Study Guide

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Part Two: Bernadette Past and Present

By Maria Semple

Part Two: Bernadette Past and Present

  • We start with a press release from the "Green Builders of America and the Turner Foundation" announcing an architectural competition in honor of the 20th anniversary of the "Twenty Mile House" (2.2-3).

  • The Twenty Mile House, if you remember, was built by Bernadette Fox herself.

  • Although the building no longer stands, the press release explains, the two organizations want to honor its design principles and commitment to green design.

  • The competition, which comes with a whopping $40,000 grand prize, has only one limitation...the same one that Bernadette set on herself when she first built the home. All materials used must be sourced from within twenty miles of the site.

  • On Saturday, December 11, Paul Jellinek sends another email to Jacob, the student Bernadette randomly met outside the library.

  • Attached to the email is an article about Bernadette that will be published in the upcoming issue of Artforum magazine, which the publishers sent to Jellinek to proofread.

  • The title is "Saint Bernadette: The Most Influential Architect You've Never Heard Of" (2.11).

  • The article begins by explaining that, despite only designing two buildings, Bernadette Fox ranks as one of the most influential architects in the field.

  • Why? Well, she's a mega-successful woman in a male-dominated field. Her work is totally unique. She even won a freakin' MacArthur Genius Grant, an honor bestowed on the top artists in America.

  • The article tells the story of Bernadette's career as a sort of oral history, using direct quotes from people who knew her to provide the narrative.

  • Bernadette went to Princeton in the 1980s. The school's architecture department was a big deal at the time, with major players in the industry counted among the faculty.

  • While her peers pour themselves into designing clever but impractical structures, Bernadette sets herself apart with her attention to detail and willingness to get her hands dirty.

  • Her professor, Michael Graves, hires her after she finishes school. In fact, she's the only student in her class who gets a gig. 'Atta girl.

  • One of her first jobs is working on Disney HQ in California. She's in charge of designing the bathrooms. They're the happiest bathrooms on earth, btw.

  • After delays and red tape threaten the project, Bernadette surprises everyone by concocting a scheme "to game the building department" and get all their proper permits (2.26).

  • After the Disney gig ends, Bernadette stays in Los Angeles and gets a job with Richard Meier, a prominent architect working on the Getty Center.

  • Bernadette meets and marries Elgin soon after. For their first family home, they buy "the former Beeber Bifocal Factory," a glasses factory Bernadette plans on completely renovating (2.32).

  • Soon afterward, Bernadette meets two important peers: Paul Jellinek and David Walker.

  • Paul, if you remember, is the architecture professor who's been emailing his student about Bernadette. David is a contractor...he's the dude who actually builds stuff.

  • In no time at all, David is over at the Factory every day helping Bernadette with her renovations. Bernie has no plans nor permits, so she's just winging it. It's kind of her style.

  • Her first big idea is to take old glasses frames and weave them together to make dope chainmail screens for the windows. We'd buy that off Etsy.

  • This inspires a whole new design philosophy for Bernadette. She starts building the house out of leftover junk, making it even quirkier than it was already going to be, if that's possible.

  • Although her home build is going great, Bernadette is uninspired by her job at the Getty. Her sole role is to inspect travertine, a rocky material, for "minor inconsistencies" that would exclude them from the build (2.47).

  • Paul tells Bernadette about a job designing a visitor’s center for the Watts Tower, a famous installation of outsider art.

  • She cooks ups a unique structure that would use the leftover travertine rejected from the Getty, but her plan doesn't gain approval.

  • As with all her other designs, Bernadette's plans for the center have been lost to time.

  • In 1991, Bernadette and Elgin move into the Beeber Bifocal House. It's a celebratory time, but Bernadette is already itching to move on to her next project.

  • That project comes when they buy a plot of land on Mulholland Drive with "a great view of the city" (2.56). They want to buy the land next door as well, but can't afford it.

  • For this new project, Bernadette decides on one guiding principle: all the house's materials must be sourced from within twenty miles of the house. And not, like, from an Ikea.

  • With the help of David Walker, who's somehow able to keep up with Bernadette, they begin construction on Bernadette's new home.

  • Bernadette is a pro at convincing the local Department of Buildings to let her build whatever she wants, even if she hasn't designed it yet.

