The Magic of Moonhole

by Natasha Wolff | March 8, 2013 12:00 am

In the daisy chain of glittering Caribbean islands known as the Grenadines, Bequia is something of a tropical wallflower. To its north lies Saint Vincent, a bustling resort destination where one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was filmed. To the south is Mustique, the orchidaceous getaway beloved by rock stars, royals and the international jet set. Bequia (pronounced Beck-way) has no hotel chains, golf courses or Nobu. It possesses only powdery beaches, sylvan glades and a blissfully indolent ambience. But Bequia does have at least one well-known land-mark to call its own: Moonhole, a private residential community situated on the island’s southern tip. The story of Moonhole is as thorny, tangled and convoluted as the scrub-covered slopes from which it springs. It is the tale of paradise found, paradise lost and, recently, paradise regained. Most of all, Moonhole confirms Jean-Paul Sartre’s sly assessment that “hell is other people.”

Glimpsed from the sea, Moonhole resembles a crumbling city engineered by the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. On closer examination, the original structure, perched under an enormous stone arch, could be a Gothic fortress conceived by The Hobbit director Peter Jackson. In fact, the community comprises 17 singular homes that were constructed between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The free-form, Gaudi-like dwellings, connected by steep staircases, sprout from the rocky terrain like wild mushrooms. Long before environmental architecture became a movement, Moonhole championed the idea of living as one with nature. Building materials include volcanic rock, native cedar and South American hardwoods, as well as whale bones, driftwood and shells for quirky embellishments. The houses are open to the elements, boast spectacular sea views and are powered mostly by propane gas. The absence of electricity, Wi-Fi and running water—rainwater is stored in cisterns for bathing and washing— lends Moonhole an idyllic charm.

The idea for Moonhole was hatched by Tom Johnston, a khaki-clad iconoclast, and Gladys Johnston, his ever-diligent wife. Tom, an advertising executive from Chicago, was so enamored of Bequia’s uninhabitable western promontory that he bought the entire 30-acre tract in the 1960s. With no formal training as an architect and an aversion to straight lines, he enlisted local masons to realize his eccentric ideas, which included rooms with three walls, a bar fashioned from a humpback whale’s jawbone and interiors assembled around trees. When his discerning friends requested homes on Bequia, he produced those, too. He dubbed the community “Moonhole,” using the Bequian name for the tremendous rock formation framing the original house. After Johnston died in 2001, he bequeathed his controlling interest in the Moonhole Company to a trust for the protection and preservation of the property. “He wanted to keep it as a secluded retreat for writers, artists, friends and people who could appreciate getting away from it all,” says Carroll Rooth, a Moonhole resident since 1972.

Yet for most of the last decade, it seemed that Moonhole was in danger of being eclipsed. The sun-dappled serenity that the Johnstons worked so assiduously to create became clouded by external threats, litigation and neglect. On an island where whaling is still legally sanctioned, the Moonholers began hurling harpoons at one another. As several owners vied for control, and the number of devoted staff dwindled, some of the homes were abandoned and left to decay. Picture Grey Gardens relocated to the Grenadines, with iguanas and manicous standing in for cats. The biggest challenge to the property came from Jim Johnston, one of the founders’ sons, who contested his father’s will in a Caribbean court.

“We went through nine years of entropy,” says Amos Eno, one of the trustees. Three years ago, the court ruled in favor of the trust. Since then, Moonhole’s most dedicated residents have returned to restore the settlement to its former glory and retain the loyal Bequian staff, many of whom have worked there for more than 20 years. Several of the homes have been spruced up and made available for weekly rentals. The grounds were cleared and replanted with indigenous trees; trustees work to protect the nesting turtles, iguanas and birds.

To outsiders, the travails of Moonhole might seem like a tempest in a teapot. But those on the inside believe it’s imperative to keep the Johnstons’ quixotic vision afloat. “The place has undergone a generational shift,” says Robert Rooth, a trustee. “In many cases the original owners have passed away or become too elderly to visit, and the next generation haven’t taken up the interest in staying there.” Indeed, five of the Moonhole houses are for sale—their asking prices range from $300,000 to $1.2 million—and several of them remain in a shambolic state. But there is tension among the homeowners as some refuse to contribute to the cost of upkeep, while others have altered their abodes in a manner that brazenly flouts the Johnstons’ original manifesto, with such things as gaudy tile and paint color. Another nettlesome issue is the constant stream of rubberneckers who willfully trespass on the private property, until they are escorted off by security. As for the original house, it has been off-limits ever since massive boulders from the arch became dislodged and plummeted though its roof.

If you believe that this all sounds like ideal fodder for a gripping book, you might be cheered to learn that one owner, architect Charles Brewer, will soon release his version of events at Moonhole. News of the forthcoming tome has inspired cocked eyebrows among some of his fellow residents. “He should really consider getting a ghostwriter,” says one.

Trustee Amos Eno says Brewer “was there taking pictures during the time of the lawsuit, when legally we had no control over what he was doing.” Considering the fate of the prototype house, which has become a symbol for all the animosity, Brewer should probably subtitle his book “People Who Live in Stone Houses Shouldn’t Throw Stones.”

Despite all the Sturm und Drang, Moonhole endures as an eco paradise, a Zen retreat and an architectural gem. The homes, which front a postcard-perfect beach on one side and a cobalt-hued bay on the other, are a bravura display of design ingenuity. They’re a unique fusion of cozy cave and playful tree house, equal parts Flintstones and Gilligan’s Island, set on an un-touched wildlife sanctuary. Johnston’s contextual buildings mirror the sinuous lines of the island and the majestic vistas of the peninsula. “One time masons were putting up a wall for a house and Tom asked the voluptuous house-keeper to come out of the kitchen,” remembers Carroll Rooth. “He had her lie down on the floor on her side; he backed all the men up and said, ‘Look at the curve of her hips and how that echoes the hillside in the background. That’s what I want.'”

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