A New York socialite explains how a man who is not a hunter or taxidermist acquired 400 pieces of taxidermy.
To reach El Dorado, guests must venture down Port Republic Road, passing four concrete lions and a white wooden gate before squeezing between two overgrown shrubberies.
Once there, a bespectacled Gregory Speck appears, using his arms to create a path through the bushes. “Welcome to El Dorado,” he says, with a Southern lilt that hasn’t faded even after 38 years of living in Manhattan, N.Y.
The house was given its name after a paint job Speck had completed in 1988, changing the battleship-gray exterior to yellow in an effort to cheer up the place for his dying mother. The dwelling acquired the additional moniker “Animal House” a few years later, when Speck began filling it with what eventually became a 200-plus piece taxidermy collection.
When guests enter the front door, 200 pairs of eyes and the musk of mink coats greet them.
The specimens are thoughtfully arranged: A badger and wolverine look up with curiosity beside a group of weasels, ermine and a river otter reclining with one paw over its belly.
A Canadian lynx with fluffy white paws holds court with two gray foxes, a red fox, a Columbian ground squirrel and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. And a majestic wolf, named Max, stands atop the grand piano among family photos and pictures of Speck with some of the many celebrities he’s interviewed during his career as a celebrity journalist in New York City, ranging Katharine Hepburn to Lauren Bacall.
In his Manhattan apartment, which he recently listed for $3.395 million, Speck keeps an additional 200 pieces of taxidermy – including a mountain lion, a standing bear named Smokey, and a mute swan he found laying dead on the side of the road and had stuffed.
It’s enough to fill a hall at the American Museum of Natural History next door, where he has spent hours researching and looking at specimens.
Speck and his Manhattan apartment were recently featured in The New York Times, as his extensive collection posed somewhat of a marketing challenge.
To physically remove the collection would be too great a task, so the listing agent came up with a virtual solution: Offer two sets of photos, one as-is and one with most of the taxidermy edited out, enabling potential buyers to visualize the apartment without the animals.
Speck says the “political incorrectness” of owning taxidermy doesn’t bother him because he didn’t kill any of the animals – he’s not a hunter. He, as he says, amassed the collection in the early ’90s, when PETA rose to fame for promoting its messages by throwing red paint on women wearing fur, and he acquired the museum-quality specimens for very little because people didn’t want them.
Over the course of three years, Speck invested roughly $50,000 in his collection.
“When I got those first six big shoulder mounts and realized there were many high-quality taxidermy pieces out there, I decided I would try and create a museum,” Speck says. “I thought I would see if I could get each of the various disciplines that were legal to possess: African antelope, fur-bearing North American mammals, North American game birds, Asiatic pheasants, reptiles.”
“When I go after things, I do it in a big way,” Speck says. “Such as interviewing all those movie stars for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and then turning it into a book, `Hollywood Royalty.'”
Speck says his friends and family couldn’t believe his newfound fascination. “They were shocked,” he says, “fascinated, but shocked.”
He recalls how they would say, “Greg, I didn’t know you were a big game hunter,” and he would respond, “Well, I’m not a big game hunter. I’m not a hunter at all, but I do love these animals.”
At the time, he lived in the Manhattan apartment with his wife, Pinky, who died in 1999. When he started bringing the big antlered and horned animals into the apartment, she called them her “cavaliers.”
“She would put her fingers up like this and do a little dance,” Speck says, placing both pointer fingers on his head like horns. “She thought they were beautiful.”
From a young age, Speck has been interested in zoology and considers himself an amateur zoologist. He’s been on African safaris and visited many of the great zoos through out the world, but says there’s no way he would want to run one himself.
“This is the next best thing,” he says. “My animals are very quiet and they don’t make a mess.”
As he gives a tour of El Dorado, Speck is able to name every specimen in his collection, as well as share how he acquired it.
“This is the dining room, of course we’re having duck,” he says pointing to a table with six different species of duck perched among candlesticks and bowls of shells. While the room can’t be described as cluttered or messy, there isn’t enough space to eat a bowl of cereal.
“Here’s the living room. This is an arctic fox and these are all the North American grouses. The ruffed grouse, which is native to here, sage grouse, prairie chicken, spruce grouse, blue grouse, and a sharp tail grouse,” he says, naming each off as if calling roll.
Speck drives from Manhattan to El Dorado once a month to pay the bills and make sure everything is in order. When the maid comes, he carries each specimen outside, one by one.
“This is a Kodiak bear, native to Alaska,” he says, pointing to a rug draped over a meticulously made bed in the spare bedroom.
“These are white-tailed prairie dogs with a European hare, and over there are black-tailed prairie dogs with a nutria,” he says, gesturing to a threesome situated on the dresser.
