June 5, 2005 St. John architect and builder Glen Speer learned the nuts and bolts of his trade on a Glendora, Calif. farm commune.
"The farm allowed me to do a lot of creative building, which prepared me for my future life on St. John," he said.
Speer was born 66 years ago in Boise, Idaho. He and his family lived in Idaho and Washington until he was in the eighth grade.
"We grew our own food," he said.
They then moved to his father's home town of Glendora, where he attended the same high school as his father. He then went on to study architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. He credits the California educational system with allowing him to attend college since it cost only $50 a semester for in-state students.
Speer moved to St. John from California in 1969, a time when the St. John building boom of today was not even a glimmer in somebody's eye. He came to help a Glendora friend, Dale Baird, build the Parton house at Catherineberg.
"Maurice Smith and Mac Williams were just young carpenters. Mac picked me up at the dock and Per Dohm brought me over because the ferry stopped running at four o'clock," he said, speaking about two of St. John's seasoned builders who also were learning their trade back in 1969. (Dohm continued in the water taxi business.)
Speer worked with Baird for two years before going out on his own.
"But there weren't a whole lot of opportunities for architects," he said.
He said this forced him to become a builder who designed the houses he constructed. In the early days, he said he had about one job a year.
Speer, with his then-partner, St. John artist Linda Smith, went on to build the eastern half of Mongoose Junction in 1977 mainly because Smith needed a place to sell her handpainted t-shirts. Additionally, Donald Schnell, who still operates his studio at Mongoose Junction, wanted a larger space. R&I Patton, still at the shopping center, was another early tenant.
"We opened with five shops," he said.
Speer still owns the eastern half of Mongoose Junction but built the western end for then-owner T.A. Carter in 1987.
"It was my first real taste of doing more professional work," he said.
In 1999 he started work on the Marketplace shopping center with Starfish Market owner David Mugar and the St. John Hardware Store owners. He and the store owners have since sold their shares to Mugar.
"The daily management was really stressful," he said.
While Speer still does home design work, he said he prefers working on commercial buildings. He said that working on "people-oriented" buildings is more interesting.
He often speaks out about the rapid change in St. John. He said there is no core group to bring residents together for the long-term good of St. John.
Speer wishes the V.I. National Park, which consumes two-thirds of St. John's land, was more of a player in island planning.
While St. John isn't remotely like it was decades ago when he first arrived, he still finds it a fine place to live. While parking is an issue and there are occasional traffic jams, he doesn't have to face a long commute because his house is next to Mongoose Junction shopping center.
He said he's been able to keep his life simple, spending time reading, taking walks at Annaberg with his wife, Radha Speer, and hiking with his brother near his Washington state vacation home.
"I've got a lot of hope for the future," he said.
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