Thursday, June 28, 2012

On The Rocks

Tom and Gladys Johnston
The volcanic rock arch
One of the cliffside houses
On a ship during a summer job in the 1930s, Tom Johnston saw the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the lower Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, and was captivated.  World War II and a career in newspaper editing and big-city advertising intervened, but the spell had been cast and would not let him go.  In 1961, he convinced his wife to chuck their prosperous lives in New York and head to Bequia, jewel of the island group.
Back when such things could be done by fairly ordinary (non-billionaire) mortals, he spied the empty southwestern peninsula known as Moonhole (so called because the setting moon shines through the rock arch twice a year during the equinoxes), bought 20 acres, and had some natives build steps up to a flat spot to be used for picnicking.  Now this was a man who had talked his way into a prestigious New England private school and also into Princeton, and had told the locals when he was a newspaperman in North Carolina to lighten up on the racism and nationalism (even today, not a risk-free action).  Possibly thinking of the cliff-hugging ancient houses in the American southwest or coastal Italy, he began to create a home, then 19 others, out of the cliff face, local wood, whalebone (they make fine bannisters) and sea flotsam, thinking of these free-form abodes as natural sculptures.  Nature was to rule:  trees were left inside rooms and a hummingbird hatched two chicks in the Johnston's guest room (no doors or windows were originally allowed).  Friends were invited to live in them and a community was visualized.
No road led there; there were no utilities and no groundwater (rainwater in cisterns had proven workable in the islands for centuries, though).  These days a road leads up to the main gate, but there is still no electricity except that generated by wind or solar panels.  Cooking and refrigeration is with propane (works fine for the Amish), and lighting is by kerosene lamp.  A completely private beach, breezes, flickering yellow light and the moon setting behind you?  You can see how Tom's imagination was captured, and then expressed.
Gladys Johnston had been chief of creative research at McCann-Erickson in New York and knew a great deal about human psychology.  Despite the privations and mosquitoes, she adapted to the completely different life on the island, but she never did penetrate the mystery of her husband's mind or motivations.
The houses were not really completed or sold as planned, as the arch above them had partially collapsed and we don't know, at this point, what the finances turned out to be.  Today some are occupied full-time and eleven are privately owned and available as holiday rentals.  One, Tranquillity Villa, has come in for criticism since it has been radically altered and looks more like an arty, but normal, luxury retreat.  Another, Generation Gap, is occupied by the couple's son Jim and his wife Sheena as caretakers of the ongoing Moonhole Conservation Trust.
The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Coastal Living have published articles on the project over the years.
The SI article came out in 1967 and has the perspective of the Johnstons still living and building.  It relates that two years previously a local official, William Tannis, came by to measure the structures for tax purposes.  It proved to be impossible:  curving, sloping and incomplete walls and floors, no usual features (or windows, remember) and no clear delineation of where the outdoors ended and living space began stopped him and he returned to the office to think about it.  Eventually, the government decided that the Johnstons had already done enough for the island and declared the project to be tax-free.

"The optimist lives on the peninsula of infinite possibilities..."



  1. Lovely. Man, a long form piece on this guy and his ambitions would be cool!