I saw The Post recently. Good Spielberg. Compelling history. As always, Meryl Streep was superb as she captured all the nuances of Katharine Graham’s emergence as a woman to be reckoned with. I was struck by the moment when she said, “My husband used to say the news is the first rough draft of history.”
But The Post wasn’t just history for me. It reminded me of my personal history – and South Mountain’s – with her land, her house, and her son Bill.
Katharine Graham died in 2001. Her son Bill inherited the 218 acre property – called Mohu – that included her fabled house. Built in the 1920’s, the sprawling house occupied a prominent place on the land overlooking James Pond and beyond to the Elizabeth Islands. It was highly visible from nearby Lambert’s Cove Beach. For several years Bill wondered what to do with this evocative (but empty) 10,000 square foot summer house.
One day, sitting on the beautiful bluff in front of the house, he got the answer: undevelop the site and put the house to good purpose. The site, he realized (which had always been his favorite place on the planet) could become even more beautiful without the house. But how could the house best be used?
He called and asked me to come look at it. He explained his idea and asked if we could cut the house into pieces, move them, and create affordable housing from the parts. I told him it wasn’t feasible. The road was narrow and closely bounded by stone walls; the house would have ended up in small pieces. But the house was full of good simple materials – wood and doors and tile – that could be salvaged and effectively re-used. There was no sheetrock, no plaster, nothing to throw away. I suggested that he hire us to dismantle the house piece by piece and save everything. Once apart, he could donate the materials to The Island Affordable Housing Fund, to use them in the construction of new affordable housing and/or sell them to help fund affordable housing.
Bill liked this plan, and hired South Mountain Company to do the job. We set about meticulously unbuilding the house. It was a tough job that required three months of demanding labor. It was highly uneconomic, but tremendously gratifying, for Bill and for us.
The site was restored to a verdant meadow that blended with its surroundings. Two stone fireplaces and their chimneys were left standing, silhouetted against the sky, a reminder of the history that was embodied in the house. An immense stash of materials was bundled, stacked, inventoried, stored in a barn and gradually put to good use.
Because the house was located near the water, we needed approval from the West Tisbury Conservation Commission. When they came to do the site visit, they asked, “What will it be replaced with?”
I answered, “Nothing. Bill is undeveloping the site and restoring it to the way it was before the house was built, nearly a century ago.”
Most in the Vineyard community applauded the project.
A few people didn’t.
One of these was the contrarian left-wing journalist Alex Cockburn. I had followed Cockburn’s work in The Nation for decades. I appreciated his no-holds-barred writing style, but sometimes he seemed to go a bit beyond the pale for shock value. Somehow he heard about Mohu and thought it was appalling that this house had been “demolished”. He led off an article about it with this polemic: “Here’s a question for you. Which scion of which well-known newspaper dynasty assembled a squadron of bulldozers in May of 2005, mounted the lead bulldozer and led this rumbling squadron into a ferocious assault on the house his mother left him on her death in 2001? When it was over, a house which had seen visits from President William Jefferson Clinton and First Lady Nancy Reagan lay in splinters and rubble.”
Alex had no clue what the real story was, but over the next few months the two of us exchanged e-mails. Having his prickly pen pointed directly at me sometimes smarted. But I can say this: whether he agreed with my explanations or not (mostly he didn’t), at the end of that exchange, he at least knew the facts.
This is a story of re-purposing: the restoration of a beautiful place and the re-use of fine materials. This is a story of conservation: appropriate land use and putting waste to good purpose rather than into a landfill.
Some years after the Mohu de-construction, we renovated a beach house on Bill’s property. Working with Bill was never easy but it was usually rewarding. He was brilliant, creative, generous, and compassionate. He had great taste and he loved conversation. I always had a soft spot for him.
Recently Bill Graham committed suicide (you can read his obituary here), like his father before him. One of the sad parts of this tragic ending was the conclusion of Bill’s deep love affair with that large and wonderful property. When he first moved there, it was mostly overgrown new growth woodlands filled with poison ivy, bull briars, rocks, and brush. Restoring it became his lifelong project. He reverently brought it back to life. He cleared it bit by bit, restored stone walls, made a beautiful network of paths, and engaged the Dunkls (that’s a whole other story!) to make organic bridges, walkways, and steps around and over the beautiful brook that ran through.
I’m sorry that he’s no longer a part of this place, and that remarkable land.
But he is. He made his mark.
Such a nice piece John. And great to see the old picture. When I was little—really little—my mother used to take me to call regularly on the elderly Mrs. Butler, Bea’s mother. I remember a big pool (or billiards) table in the entrance that was covered with elephants from all over the world—ivory, jade, marble, wood—gifts to the republican Senator Butler. I had to be lifted up to touch them. And then, just a few years ago, Jim lead us to a careful stack of Mohu beams at South Mountain which ended up in the very elegant new chicken coops at the Farm Institute. A geezer memory, right? No one at the farm understood my joy.
Cheers. Hope you are doing well.
What a great story, John. We are glad you told it, because we too had difficulty understanding why Bill would want it gone.
Just read your piece on Bill, and was going to add to the story, but I think Sundy beat me to it….but what she didn’t know/remember was that a few years ago Bill had his land manager (embarrassed I can’t remember his name…Kris?) call me to ask if the Farm Institute could use ‘a few things’. I went over to look, and the list of a’a few things’ was lengthy, and all of it was well-maintained. It was, for a undernourished non-profit, a full meal. Mowers, dump trailer, box scraper, scarifier, etc.
It was generous and thoughtful, and came out of the blue as well as we’d had no previous connection. As we drove in and out, stood in the yard while loading and looked at the amazing and un-cluttered view, the story of the house de-building was on my mind. I didn’t understand when I first heard it, but being there on that property made his decision (and your work) the obvious and proper choice.
Thanks for pictures and the background.
I am so glad you decided to tell the Mohu story publicly. You did a masterful job. I remember Bill telling me about so many dignitaries who came to visit Katherine Graham at Mohu. Though the land was (and is) spectacular, the house itself was relatively simple. Yet the likes of Henry Kissinger and the Dalai Lama and several US presidents were frequent visitors. Those posts and beams certainly housed some of our most influential prominent personalities of our time.
Thank you for the article. It was a lovely tribute to the house and to Bill.
Fascinating piece of MV history of which I was not aware. Thank you John for writing the blog and sharing.
Thanks so much to those of you who have commented. I recently received a note from Sally Lasker, Bill’s wife, who I have known for many years.
She said, in part, “‘You captured the essence of Bill that I hope we can all remember. He was brilliant, creative, courageous, funny, and quirky. He had a unique eye for natural beauty and understood the difference between reveling in that beauty and destroying it. Bill loved his land and loved working with it. All of his wonderful characteristics went in to creating the most magical, enchanting, peaceful place on earth, and he did so by opening pathways, clearing overgrown fields, revealing hidden streams, restoring stonewalls, and restoring the natural beauty the land held. I can picture him sitting on the large stone in front of left chimney admiring the view.
His death is such a tragedy.’’
Sweet words, huh? Thanks Sally.