It is easy enough to remember that there are five Rockefeller brothers, all grandsons of John D. the First, but beyond that the average nonbanker has trouble keeping them straight, for the Rockies have a way of blending together in the mind like the peaks that make up a mountain range. Two, perhaps, possess distinctive public identities. There is the brother who was once married to Bobo. Winthrop. He is also a rancher in Arkansas and last fall he ran unsuccessfully for governor. Then there is the brother who is now married to Happy. Nelson. He is also governor of New York and last summer ran unsuccessfully for...well, everyone does know about that. Then come John and David. Are they just in there pitching for the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Rockefeller Center? Not exactly, but if this is the general conception of them it is not surprising, for these two court publicity as vigorously as does Greta Garbo. Finally, there is Laurance, and if the world of politics and business knows a host of Rockefellers, the world of resort building knows only this far-seeing and nervy one.
Like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, Laurance is a good philanthropist, serving as president of and contributing his share to Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Inc., the family give-away program. Like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, he is a bold businessman, having earned a reputation as a remarkably effective venture capitalist in the jet-age sciences of space travel and propulsion. The family makes a fetish of keeping its principal interests from overlapping and, like a perfectly normal Rockefeller, Laurance has a special interest—conservation. A popular if not quite final measure of Laurance's accomplishments is that his Who's Who entry is 39 lines long, which makes him leader of the clan, five lines ahead of runner-up Nelson.
All these are worthy, down-to-earth endeavors, but down-to-earth does not reflect the real Laurance Rockefeller, not by a moon shot. What gives him away as a restless, creative, swinging, far-out, wild and yet, amazingly, very practical dreamer are his vacation resorts. In the past 10 years he has produced six of them. They have cost $60 million. They have been built in faraway places with strange-sounding names where no right-thinking man would invest in so much as a grass-skirt concession, and they have followed a unique—and financially terrifying—Rockefeller concept of what a resort must be. In a travel age that considers door locks, telephones and air conditioning to be as vital to a hotel as indoor plumbing, Rockefeller hates door locks, telephones and air conditioning. Consequently, in some of his resorts, he has simply left them out. Getting to most vacation spots is, as Madison Avenue says, half the fun, but getting to one of Rockefeller's remote resorts can be half the excitement. Yet what he has done is so imaginative and so comfortable that two of his creations are already operating in the black and there is ample reason to think that the others will be, too, including his latest and most lavish of all, the $15 million Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the island of Hawaii. It is decorated with a bewildering assortment of artifacts collected from throughout Asia and the Pacific by Davis Allen of Skid-more, Owings & Merrill, architects for the hotel. It is landscaped with native trees and shrubs and highlighted by a stretch of soft, white beach and a $2 million golf course. And it is, above all, a culmination of the things Laurance Rockefeller has learned in his decade of resort building. It is Rockefeller's wildest gamble to date. It could be extravagantly successful, and it could also be the most spectacular resort failure since the Romans built summer villas in Pompeii.
"This is a highly speculative field," admits Rockefeller. "We are, especially in Hawaii, pioneers in every sense of the word. I used to kid Bill Zeckendorf that the only real-estate investment too speculative for him is the one I have gone into. It is a little frightening."
June 27, 1965
It should be frightening, even for a man with a Rockefeller's resources, partly because Laurance's costly projects have several distinctions seldom found in more conventional resort palaces. First, there is that matter of location. Rockefeller's initial hotel venture, Jackson Lake Lodge, is located in the deepest wilderness of Wyoming. It is in, not accidentally. Grand Teton National Park, 33,562 acres of which were donated to the U.S. Government in 1949 by John D. Rockefeller Jr. through Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc. Caneel Bay Plantation, which serves as the gateway to another Rockefeller-aided national park, is on the distant island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. From the nearest airport it is a long taxi and motorboat trip, six miles by land and four miles by sea. Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico, is 20 miles along the coast from San Juan, and the connecting route is more byway than freeway. Little Dix Bay is on the mountainous island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, which means it is merely a plane, boat and jeep trip from San Juan airport. Yet Mauna Kea is the most inaccessible of all. It is 2,400 miles from California and 150 miles southeast of Honolulu by island-hopping Super Convair. Of the six Rockefeller resorts, the only easy-to-get-to spot is the hotel Laurance bought, as an act of charity, and expanded: Estate Good Hope on St. Croix.
