Oppenheimer’s Legacy on St. John
The sugar sand beaches, lush hiking trails and crystal clear waters of St. John are well known. Driving along the stunning North Shore Road, the most difficult task is simply deciding upon which alabaster shoreline to spend the day. But there is more to the island than just palm trees and white sand beaches.
A fascinating history is tucked away behind a wrought iron gate just west of the Denis Bay peninsula. This stretch of sand is called Gibney Beach and most of it is privately owned, except for the eastern section which was deeded to the people of the Virgin Islands by the daughter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
This area first drew the attention of artistic New York newlyweds Robert and Nancy Gibney in the 1940s. Robert was a writer and artist and Nancy was an editor at Vogue when the two honeymooned on St. John in 1946. The couple quickly fell in love with St. John and eventually purchased 40 acres of land on Hawksnest Bay. The Gibneys settled into island life and made St. John their home, building a house and raising three children.
J. Robert Oppenheimer began vacationing on the shores of St. John in the mid-1950’s with his wife Kitty and daughter Katherine, known to all as Toni. During those years Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was living in Princeton, New Jersey, and dealing with the security hearing. He would eventually lose his security clearance amid loud and incorrect insinuations of treason.
In 1957 Oppenheimer purchased two acres of land on Hawksnest Bay from the Gibneys. He built a simple home on the beach and spent much time sailing with Kitty and Toni. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at his home in Princeton, New Jersey in 1967 and Kitty passed away in 1972.
After her parents deaths, Toni inherited the St. John beach house and moved to the island around 1973. She married and divorced a local musician and ran a Cruz Bay restaurant called The Out. Toni was only 32 years old when she committed suicide; her ex-husband found her hanging from a beam in her family beach house in 1977.
Toni had been active in community events on St. John and left her family land to the people of the island. The land was officially deeded to the government of the Virgin Islands in 1980 and was originally neglected. The structure was vandalized and strewn with graffiti when it was finally destroyed during a hurricane.
The government eventually rebuilt a simple concrete structure, with a kitchen, large front porch and bathrooms, on the property which is operated as a community center today. For only a small fee, residents can rent Oppenheimer for birthday parties and family reunions while enjoying one of the most beautiful beaches on an island full of them.
Written by: Jaime Elliott
3 thoughts on “Oppenheimer’s Legacy on St. John”
I was one of the last caretakers of the house, living there with my wife in 1978, when the estate was in probate. Such a place!
I lived there in early Oct ’72, house sitting, while Kitty Oppenheimer set off on her round the world sail, with Bob Serber, aboard her 150′ boat, Moonraker.
Yes, it was quite a place!
I often sat at Robert Oppenheimer’s desk, gazing out beyond their beach…just as Oppie used to do.