Friday, 4 June 2010
“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 interiorwere 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