“This black coyote was shot killing sheep in southwest Virginia,” he says, pointing to a coyote grouped with two foxes resting their hind legs on stacks of books.
He passes by the bathroom, the only room in the house void of taxidermy.
“Flying squirrel, I haven’t looked at him closely for a while,” he says, examining a tiny wall mount above the doorway for at least half a minute.
In the kitchen, fish line the walls: northern pike, walleye, various trout, striped bass, and a muskellunge.
Speck’s favorite piece in his Harrisonburg home is Max, a wolf who was reported to be the alpha male of the Yellowstone National Park wolf pack until he got out of the park one night and was shot by a Wyoming rancher. Speck acquired the pelt, had it mounted and placed it atop the grand piano.
Many of the pieces in his collection were road kill that he found, picked up and had mounted.
“I’m not afraid of them,” he says. “I’ll pick them up, take them home and put them in the freezer, or take them straight to the taxidermist … feathers literally fall off a bird if it’s not frozen right away.”
Once, Speck even found a buffalo head in the freezer of Red Front Supermarket in Harrisonburg. The owner had a bison herd and the largest male became extremely belligerent and started knocking down the fences, so they slaughtered him and sold the meat as steaks.
The head was so magnificent that they chopped it off and had it stuffed, but the man’s wife wouldn’t let him hang it in the house, so he kept it in the grocery freezer. Speck took the mount off the man’s hands.
The last specimen Speck acquired was a capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse. While vacationing in New Zealand, Speck got into a conversation about ornithology with a Swedish doctor and mentioned a specimen native to Sweden he would love to acquire. It turned out that the doctor had them living in his backyard, so he brought one with him when he visited New York a few weeks later.
He says he tells people not to touch the animals, but many can’t resist – one woman wanted to know if she could sit on the mountain lion, to which Speck says he responded: “It’s not a toy, it’s a work of art.”
With his Manhattan apartment on the market, Speck is considering other homes for his animals, but at present, he intends to keep them together. He estimates the full collection to be worth between $500,000 and $1 million, today.
However, the man who runs the Virginia Museum of Natural History offered to take them at his own expense, an option which Speck says would be a great help.
“The logistics of moving these things is really something,” he says. “I have rented vans on occasion to take big animals that I had stuffed here to New York, but the idea of moving 90 shoulder mounts, … I get upset thinking about it.”
Speck says he will probably rent another apartment in New York City after he sells his Manhattan property. He plans to bring the 200 pieces housed there to Virginia.
Speck admits that there are a few pieces with which he would be reluctant to part, if he does decide to donate them.
“There are probably a dozen that I have real affection for,” he says. “I’m not really attached to the shoulder mounts as much as I am to the ones that look like they could be real pets. Max does look like a great big dog.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 16, 2014, issue of The Daily News-Record.
Michael Jordan drives a pickup truck littered with rubber fishing lures in all shapes and colors. During the summer, he rents boats and sells live bait out of a wooden shed situated along Lake Shenandoah through his side business, MJ’s Bait and Some Tackle.
He doesn’t play as much basketball as he did when he was younger.
“Were you expecting someone taller?” Jordan asks as he reaches out a hand void of championship rings.
Michael Jordan of Harrisonburg first started hearing his name on television in his early 20s, when a young basketball player at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started making game-winning jump shots.
“He wasn’t what you would call a superstar in the beginning,” Jordan says. “I’d just hear his name sporadically and be like, `What’d they say? Was that my name?'”
As the basketball player’s fame grew, Jordan began to hear more and more of the same jokes.
“People would say, `I wish I had one percent of that empire,’ or `I expected somebody darker, taller, richer,'” Jordan recalls.
He says he doesn’t mind sharing a name with a man dubbed “the greatest basketball player of all time” by the NBA.
In fact, it’s one of his favorite conversation starters.
“My wife is actually from Hickory, North Carolina, and when I would go down and see her before we got married, it was a big conversation piece on Saturday afternoons,” Jordan admits.
“It got me a beer or two, here and there.”
For 33 years, up until his retirement two years ago, Jordan worked for James Madison University dining services, a job that required he walk around all day sporting a nametag.
“The kids would comment on it,” he says. “And being at JMU in receiving, I signed for a lot of stuff, so I signed invoices and signed `Michael Jordan’ and they’d laugh about that and say, `Give me your real name.’ ”
When he was younger, Jordan didn’t know anyone else with his name, but as he got older, he realized he isn’t alone.
“There are three other Michael Jordans on the same mailing route as me,” he says. “One’s a little kid, I’ll get cards from his grandparents and I just put it back in the mail.”
In Mount Crawford, there’s Jordan Farm.
“I’m not related to them at all, but the man who runs that is Michael Jordan, and they get my mail, too. I know because I get some mail that’s been opened and taped back shut.”
Jordan named his tackle shop “MJ’s” because he says it’s catchy and because his wife’s name is Jennifer, so it can also stand for Michael and Jennifer.
If you ask to see Jordan’s championship rings, he’ll just shake his head and laugh.
“I wish I had some championship rings, I’ll tell you that, yes ma’am,” he says.
In 2011, Jonathan Stewart was new to Harrisonburg and working on an album, so he went to perform at an open mic night at The Little Grill Collective.
He walked up to the microphone, expecting to hear his name announced, when announcer Chris Howdyshell started in on “The Daily Show” theme song.
“It was super embarrassing,” Stewart says. “That was probably the most public display of my name.”
Stewart, a theater management professor at JMU, has known about the other Jon Stewart since middle school.
“It got worse and worse and slowly started tapering off in the last year or two,” he says.
“Maybe people thought it was an original thing to say, but once he got popular, I think people figured it was something they didn’t have to bring up to me, but it still happens.”
The unintentional sharing of famous names is somewhat of a tradition in the Stewart family – his father’s name is Jimmy – but he has no plans to continue the custom.
“I don’t have any negative feelings about it, but I wouldn’t try to give my kid a famous name.”
Stewart studied Theater Performance at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pa., and has always wanted to be a performer of some sort. He comes from a “family of funny people,” is a member of Friendly City Comedy, a sketch comedy group, and has been performing a one-man show based on Shel Silverstein’s “The Devil and Billy Markham” at venues along the East Coast.
“If I do become famous, it’s going to be an issue because he already has my name,” Stewart says. “I always joke that I’ll use his real name: Jonathan Leibowitz.”
Luckily, Stewart is a fan of The Daily Show host.
“I lucked out that he’s well liked, so people have a nice association with the name,” he says.
Most often, he’ll get a reaction when he meets somebody new.
He lived in Los Angeles for a while, and, once, when he called a bank with which he had an account, the person on the line seemed kind of excited and asked in the middle of the conversation if he was “the Jon Stewart.”
Stewart admits there are some positives to having the same name as a celebrity.
“It’s nice because people usually remember my name,” he says.
Being Stephen King has its perks.
While in Richmond for a conference, King was checking into his hotel when the lady at the counter said, “Oh, Stephen King! We don’t get many celebrities here.”
“So, I said, `Well, of course you can’t expect Stephen King to stay in a normal, plain old room.’ She said, `That’s a good point, I’ll put you on the club level, how about that?’ ” King recalls.
Another time, he was getting on a flight and the lady at the counter had a similar reaction, so King said, “Certainly you don’t expect Stephen King just to fly coach with all the common people?” She looked at her computer and said, “How about I put you in first class?”
“I said, `That should do it, if that’s the best you can do.’ ”
“I’ve kind of had fun with it,” King admits with a laugh.
King, Deputy County Administrator for Rockingham County, realized he had the same name as the famous author at age 14.
“The first book of his I read was when I was in high school was `Salem’s Lot,’ ” he says. “And I actually joined his book club.”
At his home, King has two full shelves of the author’s books in hardback.
“The name probably got me interested at first and then I realized I liked his books,” he says.
King is the youngest of seven children. His older siblings happened to be named after people from the Bible, so when his parents got to him, they decided to continue the theme.
“Why they chose Stephen, who was stoned to death, I don’t know,” he says. “I think they just liked the name.”
The common quip King hears is, “Have you written any good books lately?”
“When I’m paying the bills, they’ll see my credit card and say, “Oh, have you written any good books lately? Bet you’ve never heard that one before!’ ”
King says he’s a fan of the author on Facebook, not an obsessive one, just “interested and curious.”
Coincidentally, he’s never been to Maine, where two of the author’s three mansions are located.
“I’ve been to every state except for North Dakota and Maine,” he says. “I need to, we’ve talked about it, actually, not because of Stephen King, but if I go there I will definitely go by his house and get a picture in front.”
King says he’s kicked around the idea of writing a book of his own, but says he doesn’t think he has the ability.
“I’ve told my wife she should write a book: `Mary King the wife of Stephen King,’ which would be true.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2015, issue of The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.
A look at a Virginia couple's life in a tiny home in 2015, when the movement was just starting to get big.
Sometimes, thinking big means thinking small. Meghan Williamson and Kurt Rosenberger joined the small house movement in November when they moved into Nathan Musselman’s 204-square-foot home, located right outside the city of Harrisonburg.
To be in Meghan and Kurt’s living room is also to be in their dining room, kitchen and office. The space is roomier than it appears from the outside, but still, the grand tour takes about two minutes, and from the house’s only table you can keep an eye on the couple’s dog, Bonnie, in the bedroom and see when the water on the propane stove reaches a boil.
