Sometimes a House Makes Two Homes

Two generations of Taylors have lived in the same family home on a hilltop in Aquinnah. But only for nine months out of the year.

Singer and recording star Kate Taylor has made the Vineyard her home since 1969. But the closest she has come to owning a house on-Island is a tepee staked on 3.3 acres near the Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah. Like many Vineyarders, Kate – the younger sister of James and Livingston – is a nomad, moving with the seasons, twice a year, as her winter rental becomes the summer home of its owner. Kate is luckier than most biennial migrants, though. She and her family have shared the same Aquinnah house with its owner, Ruth Johnson, and her family for sixteen years.

 Come summer, Kate, her late husband Charlie Witham, and their daughters Liz and Aretha would vacate the Johnson house and move into a tepee. A few years ago, Kate began living in a different winter rental over in Menemsha. Now it is her filmmaking daughter Liz Witham who winters in the Johnson home.

While hardly one of the “starter castles” that have popped up like mushrooms all over the Vineyard in recent years, the Johnson house is an extraordinary place. It has character to spare and stories to tell.

The house perches high on a windswept hill overlooking Vineyard Sound. Dating from the 1920s, it was built by a New Bedford entrepreneur named John Ginnochio, rumored to be a rumrunner who also ran Gay Head’s Not-O-Way Inn, which was torn down in the mid-1950s. Ginnochio leveled the top of a hill on Lighthouse Road to create a 360-degree view for what he dubbed Dongan Manor, after Thomas Dongan, the colonial governor of New York, who bought the land from Matthew Mayhew, grandson of the founding English settler, in 1685. Rumor also has it that Dongan Manor was built as a home for Ginnochio’s paramour, a former New Bedford madam, but old newspaper records suggest he lived there with his wife.

“You can see the hole to New Bedford,” Kate says of Quicks Hole, the passage between Pasque and Nashawena islands across Vineyard Sound. Her voice is genteel, and still carries the hint of a southern accent. Kate is a tall, slender woman, dressed in short, high-heeled boots, a skirt, and funky sweater vest. She and her family began living at the Johnson house in October 1975, just before she gave birth to Liz.

Sitting in the living room of what is now her daughter’s winter home, Kate remembers how she and her husband discovered the Johnson house while driving down Lighthouse Road, looking for a winter rental in what was then Gay Head. “Charlie said, ‘Gee, I’d love to live here,’ so I knocked on the door.” The rest is family history. As part of the rent, Taylor and Witham agreed to replace the gravity-fed coal furnace with a forced hot-air system. Daughter Liz lived in the house from her earliest days.

“When she was born, we didn’t have a name for her,” Kate says. “That went on for a month.” Elizabeth Menemsha Witham was named for the string of islands visible from the house and for the fishing village nearby.

Kate grew up in Chapel Hill and began visiting the Vineyard as a child. Her late father Isaac (Ike) Taylor, a medical school dean, came from North Carolina, her mother Trudy from Newburyport.

 “So we’d come back to New England in the summer,” Kate says. At fifteen she was fronting her own band, and she signed a recording contract with Atlantic Records at nineteen. During her late teens, she and her friends “all kind of came down together.” Last October, Kate took her band – which plays a mix of soul, gospel, and rockabilly – back to Chapel Hill and sang there for the first time since junior high school at the Cat’s Cradle, a town music spot.

In the early years, Kate and Charlie, a songwriter and her manager, made ends meet on the cottage industries that keep many Islanders afloat during the cold months. They shucked the shellfish they harvested, selling scallops, clam sauce, and stuffed clams at the Aquinnah Shop, where Kate had waitressed when she moved to the Island in 1969. “We were voted the best wait staff on the whole Island,” Kate says proudly.

The couple also made wampum beads from quahaug shells, with friends helping to revive an art that hadn’t been practiced in the village in 100 years. Last year, for the first time in 30 years, Kate didn’t enter her work in the Martha’s Vineyard Livestock Show and Agricultural Fair, where she usually wins blue ribbons.

“Lately I’ve been folding out of it,” Kate says, “and doing more singing.” This past fall she performed monthly at The Cutting Room in New York and shared the stage with her brother Livy – as she calls Livingston – at concerts in Pennsylvania, New York state, and New Hampshire. Her latest CD, Kate Taylor Live at The Cutting Room, came out last fall, and she’s at work on another. Last year Rolling Stone called her 2002 release Beautiful Road – her first album since 1979 – “an overlooked gem.”

When members of the Taylor family aren’t performing together, they attend each other’s concerts. On September 11, 2005, Livingston and Kate sang together during the Commemorative Ceremony – the theme was siblings – held at the World Trade Center site, and daughter Liz was there for James’s appearance on Good Morning America, and at the US Open with James and his son Ben to sing “America the Beautiful.” “It was Taylor-town that day,” Kate says.

 “I am very, very fortunate to be able to have the same place to go back to every winter,” Kate says of her new off-season home in Menemsha. “To move twice a year is a small price to pay.” As a musician, Taylor is accustomed to packing up and going on tour, as she does now several weeks a month, and she has learned how to do it efficiently.