"Remoteness is our chief problem," says Rockefeller. "It means we have to invest heavily in nonincome-producing items. At Jackson Hole, Caneel Bay, Little Dix and to a lesser extent the others, we have to provide housing for all our staff. In the Caribbean two-thirds of our investment is in bringing into the area the elements of civilization that we need just to run the places: water, housing, electricity, airstrips, roads, etc. We build a little town just to provide for the hotel. This commits us to large, income-producing facilities to make the original investment worthwhile. It also presupposes sustained growth."
To most builders this kind of setup represents a snowballing nightmare of investment commitments devoutly to be avoided, but Rockefeller will have things no other way, for he has a complete set of principles and philosophies concerning resort building. His resorts are where they are partly because he has long felt there is a need to open up scenic and stimulating wilderness areas, making them available to people who, like Rockefeller, want to get back to nature now and then and, if not wrestle with it, at least enjoy it. They are also where they are partly because of Laurance's desire to spend money where it can do somebody else some good, in areas that can use some economic pump priming. Building high-rise hotels in Miami Beach, oceanfront San Juan or on Waikiki does not interest him in the least. Another distinction lies in Rockefeller's insistence that his hotels retire discreetly into their background, the way Rockefeller himself might prefer to retire into his. He will not permit his structures to be gigantic protrusions on the landscape, monuments to the builder or the architect that are visible for miles from all the ships at sea. Caneel Bay Plantation, a string of bungalows fronted by a narrow slice of beach in a tiny inlet, can hardly be seen from an offshore rowboat. It is equally difficult to pick out the Dorado Beach Hotel grounds, though they harbor a gaggle of cottages and beach houses, a swimming pool, a casino, four bars, a dining room and dining terraces, tennis courts, a clubhouse and two 18-hole golf courses. Little Dix Bay, with its pointed, shingled huts, some of which are on stilts, and its quadruple-peaked dining area, looks exactly like a tranquil native village. Mauna Kea is slightly different, since there are very few trees to camouflage it, but its long, low lines merge well with the Kohala Mountains that rise in the distant background.
Though he hardly has a monopoly on such ingredients, a Rockefeller resort will abound in good taste and strict privacy. This is made possible by Rockefeller's willingness to look upon a construction budget as a thing that thinking men exceed. He will make several visits to the construction scene to be sure that what looks good on paper looks good in steel and concrete. When it does not, he has it torn down.
Despite the attention to detail, Rockefeller's resorts are not philanthropic operations. He expects each of them to be able to stand on its own well-shod feet, although he is willing to wait 10, even 20 years for the original investment to start showing a return. Cancel Bay, with an annual operating budget of $1.5 million, has been self-sustaining for four years. Dorado Beach, until Mauna Kea the most extravagant Rockefeller resort, with an annual budget of $5.2 million, is making a profit.
"There are two criteria for success in the resort business," Rockefeller says. "One: Did you do a good job? Do people come to the resort and enjoy it? Two: Is it good business? Does it pay for itself? To me, the first criterion is the most important, but there is some interplay between them. One should reflect the success of the other. But if you fail in one criterion and succeed only in the other, then you have wasted your time. We are trying hard to succeed in both, because success is the ultimate test and we want very badly to encourage others to follow us in what we are trying to do."
The nature of both Rockefeller and his resorts could be seen one day last year when he came to inspect the early construction at Mauna Kea. The Hawaiian sun was hot, hot enough to drive most mortals under a banyan tree, iced drink in hand. Laurance, however, was standing hatless in the middle of the construction site, which was marked by little more than two towering cranes, the beginnings of a long, narrow cement foundation, scraps of rock, coils of steel and a large cement wall, about four feet high, all shimmering in the semitropical sun. He was not alone, but he seldom is. This time a group of 13 friends, relatives, builders and architects was trailing along. Suddenly Rockefeller's attention was caught by the cement wall, which would separate the hotel terrace-to-be from the beach 25 feet below it.
"That wall," said Rockefeller, turning to the architect who was serving as his guide. "Don't you think it is too high?"
"Well, it has to protect the terrace from the slope and the beach below," answered the architect, Dick Ciceri. "And from the design point of view, it is the great mass upon which the building sits."
From the design point of view, that might have been very true, but from the Rockefeller point of view the wall was doomed, for it was violating one of his most vital resort precepts.
