When John Doak—a second-generation Scottish architect freshly minted from the University of Glasgow—arrived on Grand Cayman in 1979, he found a blank canvas.
Sure, there were fishing cabins, shotgun shacks, and the occasional 1920s Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit house, termite ridden and destined for the dustbin. But the island had no formal, signature architecture, no Georgian, Colonial, or Palladian-inspired residential work like on Jamaica, Antigua, and other Caribbean islands.
That’s because, for centuries, Grand Cayman’s economy revolved not around plantations but the natives who harvested sea turtles for a living and who spent long stretches at sea as sailors. That started to change in the mid-1970s, though, once the island became known for its liberal banking laws, no-tax economy, and tourism.
With the island’s jump-started economy taking off, Doak was in the right place at the right time. A classicist by training and nature, he looked first to Jamaica’s Great Houses like Rose Hall and Hibbert House for inspiration. He found guidance in American architect Charles Moore’s writings about placemaking. And he was smitten by the work of Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the Yale-educated minimalist, a pal and confidant of groundbreaking modernist Louis Khan.
“Khan was a great influence,” Doak says. “But Jacobsen’s work is beautifully simple; he was very influential in the first two houses I designed.”
Jacobsen’s rural simplicity played itself out in Doak’s initial effort on the island, a home located “in the middle of nowhere,” as Doak recalls. “It was influential to the Cayman Style, and it cut off anything fanciful,” he says. “It’s simple and Palladian in a curious way.”
The Cayman Style? There’d been no such thing until Doak arrived. For almost 40 years, he’s been quietly and prolifically defining and refining that style for a clientele grateful for his architecture but also his knowledge of the island, its value, and its artisans.
For starters, there’s client Antonio Rossano, a Connecticut-based building supply company owner. “We started out with a four-bedroom home that was not too large, and John said, ‘You want a 4,000-square-foot house on that property? You’re free to build whatever, but maybe it should be larger to fit into the neighborhood and for resale.’ So now it’s 8,900 square feet. He made me aware of this house as an investment.”
Then there’s New York-based CPA Peter Frischman and his wife, also a CPA, who started renting on Cayman in 2012. They interviewed a number of architects initially, with Doak heading their list. For years after that, they followed his work. “We’d go in when they were under construction and talk to the craftsmen,” Frischman says. “That was the key—he has to bring out their best.”
Three relatively recent projects by John Doak are prime examples of what most people today call the Cayman Style.
The Casa J House
In 2011, Doak designed and built a Spanish Mediterranean-style home for himself and his family on Salt Creek, where natives once corralled sea turtles by closing off one end of the creek, catching them in their catboats.
He sited the 12,000-square-foot home in the middle of a cluster of palm trees, at the tip of a peninsula in a new development. He then added a garage, guest cottages, and a water-view cabana with a bar for his rum collection. It was a Jamaican-inspired scheme. “At the center is the Great House, with pavilions on the corners,” he says. “There is a pool and an orchard with fruit trees. The open side enjoys prevailing breezes.”
Wary of hurricanes, he elevated the house eight feet above sea level. The living spaces are 15 feet up and the bedroom level offers 360-degree views of the entire island. “You can see the whole north side of Grand Cayman, Seven Mile Beach, and Rum Point,” he says. “I used to say that, standing on your tiptoes on a clear day, you can see Havana, Cuba.”
The six-bedroom home sold in the summer of 2017.
Salt Creek Residence
Also on Salt Creek is the 8,900-square-foot residence that Doak upgraded from 4,000 to nearly 9,000 square feet for Antonio Rossano. The architectural review commission’s covenants required British Colonial style, with shiplap siding and aluminum roofs for the main home and its two pavilions. Other than that, the clients gave their architect free rein.
“They wanted a house that he and his wife could share,” Doak says. “They knew they’d be visiting frequently from the States, so it was a second home, and guests were lining up to come.” He designed the two pavilions to flank the main house on two corners of the three-quarter-acre property. Each houses a double garage at ground level and living space with two bedrooms above.
“His idea was that, with all this space, why not make some suites up there?” Rossano says. “Our kids are in their thirties, and they come and stay and we have lots of guests who visit. We can put them there and they’re on their own and not in the middle of the house.”
Outside, there’s a pool and one of the largest outdoor kitchens Doak’s ever seen, much less designed. “With the way we live, most of our time is spent outdoors,” Rossano says. “That’s how he designed the space—so I can demonstrate my pizza and grilling prowess. And there’s a certain flow and feel to it that’s really nice, from one space to another.”
Doak’s knowledge of and familiarity with the architectural review commission was spot-on. “He knew them down pat,” Rossano says. “They’re notorious for being difficult but we had zero encounters with them.”
Walk in the Sun
A desire to age in place drove part of Doak’s design for the beachfront home of Peter Frischman and his wife. “It’s built so that if we get old and are in wheelchairs, we can live downstairs,” Frischman says. “It’s really important that we can live here comfortably into our seventies.”
The couple asked for a home designed in the tradition of the British West Indies with inside-outside living. They started out with the idea of a series of pavilions for the kitchen, bedrooms, and living areas. “Then we thought it was too extreme,” the owner says. “So he came up with the concept of connecting the pavilions with glassed-in walkways and meditative gardens.”
The architect never presumed to tell his clients what they wanted—instead, their home evolved from what they needed. And they say the design process was stress-free. “We always wanted to be in his office; we looked forward to going there,” Frischman recalls. “He made things simple. He was drawing while talking to us and we had so much fun building it.”
The initial house was 4,000 square feet with four pavilions, but a year later a fifth pavilion, a cottage, was added for a total of 5,000 square feet, including an observatory. While its proportions conform to the British West Indies style, the home is a little more modern, with cleaner lines than much of Doak’s work.
Modernism is beginning to show its influence on Cayman, and the architect is adapting to it, as he has to other styles. “He’s doing one with a Balinese touch, a completely modern one, and a Moroccan-Spanish one,” says longtime friend Shane Aquârt. “He’s got an eclectic palette going on, but you can definitely spot his Cayman Style—it’s a neat, tidy, and refined look.”
For 39 years, Doak has been working on a book about the island’s architecture, trying to define Cayman style. “The delay in publishing lay in the hope of discovering something to hang its hat on,” the architect says. “I may end up making it a book of my work here instead.”
And why not? He, as much as anyone on Grand Cayman, has created a lasting architecture that the island can call its own.
For more information, visit johndoak.com