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Home sweet rock

No man is an island, but Henry Wood comes close

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By Bella English
Globe Staff / July 28, 2009

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NARRAGANSETT BAY, R.I. - “Do you know what we do with tour boats?’’ asks Henry Wood, as yet another tour boat passes by. “We moon them.’’ Which the 80-year-old proceeds to do, to the delighted shrieks of the passengers.

If you’d spent a lot of time in a big house on a small rock in Narragansett Bay, you too might get tired of tour boats - along with curious kayakers, enormous freighters, kamikaze jet-skiers, and an occasional appearance by the gigantic Queen Mary II, which makes even Clingstone appear Lilliputian.

Clingstone, the 10,000-square-foot house Wood bought nearly 50 years ago, goes by another name to the locals. “It has always been ‘The House on a Rock,’ ’’ says Lara Davis, an MIT graduate student who grew up in Jamestown, a five-minute boat ride away. On a recent day, she invited herself to Clingstone, a trip she had longed to make since she was a girl ogling the mansion from the shore.

Davis, 30, is studying architecture, and Wood is a retired architect of some renown. Getting to Clingstone was a childhood dream. “My sister,’’ giggles Davis, ’’ is sooo jealous.’’

Clingstone, perched at the edge of the main passage from the open ocean to the bay, offers a spectacular 360-degree water view. There’s Newport across the water, with the bridge off to the left. The water glitters, and cormorants as still as statues dry their wings on rocks.

Wood, who lives in Boston, is delighted to be back on the rock, where he spends his weekends from spring till fall, save for the occasional renters. There’s always a son - or two, or three - there, too.

A ‘Work Day’ tradition
The cedar shingle mansion was built as an act of defiance in 1905 by one of Wood’s distant cousins, Joseph Lovering Wharton. “The government took his land to build Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, so he came out here,’’ says Wood, who bought the house in 1961 with his ex-wife, Joan. It has always been an eccentric place; Wharton’s guests were asked to sign a book and then draw a picture of a pig while blind-folded.

Today, its quirks are more practical: Clingstone is “green,’’ or sustainable, from the windmill on the roof to the composting toilets. “Sustainability has transformed a 1905 house into a 21st-century house,’’ says Wood, as proud of it as he is of Boston City Hall or the Hynes Convention Center; he was in charge of construction for both.

And Wood and his sons - aided by a crew of friends - have done it all themselves. “Work Day,’’ which occurs around Memorial Day weekend each year, attracts 50 to 100 friends who are put to good use. Henry Wood likens it to a barn-raising, while son Josh calls it “our own little version of private socialism.’’

Plumbing, carpentry, painting, electrical, cleaning - sign up for a task, and you’ll be fed and given a bed for the night. Even those who aren’t handy find something to do. “Last year a writer read poetry to the others while they worked,’’ says Josh, an architect like his parents. A rock-climber friend gets up on the roof and cleans out the gutters. Included in one friend’s divorce settlement was that her ex would work on Clingstone as part of his alimony payment.

Early environmentalists
Though he has blue New England blood running through his veins, Henry Wood more or less disdains Newport society. (He and his sister inherited a home that has been in the family since 1760.) He buys his clothes at the Goodwill Store, and he has outfitted Clingstone in a similar manner. All the light fixtures came from an old meat-packing plant in Boston, the porcelain door knobs came from houses that were being torn down in the South End, and the huge windows - there are 65 of them - were storefronts in Boston that he scavenged. The long cypress dining room table was once the bottom of a cistern.

Wharton, who had the house built, was an early environmentalist of sorts: All of the rock used for the foundation and lower walls was blasted from the island itself. “That’s sustainable,’’ says Wood, who graduated from the Harvard School of Design in 1960. “It was hauled maybe 20 feet.’’

But really, Clingstone isn’t built on an island as much as a rock. There’s little else on the “lot’’ except for a fringe of shrubbery and a tiny plot where wild roses and English ivy flourish in the salt air. There’s no yard; for exercise, you’ll have to walk around the perimeter - about 11 laps to the mile. But since the house’s footprint is about the same size as the rock’s, you’ll walk part way on the rock itself and most of the way on Clingstone’s decking.

Once upon a time, the house had a long stone jetty that even held gymnasts’ rings and bars. But the Great Hurricane of 1938 took care of that. Amazingly, the house, which sits only 20 feet above sea level, survived with minimal damage. For several years now, Wood and his three grown sons - Josh; Paul, a lawyer; and Daniel, a printer - have gone to Clingstone to observe hurricanes in action. In 1991, during Hurricane Bob, they clocked 105 mile-per-hour winds.

‘Totally off the grid’
The house had been vacant for 20 years when Henry and Joan Wood first paddled over in a dinghy in 1961. There were signs all over the house: “For Sale, See Any Broker.’’

It had been vandalized. Every single window was broken, the floors were rotted and covered in pigeon droppings, the roof mostly gone. Still, the couple could see the potential.

They paid $3,600 for Clingstone and began bringing it back to life, from the 3,000-square-foot slate roof to the windows, the larger ones 5-by-8 feet. The house has 23 rooms, including 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms. There’s also shingling inside the house; Wood thinks it was installed to prevent the walls from cracking during cannon training at Fort Wetherill.

He and his sons are most proud of their “green’’ renovations. The house, as Josh puts it, is “totally off the grid.’’ A windmill on the roof provides electricity. Solar panels heat water for household use. Photovoltaic cells charge a bank of batteries in the basement. Rainwater is collected from the roof into a 3,000-gallon cistern. Composting toilets use only a quart of water per flush; the compost is then used to fertilize the garden. There are also waterless urinals. Next, they’d like to convert their 19-foot outboard motorboat to one that runs on excess vegetable oil left over from restaurants.

To pay for the upkeep, the family would like to attract more “green’’ renters who appreciate the low carbon footprint. “Ideally, they need to know about tides, winds, and how to swim,’’ Wood says.

Reclamation projects
The furnishings are nearly all retreads, from the wicker chairs to the faded kilim and Oriental carpets Wood picked up at thrift shops or yard sales. Pausing in his second-floor bedroom, Wood waves a hand at the brightly striped bedding: “I got the whole thing for $3 at Morgan Memorial,’’ he beams. “Someone gave me the bed.’’ The purple comforter in the next bedroom: Building 19.

The claw-foot bathtub came from a mansion on Bellevue Avenue in Newport that was being torn down. The banisters along the curvy staircase came from one of his work projects: “I designed the Star Market over the Pike in Newton, and these were going to be handrails, but they didn’t work out, so I brought them here.’’ Wood leads the way up a long ladder to the roof, to show off his windmill and solar panels. There’s a sign that says, “No entry after three drinks or 86 years of age.’’ It used to say “80.’’

Some years back, Henry Wood went to town hall in Jamestown, where he pays his property taxes ($7,430.72 this year). He wanted a lobster license, given only to voting residents (Wood votes in Boston). “I told them I was tired of watching other people trap lobsters in my backyard,’’ he recalls. He got the license.

Occasionally, the Wood family have had to chase away would-be picnickers or lay to rest a hapless gull that has flown into the windmill. They love to watch the Fourth of July fireworks in Newport from the roof as well as the Tall Ships that have sailed by, the gargantuan Queen Mary, and the world sailing championships.

And then there are the tour boats, which sometimes tell tourists to keep an eye out for the elderly gentleman in the house - who may or may not drop his trousers for them.

Inside Clingstone
Photos
Inside Clingstone
Take a tour of Clingstone, the mansion on a rock in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay.