SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
February 27, 1967
Moonhole, the house that Tom and Gladys Johnston live in on the remote Caribbean island of Bequia, is built to look out through glassless windows on a Swiss Family Robinson kind of world
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February 27, 1967

Two Rebels With A Lovely Cause

Moonhole, the house that Tom and Gladys Johnston live in on the remote Caribbean island of Bequia, is built to look out through glassless windows on a Swiss Family Robinson kind of world

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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.

"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.

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