  • One day, a "convoy of trucks" pulls into the empty lot next door (2.70). It turns out it's been purchased by Nigel Mills-Murray, a famous British game show host.

  • He's designing a massive mansion, a gaudy affair he dubs the White Castle. No comment.

  • Mills-Murray's crew goes into overdrive, and they somehow finish construction before Bernadette's posse even puts up the walls.

  • One night, Bernie snags a bunch of brass that Mills-Murray had thrown away, sneaking into his property in the middle of the night and taking them from the trash can.

  • The next day, his property is protected by barbed wire and 24-7 security guards. Over some brass? Someone is fragile.

  • Apparently, Bernadette doesn't get the message, because she tries it again soon afterward. Mills-Murray calls the cops on her this time, though he doesn't press charges.

  • Soon after, Bernadette quits her job at the Getty to focus all her energy on completing what is now known as the Twenty Mile House.

  • Because Bernadette and Mills-Murray's homes share an entry, the tension between them grows thicker after he landscapes the entire driveway without consulting her.

  • His home now complete, Mill-Murray shows off his new digs "by hosting a lavish Oscar after-party" (2.85). With Prince as the musical guest. No joke.

  • In the middle of the performance, Bernadette has all the guests' cars towed. No word if Prince's little red Corvette is counted among them.

  • In April 1992, after the completion of the home, Bernadette receives a whopper of a phone call. She's earned the MacArthur Genius Grant, which comes with a groovy $500,000 cash bonus.

  • With this new recognition, Bernadette decides that she'll finally be able to put the Twenty Mile House on the market and sell it to an appreciative buyer.

  • Judy Toll, their real estate agent, immediately receives an offer from a business manager she's worked with before. That was quick.

  • She announces the news to Bernadette and Elgin at dinner. They're psyched, as you can imagine.

  • At dinner, Elgin gives Bernadette a "silver locket with a yellow photograph inside" of Saint Bernadette, who's famous for having a vision of Our Lady of Lourdes (2.97).

  • Elgin says that Saint Bernadette had eighteen visions, and so will Bernadette. She's already had two (Beeber Bifocal and the Twenty Mile House), and he can't wait for the next sixteen.

  • Oh, stop it. We're not crying. You're crying.

  • Bernadette is so moved by this that they decide right then and there to visit Lourdes. By the time they get back, the house sale should be done.

  • One day, during their trip, Paul decides to take his students on a tour of the Twenty Mile House. What he finds shocks and disturbs him.

  • Bulldozers are in the process of demolishing the structure. Tearing down walls, breaking windows, kicking kittens. They're bringing this sucker down.

  • It turns out that Nigel Mills-Murray was the true buyer of the house; he used his friend as a front. He destroyed it to get back at Bernadette for all the trouble she put him through.

  • Since then, according to the article, the only sign of Bernadette Fox has been an auction item at a Galer Street fundraiser. She offered to build a custom treehouse for the winning bidder.

  • No one took her up on it. Guess they didn't get the memo about the Genius Grant, eh?

  • With that, the article ends.

  • Our next document comes from Monday, December 12. The present, that is. It's an email from Bernadette to Paul.

  • It starts with a long litany of grievances against the city of Seattle. Very on-brand, Bernadette.

  • She accuses him of being involved with the retrospective on the Twenty Mile House, which is at least somewhat accurate.

  • She talks about how, when she originally moved to Seattle, she expected it to be a brief retreat to lick her wounds. To her shock, however, Elgin loved his life there.

  • Several pages go by and Bernadette unleashes a barrage of criticism against Microsoft and Seattle, telling Paul how much she hates both.

  • Then she reveals that she suffered "four miscarriages" after moving up to Seattle (2.181). In her mind, her failure to conceive became linked to her failure to work as an architect.

  • With these miscarriages in the back of her mind, Bernadette was terrified when she found out that Bee was going to be born with serious complications.

  • In fact, while sitting with newborn Bee in the hospital, she told God that she will "renounce" the rest of her "sixteen visions" if Bee survives (2.206). As we know, Bee indeed survives.

  • Bernadette continues, telling Paul about her struggles with her fellow parents after Bee started school, and her personal battle with depression.

  • Paul's response is unsympathetic and to-the-point. He tells Bernadette that she's talking "'nonsense'" and that if she doesn't "'create'" again, she will "'become a menace to society'" (2.237).

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