Friday, July 3, 2009
The Old House and the Sea
The Old House and the Sea
By PENELOPE GREEN
“THIS house is always going to have rough edges,” said Henry Wood, resting his frayed sneakers on a splintered pillar. “It’s never going to look like the Breakers.”
It was another indecently beautiful day at Clingstone — a faded, shingled and, yes, very rough 103-year-old mansion set on a rock in Narragansett Bay — and Mr. Wood, its owner, was musing on what the place is not: specifically, that grander turn-of-the century folly in nearby Newport, a limestone-and-gilt palace built by a Vanderbilt in 1895.
But in fact it’s the rough edges and salt-encrusted surfaces that Mr. Wood, a 79-year-old Boston architect, treasures most about Clingstone. For nearly half a century, he has kept them (more or less) intact, and the house standing, through his own hard labor and that of others. He and a crew of family and friends who share his passion for the place’s “deep bohemian funk,” as Nicholas Benson, a stone carver from Newport, put it, have dedicated their time and skills (plumbing and wiring experience are always particularly welcome) to keeping the place from slipping into the water forever.
In 1961, when Mr. Wood bought the house with his ex-wife Joan, who is also an architect, for $3,600, it had been empty for two decades. All of its 65 windows were smashed, and its slate roof was wide open to the sky. Vandals had been creative: on the second floor, the interior shingles were embedded with marbles (they still are), which had been blasted there by some sort of firearm.
On three sides, four-by-eight-foot plywood signs proclaimed: “For Sale. See Any Broker.” “So we did see any broker,” Mr. Wood said. “And he told us the owners were asking $5,000 but they’d take much, much less.”
The house, he learned, had been built by a distant cousin, J. S. Lovering Wharton, from Philadelphia, who had a summer house in the Fort Wetherill area in south Jamestown. (Newport tended to attract New York society; Philadelphians summered in quieter Jamestown.) When the fort was enlarged at the end of the 1800s, the government seized his land, and Clingstone was his rebuke, Mr. Wood said. “He said, ‘I’m going to build where no one can bother me.’ ”
Working with an artist, William Trost Richards, Mr. Wharton designed a shingle-style house of picture windows, with 23 rooms on three stories radiating off a vast central hall; its plan is less a blueprint than a diagram of arrows indicating sightlines.
He built it like a mill, Mr. Wood said, with wide planking, sturdy oak beams, diagonal sheathing and an odd flourish: an interior cladding of shingles, put there, Mr. Wood conjectured, because Fort Wetherill’s cannons went off so regularly in training exercises that they cracked the plaster in the neighbors’ houses.
Those neighbors, it seems, were skeptical of Mr. Wharton’s project. A society item in The Philadelphia Press in August 1904 reads, “Everyone is of the opinion here that Mr. Wharton will not stay in the house more than one season, and they say one nor’easter will settle it.” But Mr. Wharton loved his new house, and spent every summer there until his death just before the hurricane of 1938, which the house survived with little damage.
After his widow died, in 1941, the house stood empty until Mr. Wood and his wife came upon it. The story, Mr. Wood said, is that Mr. Wharton’s three sons disliked one another so much, they couldn’t agree on who to sell it to. “I think they only sold it to me because I was a relative,” he added.
Every spring for a decade or so after the sale, Mr. Wood said, he cursed “this albatross,” his roofless, windowless, floorless, powerless, waterless house. Wrangling what had been a rich man’s plaything, attended by servants and even its own shipyard, into a working couple’s weekend getaway turned out to be much more than a working couple could handle. Eventually, though, as the Woods mustered the talents of their friends, Clingstone and its maintenance evolved into a communal lifestyle, and ultimately a kind of religion.
Mr. Wood is now as proud as any parent of his house, and keeps a fat scrapbook of photographs and newspaper clippings that document its best moments. He has been known to buttonhole strangers on planes who express a knowledge of Rhode Island and say, ‘I think you know my house,’ and then fall silent, waiting for them to exclaim: The house on the rock! Once, he persuaded an airline pilot on a commuter flight from New York City to Boston to alter course to the east so the plane would fly directly over Clingstone.
To get to this point, Mr. Wood became an expert scavenger, a deft barterer and an experienced arm-twister. “The number of things I’ve gotten for free,” he said happily, ticking off the 60 black porcelain doorknobs salvaged from houses that were being torn down in Boston’s South End; the overhead factory lights that came from a slaughterhouse in lower Roxbury; the lumber plucked from an old Boston-area supermarket and strung with netting to make the railing that runs around the stairwell on the second floor. (There are still no banisters on the wide, twisting main staircase, though the father of a man who was married here carved the banister posts for the back stairs.)
In those first years, friends came to work and camped for weeks. The biggest worry, Mr. Wood said, was that there wasn’t any way to lock up: “We lost a lot of tools, and one brass bed.”
