireplace still works.
There’s a working fireplace in the dining room too, where the wooden ceiling has (straight to jail!!!) been painted white, and the maroon wallpaper is very cool and honestly trendy. There is also a fireplace in what seems to be the sitting room of the first floor main bedroom. This room also has built in shelves. It has a window the SIZE OF A WHOLE WALL!!!! I did not even know they made panes of glass this big and intricate! There’s another fireplace in the bedroom which has a really big bathtub (sadly new) in the en suite. The second porch seems to be off this room, which is very nice. Imagine having all this space. This en suite, I am almost certain, is the same size as my whole apartment.
There is somehow another sitting room! It has a piano, and a terrible dreadful baby doll in a long white gown sitting in a rocking chair. Let’s ignore that. Let’s look at this interesting thing happening around the windows. All of the windows in this room are framed by the same tiny wooden planks that are on the ceiling. I have never seen this before, but I find it extremely aesthetically pleasing! It creates a kind of vertical stripe affect which makes the already high ceilings seem taller, and just looks cool as hell.
Upstairs we have some bedrooms, all of which have wallpaper that I genuinely like and would put in my home, but all of which also have lace curtains which are possibly the spookiest kind of curtain to have. Imagine how easily they move. Imagine air seeping in through the closed window and moving one in the night. Awful. There’s some stained glass up here, which is very pretty, and a bed frame that matches the trim.
There are two bathrooms, one of which is renovated and looks like every medium-rich person in a suburb’s bathroom so we will breeze on by it and another that has a claw foot tub. Finally!!! What is the point of having this beautiful old house if you have all these renovated, ugly tubs. Give me more deep ancient lead-paint tubs. Let me drown in their depth. Upsettingly, though, this bathroom has a lace shower curtain.
The kitchen, frankly, sucks. The appliances are outdated, which is only cool for the one very old stove. Compared to the rest of the house it is tiny and cramped and very narrow. This is a common problem in older houses, I have noticed, and I assume it exists because rich people didn’t used to spend time in the kitchen. Now, being rich involves having a giant slab of marble where you put your takeout and an open plan kitchen full of nine burner stoves. But the rich didn’t used to cook. So what did they care if the kitchen was absolutely awful? It was for the help.
That’s the thing about this house. It is beautiful. The wood workshop in the yard seems very cool if you can overlook the apartment above it, which there are no photos of. The barn seems nice and pretty until you remember that this land was probably worked by black people for a very long time and that their boss was a huge rich racist. Even looking at the photo of the lovely tulip tree in bloom in the backyard, I can’t get past the fact that this family lived in this house for a whole century. That these are the people who made the laws this country is founded on: people who happily took their horses to the state senate and fought against the rights of their citizens, people who were alive for the Civil War, people who list this house proudly proclaiming that it “has history” without any recognition of how evil and dark that history is.
Senators are rich. They make $174,000 a year. But something I didn’t realize until Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started talking about it is that most senators have family money. They come from these families. Families with big old houses they’ve lived in for centuries. Families that never ever talk about the dark parts of their histories. Families where their house was always as nice or nicer than everyone else’s. The problems they are legislating are always abstract, always a game, because they don’t understand them. They don’t understand homelessness or even eviction. They don’t understand rent control. They’ve never even rented. They don’t understand food insecurity or college debt any more than they understand that there’s no gravity in space. Only a few senators, barely a handful (4 of 100 in 2012 according to this data), have a net worth under $100,000. The median net worth for Americans is $121,760. That means that 96 percent of American U.S. Senators are representing less than half of the American population.
That kind of wealth rarely comes from hard work or ingenuity. It’s inherited wealth. It’s people going home to “their district” on weekends like these and living in their giant homes and not knowing what happens around them. The people making our laws, the people who are supposed to be fighting for us, don’t live in the same country as us. They live in rich-people land. These were the houses they grew up remembering: big, beautiful houses that last generations. Houses the rest of us will never be able to know.
This week’s home has been listed on Zillow for 237 days. It is still for sale. I do not recommend buying this house as I imagine that despite its beauty the vibes are incredibly sinister and the ghosts are not happy.