Musselman designed and built the home, with the help of Herr Construction, over the course of six months in 2013 and into 2014 to serve as an example of a sustainable, legally constructed home under 300 square feet. He lived in the home for a few months until he got engaged and moved out in April.
“Right now, tiny homes are a bit of a novelty, and weird to some people,” Musselman says. “I think over time they’ll become less of a novelty and more common sense. Why wouldn’t you align your house to the sun and have it heated in large part for free? People need to think about building in ways that are more connected to the environment they’re living in.”
The recent small house movement began in 1997 when Sarah Susanka published “The Not So Big House,” but blew up after the financial crisis of 2007-2010, when small homes became a more affordable option than taking out a mortgage on and maintaining a full-sized home.
The movement continues to grow in popularity, with documentaries such as “Tiny,” a television show called “Tiny House Nation,” and firms, including the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, that specialize in designing and building homes between 65 and 887 square feet. Yet despite the buzz, only 1 percent of home buyers acquire houses of 1,000 square feet or less, while the average size of homes built last year hit 2,600 square feet, an all-time high that surpassed even the housing bubble years, when homes averaged around 2,400 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.
One barrier that people considering a tiny home run into is building code laws that specify a minimum square footage for permanent dwellings. In many places, including Augusta County, where a minimum is set, tiny homes are being built on trailers, which places them in the impermanent structure category and it becomes a DMV/Highway District issue rather than one of city code.
“It’s hard when sustainability has, in some cases, been overtly outlawed,” Williamson says. “In many places, you’re not allowed to grow your own food in your front lawn or have your own chickens.”
Chickens and homegrown produce are two of the reasons Williamson wanted to move away from the city in the first place.
“Kurt and I wanted to balance my rural perspective with his desire to be able to bike to everything,” she says. “This place combines rural sustainability with transportation sustainability.”
From the home, Rosenberger is able to walk to his woodshop and bike into town in less than 15 minutes.
When asked if they know of any other tiny homes in town, Rosenberger points out that there are almost as many trailers as homes around the county.
“All of those people are living in small-footprint homes and all of them are doing it for economic reasons,” he says. “This is cute, I get that, tiny houses have nice trim, but that’s mostly a response to parameters.
“One hundred years ago, this wouldn’t have been considered a tiny house, this would have just been a house,” he adds. “We’ve just forgotten, culturally.”
The cost to build a tiny home typically ranges $20,000 to $50,000, but once built, maintenance costs are close to zero.
“There are no utilities here,” Williamson says.
The home is powered by solar panels and heated by a combination of woodstove and passive solar. With the house’s good insulation and south-facing windows, the couple rarely even fires up the woodstove for warmth. Rainwater runs off the roof and is collected in a massive barrel to the left of the house, and water is heated by solar water heating panels. The house is completely off-grid, with 10 solar batteries hidden inside the dining room bench.
A common theme among tiny homes is smart use of space. Almost everything in the house has more than one purpose. The seating is also storage space, the nook beneath the bed serves as Bonnie’s personal cave, and the walls are slowly being colonized by bookshelves.
“I don’t need much in a house, but I definitely need some bookshelves,” Williamson says.
The couple has already held a few gatherings at the house and plans to host more come spring, when they’ll be able to fully enjoy the outdoor space.
“We have had small, intimate dinner parties,” she says with a laugh. “We do four to six people really well.”
Aside from being more sustainable and affordable, a big reason people are drawn to the idea of a tiny home is because they promise a simpler lifestyle.
“It’s been really easy,” Williamson says. “It’s sometimes hard to downsize, but then you just realize you have more stuff than you want.”
“All people actually need and want is a space to be cozy and read good books and not feel like they have to work too hard to pay for things they don’t need.”
Many would consider placing two humans and a dog in such a tight space a sure way to ruin a relationship. But Williamson says she and Kurt have only had one almost-fight in the house since moving in.
“I came out one morning after sleeping in on a Saturday, and Kurt had chopped all the wood we had,” she says. “I was like `WHAT? That’s not fair! I wanted to do some of that.'”
The pair says they don’t know if they’ll live in a tiny home forever, build one of their own someday, or refurbish an old townhouse, like they had originally planned.
“Our goal a year ago was to buy a townhouse that needed to be renovated and loved on,” she says. “We wanted to tighten it up, so it was a lot more energy efficient. Both rehabbing old homes and building tiny homes are really good directions.”
By living in the tiny home, Williamson is able to focus more of her time and energy on Pine Knot Projects, a handful of efforts she’s involved with around the Shenandoah Valley aimed toward “sustainability, community and shared vitality.”
“As a society I think we’re a little bit overwhelmed by our stuff,” she says. “We work really hard to have a lot of stuff, and sometimes it would be nice to work hard for things that we love.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 10, 2015, issue of The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.