Down on Bequia, one of the little islands that decorate the eastern Caribbean, Mr. William Tannis, secretary of the local government, appeared at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Johnston carrying a large tape measure. Mr. Tannis had come to measure the Johnstons' new home for tax purposes.
"Is your definition of a house a place with rooms?" Tom Johnston asked.
"Why, yes," William Tannis replied.
"And a room is a place with four walls?" Johnston asked.
February 27, 1967
"Of course," Tannis agreed.
"Then you are going to have trouble measuring this place," Johnston said.
William Tannis looked about. The Johnston home had many roofs, none of them connected. The place had many level floors, and also some split-level floors, and other floors that were very unlevel. It had windows and windowlets and superwindows and doors of many sizes. Everywhere that William Tannis looked there were walls twisting, angling and bulging, but only in a few places did enough walls come together to form what you could call a real room. Since some of the walls were simply the sides of a natural arch of volcanic rock that soared upward to form a superroof over some of the lesser roofs, William Tannis could not tell exactly where the tax-free outdoors ended and the taxable indoors began. Faced with an impossible situation, Tannis made a very sensible proposal.
"Let's have a beer," he said.
From a mile at sea, the unconventional Johnston house that William Tannis tried to measure two years ago resembles the Indian cliff dwellings of the U.S. Southwest. From closer in, as its lines become more distinct, the Johnston house looks more like an island citadel of the sort Crusaders might have built for defense against the Saracens. Closer still, the long staircase of the Johnston place, winding up from the water's edge between the so-called rooms, brings to mind a small Italian hamlet on the steep Tyrrhenian coast. Although the place seems to be a heady mixture of exotic cultures ranging from early Neanderthal to recent Eskimo, in essence it is only the physical expression of the philosophy of its owner, Tom Johnston, who believes a house should not be built to be looked upon, but designed so its occupants can look outward and live outwardly, enjoying the world.
The Johnston home is, for sure, intimately connected with nature. The place is called Moonhole because the rising moon at times peers through it. The Johnston's largest guest room is called the Whale Room. Why? Because it is the only room where you can awaken and, without lifting your head from the pillow, see whales spouting in the distant sea. The best of the smaller guest rooms is known as the Hummingbird Room because a hummingbird built its nest on a limb directly over the bed and hatched two young. The Hummingbird Room could as readily have been called the Cave Room, for there is a small stalactite hanging from its ceiling, and a matching stalagmite is abuilding on the floor below. When Gladys Johnston pointed out the dripping stalactite to her husband, he did something about it. He clocked it and found that the stalactite was shedding one drop of water every two minutes and 30 seconds. "Anyone stupid enough to stand under it for two and a half minutes does not deserve to be here," Johnston said, and did nothing further.
All of the foregoing oddments suggest that the Johnstons eke out a hair-shirt, makeshifty existence like the Swiss Family Robinson's. They do live differently, but comfortably, and in style. Since almost everything about the island of Bequia and the surrounding sea is beautiful and worth enjoying, the predominant outwardness of Moonhole makes good sense. The place, indeed, has proved to be such a smashing success that around Bequia today Johnston is in demand as an architect and builder, a circumstance that he finds flattering and odd, considering that four years ago he had never put together anything more substantial than a sandwich.
The greater part of Johnston's formative years—roughly from the age of 12 to 50—were spent in the U.S., in public and private schools and in the advertising business, but to consider Tom Johnston a product of these institutions is no more honest than to call champagne the product of a bottle. They were merely the containers that held him between explosions.
Johnston never had architectural training, which in his case was probably for the best. He has always traveled a rather unconventional road, operating largely on faith. As a 16-year-old high-schooler in Southern Pines, N.C., he applied for admission to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts so he could be near his sweetheart. Although Deerfield turned him down because he lacked both academic credits and money, he went there anyway, attending classes and hiding out in the school infirmary. Three weeks later, when the headmaster recognized him as a reject, Johnston said, "I always heard you never let a real problem boy go, and I am certainly a problem." He was allowed to stay provided he did not return the following year. He returned, and a year later went on to Princeton University.
Reviewing his matriculation at Princeton, Johnston says, "I not only took college board examinations, I failed the hell out of them." He went to Princeton anyway, having faith—as he still does in any impasse—that something would work out. While wandering the streets, he ran into an elderly acquaintance from Southern Pines who remembered Tom as the young man who had always helped him onto his horse. So, for gentlemanly services rendered while riding to the hounds, Johnston got a year's free education at The Hun School, a scholastic mill that specialized in getting academic delinquents into Princeton, where he later won his letter in football, wrestling and lacrosse.
One summer Johnston worked for the Furness Lines as a purser's clerk, and thus in 1930, when the Caribbean was still a faraway paradise, he saw many of the island jewels that stretch down to South America. Although in the 30 years that followed he rarely visited the area, the green-mountain Windward Island of St. Vincent stuck in his mind.