"It blocks the view of the beach," Rockefeller said. "As far as the feeling of man to nature is concerned, this wall is an absolute dike to rapport, a truncation of man to nature. It is in direct opposition to everything we are trying to achieve here. It will just have to be taken down, or at least cut to half its present height."
Doomed too, because of Rockefeller's willingness to push buildings around like modeling clay, was a construction schedule that was already lagging and a budget already hopelessly inadequate. But it is the end result that concerns him most, and the wall might have marred that result.
Be it a Hawaiian beach or a Wyoming forest, Rockefeller's essential thought about conservation, recreation or resort building revolves around man's rapport with nature. This is what gives his resorts their distinctive quality. Rockefeller does not exactly ask his guests to rough it (especially at rates that reach $85 per day for a double at the height of the season), but he wants to keep his visitors in constant touch with the natural beauty around them. He has some unusual ways of going about this. Caneel Bay Plantation, for example, issues no room keys to its guests. Nor does it have telephones in the rooms. This once proved a source of considerable frustration to Frederick Kappel, the board chairman of AT&T, who offered to pay the expense of having a phone installed in his own room. Management told him, politely, that he might own a few million phones in America, but he was not going to have even one at Caneel Bay. Kappel was aggrieved, but not enough to keep him from coming back to the ringless peace of Caneel every year.
Another of Rockefeller's notions concerns air conditioning. To him it is just another way, like a too-high wall, of losing rapport with nature. But he does not want to lose his guests as well, so at most of his resorts he has permitted a kind of local option. Skillfully designed louvered walls let in an abundance of fresh air, and each room has access to an air-conditioning system. The system is there, but it is not essential. Little Dix Bay, however, has no option, only louvers. To create a sort of British colonial effect (after all, this is the British Virgin Islands), large four-bladed fans turn majestically in the ceiling, but they provide considerably less of a stir than the natural ventilation. The same is true at Caneel Bay.
Rockefeller's desire for open air also creates a stir in the Little Dix dining area, a kind of plaza protected by nothing more than four roofs resting on slanted stilts. The wind comes sweeping off the inlet in the evening, and falling crockery sometimes makes a mockery of dinner. Glass screens will be constructed to reduce the breakage, but meanwhile the tablecloths must be clamped down and salt sprinkled well to windward if it is to hit its target.
Yet this is mere puttering compared to the extremes Rockefeller's hostility toward air conditioning led him to at Mauna Kea. In 1961 he installed his own weather station there in order to find out, among other things, if it was practical to operate a resort without air conditioning in Hawaii's climate. He was delighted to discover that a cool breeze usually blew inland from the sea during the heat of day and that at night cool air came rolling down off the mountains. With this in mind, he was most receptive when Nat Owings, a partner of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, came to him with a startling new idea for a beach cottage.
"It was a pretty weird-looking thing," recalls Allston Boyer, the good-humored Harvard man who oversees the management of all Laurance's resorts. "It resembled a miniature mosque. Owings claimed that it was an ancient design that he had discovered in Greece, but some of us suspected he had dreamed it up back home in San Francisco. Anyway, it featured a big hole in the ceiling right over the bathtub, so you could lie there, I guess, and stare at the sky, praying, maybe, that a face wouldn't suddenly appear at the edge. It also had a huge opening in the main ceiling that was partially covered by something that looked like a cereal bowl turned upside down. This was designed to keep rain out, but let air in and out. The boss Hipped when he saw the plan. The idea of individual cottages appealed to him because he thinks privacy in a resort is important, and this seemed like the ultimate in privacy. Then, of course, he liked the natural air conditioning.
"Henry Beebe, the boss's chief construction man, and I were pretty skeptical. We suspected it might be too hot, and we figured that when a real storm came up the wind would blow the rain in right under the protective bowl. Well, Laurance went ahead and had a full-scale model built down by the beach—I would hate to tell you how much it cost, and I won't, but plenty [an estimated $85,000]. Bob Hoke, from the public relations office, and I spent two restless nights in the thing, with sweat pouring off us. But when the boss tried it he just took a couple of pills, slept like a log and thought it was great. He was all set to build 100 of these cottages. Then, four days before we had to commit ourselves to an investment of several million dollars, a real storm came up the coast. Everything in the house got drenched, and that about washed the idea out of Laurance's mind. But the clincher came a few days later when we went out to Hawaii for another visit. This time a storm hit just as we arrived. When we walked in the front door of the mosque, water was pouring in through the ceiling, and who did we see but Architect Ciceri, soaked to the skin, standing in a foot of water and holding his shoes in one hand and his pants legs up with the other. The mosque idea was lost, but he had come to try and save the furniture at least."
