Help Wanted at the House on the Rock
Clingstone’s million-dollar views come with a price. Roll up your sleeves and grab a hammer for the annual work weekend.
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Clingstone’s pull is tough for most to resist, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response to tackle chores that slide at home. The eleven-bedroom house has a communal, bohemian vibe that belies its private island label. “It’s sort of a public park,” says Dan. “It has a life of its own, like a pet that wanders around the neighborhood. The house owns us more than we own the house.” The Woods spend a good chunk of the summer at Clingstone, especially weekends, but they do rent it too. At eight grand a week, it’s tricky to find a bidder. “It needs to be the right person, who understands that it’s solar and wind powered,” says Dan. “It’s not a shiny, new, everything-works kind of place.” And there’s no heat. Josh actually lived out here until mid-December one year — coincidentally, 1992, the year of the perfect storm. It was so cold, he holed up in one room and used a full-length raccoon coat to keep warm.
Clingstone’s interior is a mash-up of nautical frat house and campground chic. It’s surprisingly dark (a design feature that draws the eye to the picture windows and the view beyond) and the walls are covered in cedar shingles (they fared better than plaster during Fort Wetherill’s recurring canon-testing exercises).
Upstairs, Bob — the oldest Clingstone volunteer at eighty-four — is working on replacing shingles in Henry’s second-floor bedroom. A hardcore worker, Bob’s been known to need a nudge to break for dinner. He’s also the main reason the Woods had to up the age limit on the hand-written sign they post at the steep steps to the roof deck (and one of the best views in Rhode Island); in Bob’s honor, it now reads “No entry after three drinks or eighty-six years of age.”
Clingstone is littered with these kinds of signs. Many are tongue in cheek: “If God meant us to have fiberglass boats, he would have planted fiberglass trees” or “Sometimes you want to go where no one knows your name.” The rest are instructional: how to flush the composting toilet, reminders to open the freezer carefully and to latch the doors. The signs support the communal vibe — anyone’s welcome, just follow the rules. The artwork, too, has an if-you-like-it-tack-it-up feel. Historical photos, nautical charts and avant-garde art by Dan share space with Clingstone-pride paraphernalia. In the ping/beer-pong-slash-dart room — both huge pastimes here — there’s a “Clingstone Wannabes” display, with three houses perched on rocks that just don’t measure up. In the dining room, there’s a photo of the QE2 anchored in Newport with Clingstone dwarfed in the foreground. An article by the Phoenix’s Phillipe and Jorge talks about everyone at Clingstone mooning the massive ship. It’s no exaggeration; dropping trough any time a tour boat passes is a three-generation-old tradition; it even happens once this weekend.
Silly meets serious in the chore lineup, too. Carmen and Tracey fall into the latter category as they tackle organizing decades’ worth of books by subject: hobbies, lit, boats and sailing, architecture, humor, history. “This was the furthest thing from my imagination, that I’d be organizing books for the work weekend,” admits Carmen. “I also organized the linen closet.” On the other end of the spectrum, Nick, the Providence architect, is creating a weathervane from an old bandsaw. “It’s one of Henry’s follies! He’s an inventor.” And at all times someone is on kid duty (there are at least a dozen roaming the grounds); the spreadsheet specifies: “safely wrangle, watch and entertain small children.”
Around six, some people start to peter out. The wind has whipped up, sweatshirts and jackets have come out. Those who aren’t still working (Bob and a crew of ten are unloading wood, assembly-line style from the skiff) grab a Corona or mix a “family drink,” Mt. Gay rum with tonic and lemon, and enjoy the last of the sun. A few stragglers are just arriving, taking a pass on work and sneaking in for the evening festivities.
Henry takes a load off. “Every year, we hear that someone has bought the place — once it was Tom Selleck,” he recalls with pride. It’s clear he enjoys the sense of mystery that swirls around his beloved private island-in-progress. “Joan Baez was out here once and so was Jackie Kennedy,” he continues. Nick, who’s scraping the rubber off the bandsaw-someday-weathervane in between sips of beer, says with a laugh, “I think there’s a reality show in this if someone ever wanted to do it.”
Dinner is a huge hit. No one expected to be feted with tortillas made from scratch. Out here, where tap water isn’t meant for drinking, even prepping a salad is a big deal. The festivities are accompanied by two speeches, one from the kitchen, explaining which dishes are vegetarian and which are spicy. And the other a heartfelt toast and thank you from Henry, peppered with plenty of Clingstone folklore. Who knew it used to be called the mother-in-law house, mainly by yachtsmen, because they envisioned dumping off their mothers-in-law here. And sailing away.
Times have surely changed. Tonight, after the kitchen is tidied, the wine has been drunk and the ping-pong has been played, people will clamor for a bed, a chance to spend the night at the house on the rocks. And, who knows, in true Clingstone fashion, maybe a chance to meet their equally tuckered out, wind-burned work weekend soul mate.
Sarah Forney, Erin Rodriguez, Lisa Lawless and Tobin Rodriguez (left to right) spend the day prepping dinner.