Because he was a mediocre student who also wrote a senior thesis claiming that Melville was a better writer than Hawthorne and the other dumbbells that the English department thought were great, Johnston emerged from Princeton in 1933 without a diploma. After a second tour of duty with the Furness Line, he got into the advertising business, where he exploded occasionally. Once, in 1939, he broke with the advertising game completely and sailed away again to St. Vincent, the island he loved. He had interested investors in a plan to get tourism moving on St. Vincent and to buy Mustique, a small island to the south, where the investors could build resort homes for themselves. Johnston's plan, along with half the world, went up in smoke when World War II began.
After Navy duty during the war, Tom Johnston served as a newspaper editor in North Carolina. He left that job under pressure—but without any tar or feathers on him—after telling the mayor and other local nabobs that their super-patriotic, antediluvian sentiments were a crock of grits. He then returned to advertising and jumped from one agency to another like a fleck of spit on a griddle. His candor occasionally cost him his job but usually got him a better one. He had fairly well feathered his nest and was a well-established, erratic success in 1960, when, for reasons he does not wholly understand, he suddenly felt the whole business was worth leaving. "I still liked advertising," Johnston remembers. "It was lovely, exciting, but somehow I think I had become fed up with myself."
Johnston went back to St. Vincent to see if it was still what he had loved 21 years earlier. He persuaded his wife Gladys that they could have a good, though different, life on the island. As a reward for what she subsequently put up with, Gladys Johnston will probably some day be canonized and made patron saint of patient wives. For gainful employment the Johnstons took the job of managing a small, nine-room hotel called the Sunny Caribbee on the island of Bequia, where they now live. For their services they got their meals and $60 a month—somewhat less than Johnston had been pulling down in the advertising game back in the U.S.
Before marriage Gladys Johnston had worked at an advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, as chief of creative research, a position that required her to know a good bit of practical psychology. Although well armed, she admits that she has never fully understood her husband, who sometimes exudes illogic that would befuddle the Mad Hatter. "When I complain about Tom's sloppiness," Gladys reports, "he replies, 'Why do you object to my sloppiness? I never complain about your neatness.' Really, how do you argue against that kind of logic?"
Tom Johnston had no sooner had a good look at the strange geological formation called Moonhole rising from the sea than he was hooked. He tried to rent a few acres surrounding it and ended up buying 20 acres. Since the Moonhole tract on the narrow south end of Bequia can only be reached by boat or a long hike, Gladys Johnston seldom saw it the first year they owned it. On her first safari there she said, "It is very nice," and returned to her chores at the hotel. Johnston hired native Bequians to spruce up the Moonhole area a bit so it would be suitable for picnicking. "I really believed I was only having steps built and a little level place here and there for picnics and chess," Johnston claims, "but the whole thing got out of hand, just like everything I have done." The next thing Gladys Johnston knew, she was living up among Moonhole's rocks, in a bedroom under a ledge that any puma with cubs would have taken to immediately.
"We have a photograph somewhere," she says, "that shows me standing in that bedroom with a wan smile. There were no closets and no shelves—just boards across rocks. Oh, I tried to be gung-ho about the fact that the bedroom floor ended very close to the bed and there was nothing to keep you from falling out of the kitchen. Tom kept repeating, 'I know you're going to be happy, I know you're going to be happy,' until I really was."
In addition to the complex of rooms and demirooms that makes up his own residence, Johnston has designed eight more homes on the Moonhole tract. All are unobtrusive and in full compliance with their natural settings. If there is a tree of beauty in the way or a rock that is esthetically pleasing (or impossible to move), Johnston builds around it. He uses no blueprints and, indeed, one of the remarkable things about his houses is that even when they are half-finished the exact end product is still in doubt. Fortunately, Johnston's clients know and trust him, so they are never dismayed when Johnston, standing in the middle of a half-finished house, says casually, "I think the bedroom will come roughly here. I haven't decided about the bathroom yet, and I don't know how we are ever going to get steps up to this place, but we'll figure something out."
"It is like painting with your feet," Johnston describes his art. "I keep smearing ideas around. I do what I feel like. If it doesn't work I hide it. If it works I take credit for it."
There is a saying on Bequia: "Don't throw anything away. Sell it to Tom Johnston. It will make him happy." Johnston uses considerable castaway material in his houses: fishnet floats as door frames and table bases; anchor chain as railings; whale ribs, vertebrae and scapulae as bannisters, chair seats and desk tops; deadeyes as towel-rack ends; spars, masts, planking and hatch covers as beams, doors and tables. He uses all such jetsam tastefully and for practical reasons, never merely to contrive a shipwrecked sort of atmosphere as so many tasteless inns and bars are wont to do. One of Johnston's clients, Elsa Voelcker, a partner in Ann Hatfield Associates, a decorating firm that has done several good Caribbean hotel interiors, feels the essential virtue of Johnston's work comes directly from the character of the man. "He builds to the sun and sea and the wind," she says. "He has a flair for making a house a part of the land. He succeeds with a natural, honest approach better than others because he is a very natural, honest and direct man."
A month after he had futilely tried to measure the Johnston home for taxes, Secretary William Tannis of the Bequia government returned to Moonhole accompanied by the chairman of the Bequia council and another council member. They brought an official council document proclaiming that the Johnstons should pay no taxes. The council delegation informed the Johnstons that the work they had done at Moonhole was considered contribution enough.