This seriocomic clash with the elements brought Rockefeller around to the one-building concept of resort construction. His Caribbean resorts consist principally of independent units scattered over a fairly wide area. But they were costly to put up and operate.
Mauna Kea was eventually designed to combine all the advantages of independent units with the convenience of a centralized one. Distributed through the middle of the building are three large courtyards, open to the sky. Growing in them are gardens with palm trees. The rooms range along each side of these courtyards, facing either the ocean to the west or the golf course and Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot-high volcano, to the east. Each room has both sliding louvered walls and sliding glass walls, these last a sop to those who want the artificial air conditioning. Much of the reception area, lounge area and shopping area is open, thus bringing the guests even closer to the outdoors. In fact, even though each guest is living in a four-story, 154-room building, he will experience the sensation of having the outdoors just a turn of the doorknob away.
Rockefeller developments, except for Jackson Lake Lodge, have another thing in common. "The boss is a great beach man," says Boyer.
The beach at Caneel is a narrow half moon of sand facing west onto a small bay. In the afternoon the slight Caribbean haze and the mountainous islands of St. Thomas and the Virgin cays in the distance give Caneel the quiet quality of a lakeshore instead of the roar of an ocean resort. Little Dix has a similar crescent of sand facing on a small inlet, as well as two long beaches just up the coast. The beach at Mauna Kea is a wide, short crescent and it, too, is on a rather well-protected inlet.
"I know younger people like surf, a great deal of water turbulence," says Rockefeller. "But I prefer white sand and clear, still water. Like Caneel. The water off the beach is always calm, almost like a pool. It is so safe that we have never needed lifeguards. We consider the beach to be the natural anchor point of all our resorts."
If the beach is the natural anchor, the man-made supplement to the beach at Dorado and Mauna Kea is the golf course. One of Dorado's two 18s was good enough for the Canada Cup matches to be played on it in 1961. Mauna Kea is one of the best courses Golf Architect Robert Trent Jones ever designed. A man who is willing, and seems to relish, moving mountains to build golf holes, Jones decided to bulldoze very little of Mauna Kea's gently sloping hills and valleys, and the course fits beautifully into the rolling landscape.
For a while, putting a golf course into this part of Hawaii looked impossible. The area was open enough, but it was covered with volcanic rock that had tumbled down through the centuries from the now extinct Mauna Kea volcano.
"I didn't think we could put a golf course in there," admits Rockefeller. "But I took some samples of the rock home to put on my dresser and brood over. I showed one to Trent Jones, and he smashed it with a hammer. 'Going to be nothing to it,' he told me later. 'Let's go.' "
What Jones discovered was that the lava would crumble into a fine, rich dust. Then, when watered, the dust would turn into a rich soil base. As a result, very little soil had to be brought in for the course.
While Rockefeller likes his resorts to have such man-made supplements, he certainly does not consider them essential. There is no golf course at Jackson Hole, Little Dix or Caneel Bay. Caneel has only a single tennis court, Little Dix not even that.
"What we look for," he says, "are people who have enough inner resources to enjoy an unorganized environment, to appreciate peace, serenity, beauty and reasonable comfort. Naturally, in places like Mauna Kea, Little Dix, Grand Teton and Caneel we expect to draw outdoor-minded people, people who want to get away from organized activities."
Rockefeller could be his own most satisfied customer. He is a vigorous outdoorsman who spends his own infrequent vacations chopping wood, hiking, boating, playing tennis, golfing and swimming. The result is a physique—a muscular chest and legs, 180 pounds on a 6-foot-high frame—which is more like that of a college halfback than a 55-year-old millionaire.
Laurance got his outdoor training early in life. His father, John D. Jr., was an avid conservationist who took a great interest in what the U.S. had to offer in the way of outdoor recreation. He traveled extensively around the country, and he took his boys along.
"These See America First trips with father were important," says Laurance. "We were always camped in the woods, out working with ax and saw. Even today I am the one who replenishes the woodpile at our ranch in Jackson Hole."
