“A Room at Cedarspring” (2008) is a locally-produced documentary by West Virginia filmmaker Wilbur Jeffs.
Cedarspring at the Falls, a gated community in the Elysia district, was completed in 2006. A sprawling confluence of townhouse, apartment and loft living, Cedarspring occupies one of the more scenic regions in or near the Ichor Falls area, nestled in the grasslands beside the falls themselves.
The community is made up of 80 townhomes, 50 lofts and 50 single-bedroom apartments, with the kind of aesthetic logic that puts ivy on the ten-foot-high brick wall that surrounds the complex — evoking Old World with none of that hard-to-sell history; beauty that draws you in without letting you past the front gate.
It’s a way to clamp a pleasant lid down on the less-savory aspects of the town. Despite the last decade of development and the boost to tourism, Ichor Falls is still rooted firmly in the American mind as a ghost town, a curiosity of a bygone age — if it’s in the American mind at all. The New Elysium Group, since its acquisitions in the 1980s, has invested a lot in a town comeback, but instead of a respectful merging of Ichor Falls history with a newly-planned future, New Elysium bulldozed the old; or, when required by West Virginia law, simply built around it.
The result is a two-faced town; a patchwork monster of town planning. Lower Alethia is still a suburb in ruins, but you wouldn’t get the impression it was even there, with glossy places like the New Elysium Fashion Park, a rapidly-changing town center, and of course Cedarspring. The town is one of deep, deep history, of tragedy, and of the triumph of human perseverance. Successful future plans will need to honor that. You can’t honor a memory by trying to hide it, ignore it or repel it.
Cedarspring, with its impersonal McMansion townhomes, its stuccoed, faux-finished walls, pleasantly-distressed murals and its Americana-cute street names, is Ichor Falls by way of Disneyland.
Today, none of the 180 living units in Cedarspring are occupied. New Elysium still pays gardeners, caretakers, trash service and security guards, but no one actually lives in what was supposed to be the hottest upscale new property in a thirty-mile radius.
I spoke with Michael Hayes, a junior architect and planner for Cedarspring and one of the few people to return my phone calls.
What were your feelings on Cedarspring?
Michael Hayes: “I’ve worked on a number of these townhomes for various developers. Pleasant Valley Homes, Turnkey at the Pines, the New Avalon in Atlanta. Cedarspring was ambitious. I don’t doubt that Elysium jumped the gun on the project as far as the timeline. I think they’d intended to have the rest of the town further along, drawing a bigger crowd than it was.”
Cedarspring has been vacant for two years, with the longest tenants moving out after only three or four months. Do you think the “faux authenticity” angle just isn’t accepted in a history-rich town like Ichor Falls?
“A lot of times it doesn’t play in a town like this, where the contrast between faux rustic treatments and the truly old is so stark. But it wasn’t our target demographic. We were after people who wanted quaint country living, but didn’t want to have to replace lead pipes and have the foundation leveled. The mist in Ichor Falls is a draw for the area, but you’ve got 4,000 houses probably need a serious overhaul.
“Communities like Cedarspring succeed in nearly every other instance. So I don’t think that’s why it hasn’t appealed to homebuyers.”
Paul Lloyd, one of the first tenants at Cedarspring, moved there in February of 2008, and broke his lease to leave in May. I traveled to Portland, Texas, where Paul currently lives.
Paul Lloyd: “I lived there for four months. Four months too long. I still think about it.”
Talk about what happened to you while living in Cedarspring.
“This is going to sound really odd. But it’s your home. This stuff matters. No one wants to feel like an intruder in their own home. The whole time I lived there, there was — it’s like there was animpersonal feel to every part of the house. That’s not a surprise, I’ve lived in that kind of housing before and it’s all a little cookie-cutter.
“It’s supposed to be this getaway. But this was like… you know that feeling you have, waiting in the dentist’s waiting room to be called? The buzz of the fluorescent light, the cold, the antiseptic smell? It’s anxiety. It’s isolation, like you’re separate from the rest of the world. Cedarspring magnified that feeling ten thousand times.
“And it’s everything in Cedarspring. It wasn’t just my house, but the streets, the empty playgrounds, the fountains. And it had nothing to do with them being empty – I had friends living in other units. We ended up getting together every single evening. No one wanted to be alone.
“I started having nightmares at night. Not about death or monsters, but… suddenly I’d be in this empty white space, this featureless room. Devoid of all context, all emotion. The sense of isolation became this huge weight, a billion tons of invisible rock pressing me into the ground, suffocating me. This slow-moving glacier of pointlessness, about to slide over me. I’d wake up and that feeling would eat me alive. Same with the other tenants. We’d gather just to be near something alive, somethingnatural.
“After three months, I… I started cutting myself, getting into fights in places, screaming in my room. Just to feel something. Some of my friends there admitted to the same thing. I’ve never done anything like that before. And I haven’t since I moved out. It just got so bad. I stopped crying, stopped laughing. It’s like we were going hollow.
“I don’t want to get melodramatic about it, but I’ve thought about it a lot since then. Some people think of hell as some burning pit of torment, but I don’t think it is. I read once that the real hell is the absence of God. Ichor Falls has a reputation of being a haunted town, and when I lived there I saw my share of things out of the corner of my eye. But I never saw them at Cedarspring. Somehow that became the opposite of comforting.
“Ghosts haunt old buildings, old places. Is it possible for a place without a past to be haunted by its own lack of history? By bleakness? Can a place be haunted by absence?”