In 1979, Michael Kahn and Leda Livant moved to a rural three-acre plot of land in Cornville, Arizona. Allowed to stay on the property rent-free, Kahn and Livant started building what would become Eliphante immediately, living in an 8′ x 10′ wooden shack that Michael had thrown up to keep them safe during the winter. It had no plumbing, no electricity, and Leda says it was the best home she’d ever had – they called it their “Winter Palace.”
They lived in their “Winter Palace” for the next five years while they built the main building that would be Eliphante, and the surrounding buildings, one of which would be called Hippodome, named this because it looks like a hippopotamus rising out of a body of water. Livant lives in the Hippodome now – Kahn died a few years ago from a form of dementia. The Hippodome has a phone and running water and electricity, but no bathroom. Livant showers in a shower house that is solar-powered (and is pretty much just a hose in a shack), and if she needs to use the restroom she does it in the outhouse, or sometimes right out in the open. The property is fairly secluded, and is only accessible across a stream. Sometimes the stream is low enough that a car can just drive across it. Other times, you have to take a canoe.
Their story is one of magic and tragedy – romance and heartbreak. Livant was a suburban mother of two, married to a a psychologist. She dabbled in painting and drawing, but lived her suburban life and volunteered in the community. When her kids were a little older (one in college, the other in high school), Livant and her husband went on vacation to Cape Cod. That’s where Livant’s whole life turned upside down.
Michael Kahn was a painter, ten years younger than Livant, and she fell for him immediately. She left her husband and her kids, and moved in with Kahn, taking housecleaning jobs to support them. All he ever wanted to do was paint. When they moved to Arizona they built and when he wasn’t building he was painting. Livant blossomed as an artist, and learned to weave as well as developed her painting skills. They were happy together.
The house that was born of their union is part madness, part magic. It is made of found objects and driftwood and any other thing they could find to build it. They have mosaic tile work that used salvaged tiles from someone’s kitchen remodel. They’ve made interesting use of AstroTurf.
Though they started building in 1979, Eliphante & Hippodome and everything around them was consistently a work-in-progress. In 1987 Eliphante LTD was formed – a non-profit art company – and in 1994 the Smithsonian listed it with their Save Outdoor Sculpture movement. The property is in a state of disarray – in need of about $30000 worth or repairs. Livant doesn’t have the money, and Kahn wasn’t able to secure a grant before he died. Let’s hope that someone comes in to do what needs to be done to preserve this artistic treasure.