Rockefeller's decision to go into the resort business resulted from an interesting blend of two different facets of his career: one, his lifetime concern with conservation, the other, his conviction, arrived at through years of dealing with aviation and scientific corporations, that no place in the world was going to be far away for very long.
As early as 1938 he was backing Eddie Rickenbacker in a fight to control Eastern Air Lines, and he is now Eastern's largest single stockholder. He helped found or profitably kept alive such companies as McDonnell Aircraft Corp., a leading plane manufacturer; Reaction Motors, Inc., a rocketry pioneer; The Marquardt Corp., which produced the ramjet engine; and Itek Corp., a pioneer in the field of information technology, whose stock rose from a low of $2 per share to a high of $255.
His interest in conservation kept pace with his involvement in the jet age. After the family donated land to the Grand Teton National Park, it was realized that the park was inaccessible to a large number of visitors, because there was almost no place to stay. The result was a $6 million investment in Jackson Lake Lodge and various smaller lodges back in 1955. At Jackson Hole a visitor can now stay for as much as $23 (in the main lodge) or as little as $5 (cost of renting a covered campsite). Caneel Bay Plantation built on a more grandiose scale, was founded with much the same purpose in mind, to help make a wilderness, in this case the Virgin Islands National Park, more accessible.
While practically everything Laurance Rockefeller touches in the business world turns quickly into something that he could deposit in brother David's Chase Manhattan Bank, his resortman-conservationist role has led him into some fairly tumultuous situations. He is fully as shy about personal publicity as John or David, and determined to manage his productions from offstage, but circumstances have a way of yanking the curtain up prematurely, and there stands Laurance with an embarrassed smile. Caneel Bay is an excellent example. Rockefeller was out cruising in his yacht off the island of St. John one day in 1952 when he discovered what he considered to be one of the world's great beaches and decided to take a more active interest in the island as a whole. Through Jackson Hole Preserve, Inc., a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1940, he began to buy up acreage on St. John. He planned to use 130 acres to develop the Caneel Bay Plantation, and to donate the rest of the property to the U.S. Government for a national park. On December 1, 1956 he gave the park system 5,000 acres, and he kept on buying, the idea being eventually to complete the acquisition of the total 9,500 acres authorized by Congress for the park—approximately three-quarters of the entire island. But local residents felt threatened by the possibility of dispossession—understandably enough.
"This gift horse is pushing us off our island." complained one Virgin Islands senator. Others saw the Rockefeller hotel as a blow, not an aid, to tourism, because all competition might be squeezed out. Still others felt the national park would be a drain on the local economy because such a large area would suddenly yield no tax revenue.
The fury died down until the fall of 1962, when Congress took under consideration a bill authorizing the expenditure of $1,250,000, to be supplemented by additional funds from Laurance Rockefeller, to buy up pockets of land within the established park boundaries. The Interior Department, under this bill, would have the right to initiate condemnation proceedings against balky sellers. What followed was a classic example of that perpetually difficult situation in society in which a small number of people can be ousted for what is presumed to be the good of the many. Suffice it to say that old John D. at his robber-baron best was not called any worse names than the residents of St. John directed at grandson Laurance, who was essentially trying to give away land and money. In the end, the condemnation provision was removed from the bill.
Nor is the actual operation of the resorts complaint-proof. Laurance, like all of the Rockefeller family, is vehemently opposed to all forms of racial discrimination. There are no racial or religious restrictions, tacit or otherwise, at any of his resorts. Yet at Little Dix Bay he is accused of supporting racial bigotry. The population of Virgin Gorda is almost all Negro, and most of the help at Little Dix is Negro. When the manager recently fired some of his staff, a body of local politicians decided discrimination was involved. They told Rockefeller to discharge his manager or face a charge of discrimination himself.
But by now Laurance Rockefeller should be getting accustomed to the kinds of things that can happen to a conservationist-philanthropist-resort builder. It was just the other day that he was in the news again. Lyndon Johnson was grouchy late one afternoon and began to complain to reporters that the White House was not a very peaceful place to live. "When I was trying to take a nap today," the President told the newsmen, "Mrs. Johnson and Laurance Rockefeller had 80 women in the other room talking about daffodils growing on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Poor Laurance. The President himself had put Rockefeller on his Natural Beauty Task Force, and now this happens. Perhaps what Laurance needs is to take a week off somewhere at a peaceful resort. A new one is opening in Hawaii that might be fine for him. It is called Mauna Kea, and it has....