The Big Lemon

Jim Vockler Whyte

In the documentary, all of us seem to be bristling with hope at the possibility of living in our very own dream home. We look younger, yes, but what is striking is that our attitudes and postures have all the sudden confidence of those who are in the middle of something they believe to be worthy. We speak with conviction. Our gestures have faith.

The producers intimated that they were keen to document both the construction of The Big Lemon and the family who dreamed it. The host was a quietly talkative and charismatic man who interviewed us about many different aspects of The Big Lemon, including why we thought it was our dream home, and why it took the form of a big lemon.

It had taken some hard work and creative thinking to convince the city. We had a little presentation and everything, even had a little model. Most modern models are digital, but we thought it might be more affecting if our model were handcrafted. This way, if the city denied our us our dream home, we would have saved time, money, and some of our dignity. We hired the best modelist we could afford, and they were thrilled—here was a rare chance to build a beautiful handcrafted miniature. The pervasive mood at the time was one of ambition and excitement, a shared sense of originality. We were pioneers, mavericks. We were building a dream for ourselves—and the dream was big, and the dream was good.

It is still embarrassing to admit that we assumed the documentarians had our best interests at heart. What we thought would be an interesting and illuminating look behind the scenes of an outstandingly original dream-to-reality story resulted in a mean and unfair portrayal that presented The Big Lemon as a ridiculous and foolish project and depicted our family as naïve and foolish for believing in it. An especially sly betrayal was the wry and apparently bemused voice-over ruefully warning viewers against the fanciful and self-regarding sentiments that underwrote our dream. Had we heard this cruel voice narrating our progress when we were actually building The Big Lemon, we may never have got as far as we did.

The idea of living in a big lemon came to us in a dream. We’ve often wondered if we might’ve had the same dream at the same time—we like to think so. A family dream; a dream we dreamt together. But nowadays we keep these thoughts to ourselves. Not too many families can make the claim that their dream home actually came to them in a dream. It’s a rare privilege, and we are careful not to boast about it.

The completion of The Big Lemon, which was already undergoing difficulty, was stalled when the documentary aired on national television. Unforeseen and costly challenges had arisen during the build, challenges the documentarians, or our friends, might have warned us about, had they had our best interests at heart. The city, which had originally been supportive, publicly expressed embarrassment over the issue and quickly passed a number of new construction and zoning restrictions with exorbitantly expensive permits. We were priced out, for our folly.

After we were forced to sell the property back to the bank, the city repurchased everything at an offensively low price. Then they renovated The Big Lemon just enough to make it safe and weatherproof, but also in such a way so that it was plainly obvious that the original project had never been completed.

It has since become something of a tourist destination. Motorists often make a detour from the main highway just to see it. The last time we visited The Big Lemon, there was a table where the miniature we commissioned—a little big lemon—was on display. In another corner was a small screen playing the award-winning documentary, complete with extra-features footage, editing, and voiceover. The documentary is called The Big Lemon. It plays on loop.

Jim Vockler Whyte is an Australian writer living in New York City. @youarejim