One year Mr. Wood put an ad in The Harvard Crimson: “Island occupant wanted to live in 23-room house. No charges. No duties. Ready now.” Somehow, The Crimson printed that last line as “Leaky now.” Still, Mr. Wood was able to “hire” his first caretakers, a doctoral student and his wife, who would stay at Clingstone during the week and head back to Boston when Mr. and Mrs. Wood arrived on the weekends with their three young sons: Paul, now 45 and an employment discrimination lawyer in Boston; Josh, 41, an architect there; and Dan 38, an artist and printer living in Providence, R.I.
Power in those days came from a balky portable generator for the tools, and lighting from boxes and boxes of candle “seconds” bought by Mr. Wood. Drinking water was brought over from Jamestown, as it still is. Toilets flushed directly into the sea.
Today, solar panels heat the water, and a wind turbine on the roof generates electricity. Rainwater is collected in a 3,000-gallon cistern, then filtered, treated and pumped through the house for cleaning purposes. (Mr. Wood claims it is safe enough to drink, “but my children don’t trust me so we don’t,” he said.) After years of using an activated seawater system that draws in seawater, then treats and filters the waste before releasing it back into the ocean, Clingstone now has the latest generation of composting toilets.
Bartering access to the house has yielded all sorts of boons, like the yearly services of the Jamestown Boatyard (formerly the Wharton Shipyard, built just for Clingstone), which hauls the family’s boats and floating dock and stores them each winter in return for a week’s use of the house in the summer. Would-be renters, Mr. Wood said, “must be able to swim, understand hurricanes, strong tides and outboards.”
Upkeep is still Sisyphean, and Mr. Wood, who is divorced from both his first and second wives, has benefited from an ingenious solution: the Clingstone work weekend. Held every year around Memorial Day, it brings 70 or so friends and Clingstone lovers together to tackle jobs like washing all 65 windows and scraping and painting their frames and sills.
Feeding the volunteers, who camp all over the house, is a job in itself. There are, in fact, 215 such projects in the database maintained by Anne Tait, an artist and professor who married Dan Wood in 1998, organized by theme and skill.
“Replace sewage line in basement, or offer moral support,” reads one of the project listings in this year’s schedule, under Plumbing.
Under Cleaning, you’ll find, “check and maintain ‘No Bush’ sign.” (Since the 2004 election, this painted bedsheet has been hanging from a window.) And in the children’s section: “Watch babies and sing great songs to them.”
Matches have been made on these weekends: those who arrived as strangers might leave holding hands, Mr. Wood said, then return the next year married. (Clingstone is jinxed, however, as a wedding spot. “We have had unfortunate results,” said Mr. Wood, referring to three Clingstone weddings that ended in divorce.)
Ms. Tait shone on her first work weekend, which she attended after dating Dan for three weeks in 1994. She used her sign-painting skills to paint the glass of all of the outside doors with the words Please hook open or close. (Untethered doors at Clingstone are quickly smashed by the wind.) Another year, she refinished the kitchen floor. And as the house’s first female resident in a long time, she set about making it “less of a little boys’ playground and more of a home,” she said.
“Henry’s sister told me, ‘Clingstone eats women,’ ” she said. “I do feel like I lost a limb or two. It’s a rough place, like camping, or a farm where you have to make your own butter.”
Amused, Mr. Wood said mildly, “You never made butter here.” Joan, his first wife, had adored the house, he said (they were divorced in the late ’70s), but “my second wife hated Clingstone.”
“She’d drive from Boston to a party in Jamestown, and rather than spend the night here she’d drive all the way back,” he said. “When she left, it became a man’s house, no place for a woman.”
Clingstone was legendary for its parties in those years, and for what Mr. Benson, the stone carver and a peer of Mr. Wood’s sons, described as “Henry’s relaxed attitude about cleanliness.”
“It was mayhem,” he added. It is no longer mayhem here, but the house still has an appealingly offhand and bohemian vibe. “It’s an organic house,” said John Benson, Nicholas’s father, whose nickname is Fud. Like his son, he is a stone carver, and a cousin of Mr. Wood’s. “It’s a house that has existed in a family that has always prized what we call the real world, which is the world of water and wind and stone and wood.”
Mr. Benson, who carved an arrow pointing true north on the rocks on the bay side, is one of the house’s staunchest volunteers and most dedicated artisans. “It’s no longer a rich man’s house,” he continued. “But it has carried its elegance — no, that’s a bad word — it has carried its honesty through the generations, from the well-to-do people that built it to the people who have to work to support it.” He described Clingstone as an instance of “marvelous archeological survival,” a place that has “taken a second breath and has been kept alive by dedicated work.”
A cautionary sign by the steep ladder that leads to the roof (salvaged from a telephone switching station) reads: No entry after three drinks or 86 years of age. “It used to say 80 but we had a guy on a work weekend who was 84, so I changed it,” said Mr. Wood, ever the realist. It would have been a shame to curtail the activities of a willing volunteer.