“The secret is never to complain,” she says. “If you do, you can fall into the vortex of negativity.” Her own rugs, artwork, and books helped to make the Johnson house a home while she and her family lived there. All Kate’s performing gear went on the western side of the big, U-shaped living room, and the desk where she made wampum beads faced the north shore. The mission-oak sofa in the living room stayed where it was. It had been used as a prop in the 1974 movie The Great Gatsby, and two years before that, for a film shot in the Johnson house called I Could Never Have Sex with Any Man Who Has So Little Regard for My Husband. Along with the spectacular view came the wind, which could blow so hard it bowed the living-room windows. “It was pretty dramatic to walk past them,” Kate says. “In the hurricane before Bob” – Hurricane Gloria in 1985 – “we had to slap up these big old wooden storm boards.”

As children, Liz and Aretha played in the meadow in front of the house, building forts in the trees with their half-sister Aquinnah, who lived nearby. Juniper bushes that used to rim the deck doubled as a trampoline (they are surprisingly bouncy). Thanksgiving and all the birthdays were big family events, and most recently the family celebrated Liz’s thirtieth birthday there.

Kate might still be living at what the Johnson family calls the House on the Hill, except that the Johnsons undertook renovations some years ago, and the house became unavailable. Liz went away to school, and Kate, Charlie, and Aretha moved down the road for the next ten years. In 1998 Charlie was diagnosed with liver disease. He died in 2001 while waiting for a transplant.

“We miss him,” says Kate. “All the stuff we dreamt about, I’m doing now. He created the foundation for it.”

Not much has changed in the intervening years, says Liz, who moved back into the Johnson house with her partner Ken Wentworth in 2003. Now she stays in a bedroom across the hall from where she slept as a child. That room still has the tall, dark dresser that scared her. “I thought it was haunted,” she says – and in fact rumors have floated around that the house is haunted. What has changed is Liz’s perspective as an adult.

Of Ruth Johnson’s personal touches, Liz says, “I just assumed they were my mother’s, like a gravy pitcher she always used. When I came back as an adult, it dawned on me that it wasn’t ours.” Much of the furniture has stayed the same. The renovations involved shoring up the house, building a downstairs bathroom, and remodeling the kitchen.

“We come in and move some of their furniture,” Liz says. “And put some of her photos and personal effects away. Then when we move out, we have to put them back.” Even though she hates it because of the energy it takes, Liz says moving makes you go through your things, and on each return to the house, she arranges some of them differently.

“There is continuity in transience. My entire life I’ve moved every six months,” she says. “You really feel the weight of things. That’s the reality of having a lot of stuff.” As filmmakers, she and Ken often go on location, so they are set up to travel. Once they arranged part of the living room as a production studio; this year they decided to look for separate office space instead.

The House on the Hill holds many memories and pleasures for Liz. “My mom cooked for us every night,” she says. As kids, she and Aretha, who attends Berklee College of Music in Boston, helped their parents shuck scallops in the basement. The family used the money for a trip to Disney World. “I did boycott scallops for many years,” she says. “I actually made scallops for the first time recently. I’ve been calling my mom up for recipes.”

Her favorite spot in the house while she was growing up was the living room nook where her mother kept a beautiful Japanese rug and a Steinway piano. “Because it was empty, we could kind of stretch out and play,” Liz says. She also remembers her dad’s desk.

Charlie’s death proved difficult for Liz. She had been traveling in China and Thailand with Ken, whom she met at a party on the Vineyard in 1997. The year of her father’s illness, she spent her first full year on the Vineyard in many years. Charlie died the week before she left to start a graduate program in film at Stanford University. “That was a hard choice for me,” she says.

Blues Variation, the thesis film Liz made at Stanford, has aired on PBS. One of her first-year films, Precipice, was a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. In 2003 she and Ken formed Film-Truth Productions; their work focuses on social issues. A Certain Kind of Beauty, which Liz directed with Chilmark writer Nancy Aronie, documents the struggles of Nancy’s son Dan with multiple sclerosis. Liz and Ken are in the midst of a two-year outreach campaign, taking the film to medical schools, high schools, and other places to raise awareness about MS. The pair is also working on a six-part series about mental illness and the criminal justice system called Legacy of the Harp.

Once summer comes to the Vineyard, owner Ruth Johnson and her family return to their House on the Hill. Johnson and her husband – they have since divorced – bought the house sight unseen in 1966, after summering in Menemsha for several years. It came with twenty acres of land that they divided among themselves and two other left-leaning couples. “Peacenik” Cora Weiss and her husband, Peter, of New York were one couple, and it was Weiss who called Johnson to alert her that the property was going on the market for a mere $100,000. The other couple was “the marching minister,” Reverend Michael Allen, and his wife, Priscilla, of New Jersey. The three families created a compound, complete with tennis court – what Johnson calls “a very liberal community.”

When they moved in, they found the house intact, sugar still in the sugar bowl, the downstairs covered with dark green burlap and filled with mission-oak furniture. Linoleum has come off the floors and a deck has been added. In the past forty years, eleven weddings have taken place at the house – all children of neighbors, but Ruth insists, “It’s still an upgraded camp, not elegant.”

She remembers the day when Kate knocked on her back door to ask if she would rent her house. She knew Kate was James Taylor’s sister and agreed. The two women became close, and thirty years later, when Liz asked if she could live in the house off-season again, Ruth said yes, even though she hadn’t rented it out for years.

“I, being the romantic, said, ‘Why don’t you come full circle?’” Johnson says. “After all, she almost was born in the house.”

Like so many other summer residents, Ruth Johnson and her family call the Vineyard home. “That’s where our roots are,” she says. “For us, it’s paradise.” The House on the Hill has created a paradise big enough for two families to share.

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The real story
July 8, 2020 - 9:29am