When Tom Johnston drew his plans in the sand to build his home in Moonhole on Bequia (Beck-way), did he know that magazines and newspapers from afar would send journalists for the story? Did he know that his decision to build his unstructured home in a dangerous location would have a lasting impact on the people of Bequia and those who visited?
In the early 1960’s, untrained in architecture or design, Tom Johnston had used what was available to build his home on the undeveloped island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was and still is, an icon that represents the Johnston’s tie to nature. Unfortunately, today the house is condemned due to falling rocks and other hazards, and the only way for you to see it is by boat.
Moonhole and Tom Johnston
Moonhole is a naturally formed arched hole in a mountain that rises between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The hole measures about 75 feet wide and 100 feet tall. From the Atlantic side, you can look through the hole and view the Caribbean Sea. When the moon rises, it fills the opening with light, hence the name Moonhole. Today, the name applies to that area.
In the 1960’s Tom Johnston and his wife Gladdie, expatriates who formerly worked in advertising in Chicago, bought about 30 acres on Bequia’s southwest end. The land was undeveloped and full of cliffs and mountains, wildflowers, birds, animals, and of course, there were no paths.
Their favorite place was Moonhole where Tom had pitched a small tent for camping. They loved the ocean view and the seclusion, so Tom decided that it was the perfect place to build their home.
As you can imagine, there were many complications. First, getting to Moonhole was difficult. You skirted the beach and avoided high tide, or you would get soaked. Another option was to climb up and down steep mountains and cliffs. And if it was wet, the hike could become treacherous. Not to mention another obstacle: The area had no electricity or running water.
So of course, they decided that the best way to deliver construction supplies was by boat. Luckily a rock quarry was about a mile away, and Tom had hired carpenters and stonemasons from the local town, Paget Farm, to help him build his house.
Tom used the materials available that included rocks, sand, and cement. One of their first endeavors was to cut paths through the volcanic rock to access the area. As he created his home, he used the land and sea as his levels, and he shaped his house by following the contours of the volcanic rock.
The walls curved protruded and indented, and most walls didn’t meet. Also, forget about standard windows and doors, Tom left openings.
He worked by the trial and error method, and if he made something that he didn’t like he tore it out or hid it. Additionally, he built around natural structures like trees, so it wasn’t uncommon to have a tree rise in the middle of his home.
Bequia was, and still is, a whaling town. Tom used boat debris and whale bones to build and furnish his home. The island joke was that you could sell your junk to Tom Johnston.
Bequia Building Materials
He created railings out of anchor chains; shelves consisted of boards placed across rocks; boat dead eyes became towel racks; moreover, he created beams from spars and masts. Plus, his hobby was carving and designing whalebones, so his scrimshaw decorated his home.
The rooms were unconnected, and the roofs and floors rose at various levels. Few places had four walls that connected. In some areas, you could step in the wrong direction and fall out of the house.
I gathered most of my information from the writer Thomas Carl Thomsen, a Bequia resident who knew the Johnstons and had documented their exploits in his book Tales of Bequia. My favorite story is about a tax collector who had arrived to assess the Johnston’s home.
Tax Collector Visits Moonhole
Tom asked the collector if he based his assessment on places with four walls. The tax man agreed. They walked the home and decided that it was difficult to measure because it was not composed of actual rooms. So instead, in typical Caribbean island style, they drank a beer, and the Johnstons never had to pay taxes on the house.
Tom Johnston Built the Moonhole Community
After Tom and Gladdie moved into their home, they used kerosene for lighting and power, and cisterns collected rainwater. Tom’s friends loved his rustic home and lifestyle, and some asked him to build their homes. Tom was happy to build for them though they were not allowed to give their input on anything other than the number of bathrooms and bedrooms. Tom had said that the buyers were usually happy with his work.
In addition to building 16 new homes for the Moonhole community, he had also constructed an office and commissary. Initially, the Moonhole neighbors, who were like hippies from the 60’s, lived like they were in a commune. They ate every meal together, but too much togetherness changed that. Eventually, they met only once a week, on Sundays, to dine together.
Moonhole and Tom and Gladdie Johnston Became Famous
Johnston’s unique story about building his home drew journalists from The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic, to name a few. Tom Johnston was not only a Bequia celebrity, but he was renowned.
Today, because of the danger of Moonhole’s dilapidated condition, you can only see the original structure by boat. Unfortunately, the Moonhole community is private. A guard watches the gate and turns away anyone that’s uninvited or not a guest.
Moonhole Company Limited
In 1964, the Johnstons created the Moonhole Company Limited to ensure the preservation of the area. Though it had gone through litigation, the trust runs the community and rents some of Tom’s homes.
While the Johnstons were living, not only did they employ Bequia locals, but they had left behind a charity, Moonhole Friends, to care for the poor. Tom’s project had helped the Bequian people in the past, and Moonhole Friends assist them today.
November to June is the high season, and some of the homes rent for $1,500 per week from July to October for two people, and $1,750 per week for two from November to June. The rentals come with a housekeeper that will cook.
If you would like to vacation in a rustic house surrounded by nature, you can rent one of the seven Moonhole homes that Moonhole Company Limited oversees. Furthermore, you can get a taste of the life that the Johnstons had lived.
Today, in Moonhole electricity is produced by solar and wind power, and cisterns collect rainwater. My advice is that you bring mosquito repellent, a flashlight, sunscreen, and plenty of books. It will be an experience to write about.
Would you like to vacation in Moonhole and bond with nature? Please let me know your thoughts.
Thomsen, T.C., (1988), Tales of Bequia. Cross River, NY: Cross River Press