Barbados is a prime example of a small but dynamic country with a well recognised brand image – top of the small developing country pile, well governed with a stable economy, and carefully balancing the preservation of its culture with the need to share it with curious but well-heeled visitors.
It has always attracted eminent citizens of the Western world – from George Washington in 1751 (he and his brother spent seven weeks here) to Presidents Reagan and Clinton; from British royalty to prime ministers – SirWinston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair and not to forget the fabulously wealthy uncrowned heads of Britain and North America. As a result, there is a need to balance the protection of much of the rock for the use and enjoyment of our own citizens and their descendents, while permitting the carefully controlled development of real estate for the maximum economic return that will support the very use and enjoyment of our heritage by both our own citizens and our much appreciated guests! And there’s the rub: controlling development to protect our heritage.
The architectural heritage of Barbados is one of the richest in the Caribbean.While parts of Willemstadt in Curacao comprise dense pockets of historical buildings of considerable architectural value; while Old San Juan, Havana and Old Santo Domingo have splendidly preserved old town centres; while Port of Spain contains some splendid examples of century-old architecture; and while Jamaica boasts varied, scattered architectural gems, there is no English speaking Caribbean country that boasts the rich and dense architectural heritage of Barbados. The profusion of historic churches, plantation great houses, sugar industry relics and iconic chattel houses, historic Bridgetown’s core and its unique garrison of 80 buildings on 141 acres all present a unique tapestry of almost 400 years of colonial history. In fact, Barbados has recently submitted the nomination of historic Bridgetown and its garrison as a World Heritage site. If this accolade is achieved it will project our country into the forefront of heritage tourism destinations, for only the Pitons of St. Lucia and the unique Brimstone Hill fortifications of St. Kitts have achieved the status of World Heritage sites.
Fame and fortune, of course, are usually linked. But with fame (and influence) comes responsibility. And to justify that reputation as a site of historical and architectural integrity Barbados must ensure the protection of the important historic structures and architecturally important buildings and streetscapes, while promoting appropriate development, use and enjoyment. The concept of historic preservation within major re-development programmes is nothing new, of course, but it is relatively new in the Caribbean, and particularly in the context of contemporary real estate development and tourism marketing – both short traditions of more or less fifty years, because the first modern housing developments began in the 1940s and 50s and the first Barbadian Board of Tourism in the late 50s!
Several aspects of real estate development should be considered in the attempt by developers, individuals and the Town and Country Development Planning Office to maintain the historical integrity of the island as a whole and of the important historical districts. These are the historic Bridgetown core and its garrison, and the “satellite” districts of Strathclyde and Belleville, Bay Street and Hastings, Speightstown and Holetown. These areas have been recognised as conservation areas, although not yet finally or rigidly defined, and the delay in achieving this has contributed to the ambivalence about preservation and decay of many fine buildings. But outside of these areas of high density of ancient and important buildings and streetscapes are the fifty or more historic churches, the several hundred plantation great houses, windmills and other sugar plantation buildings, traditional shop houses and chattel houses, signal stations, et cetera. And the 350 past years of real estate development have produced an equally important landscape of farmland, wooded areas and community organisation, which deserves respect.
Many developers take the approach that old buildings and even trees and inconvenient land masses should be removed to provide the architect with a clean slate. Examples of this include the mass destruction of mature mahogany trees at Maxwell some years ago, and the rape of the landscape, magnificent Ficus trees, topsoil and all at Paradise in recent times (Rape in Paradise). In contrast, there are also many examples of houses and buildings “fitting” snugly into a landscape where mature trees are preserved and the structure designed to complement the terrain rather than abuse or sacrifice it.
It is the rich architectural heritage, landscape and townscapes of Barbados which distinguish it from many other sun, sand and sea destinations. It is therefore imperative for development to not only safeguard that heritage but to utilise it, protecting, preserving, and where appropriate embellishing it. Again there are a number of fine, sensitive and successful examples of such adaptive reuse, but perhaps none better than five very recent gems, listed in order of their completion: the restoration of Tyrol Cot and creation of the Heritage Village alongside; the restoration of the Nidhe Israel Synagogue and the creation of the Jewish Museum in Bridgetown; the restoration and creation of the George Washington House Museum; the restoration of Arlington House and creation of the Museum of Speightstown; and the restoration of Sweetfield Manor Historic Inn and Bed and Breakfast at Brittons Hill.
In each case a building of considerable beauty and historic interest has been restored and adapted for productive use; only in the case of the Jewish
Synagogue was the original use invoked – worship – alongside its enormous interest as a historic and tourist site, with the important archaeological discovery this year of the original mikveh – the bath of purification – 12 feet below the car park! At Sweetfield Manor, a dilapidated merchant’s mansion house overlooking the historic Garrison Savannah has been restored to its nineteenth century grandeur, along with its stables and carriage house, and filled with sumptuous antiques and art, to produce an award winning historic inn – the “Top Caribbean Pick” according to Islands magazine. Transformations like this are perfect models of converting history into hospitality and hard cash, and belie the contemporary Caribbean culture that new is best.
In the past few decades many plantation great houses have been rescued and restored – gems such as Fustic House in St. Lucy, Clifton Hall and Belmont in St. John, Valley in St. George, and of course the great show houses, St. Nicholas Abbey and Sunbury. Yet others, like Newcastle Great House and Buckden have gone to ruin and back to nature. Some, like Cliff in St. John and Lamberts in St. Joseph, are now on the market. Some gems are on offer and ripe for restoration and adaptive reuse around the Garrison, Belleville, Bay Street and
Speightstown, as well as in historic Bridgetown, such as the splendid Masonic Lodge Building (old Harrison College, circa 1735) and the northern remaining portion of the once great Marshall Hall. Development in these areas can successfully utilise restored old buildings, and where appropriate combine sensitive complementary structures.
Similarly, rural developments should be sensitive to the landscape, retaining mature woods and trees, and confirming to the best of traditional Barbadian vernacular styles and restrained tastes, rather than attempting to make every structure a striking individual architectural statement – too often a gauche mix of many styles and periods! Our country is too small to be the victim of an explosion of buildings in carnival style costumes, a description recently applied to some of the concretions appearing along the platinum coast of Barbados. This article can only end with a plea for a combination of good taste and good sense, a sense of history and respect for posterity, among architects, clients, developers and our Town and Country planners.
N.B: Prepared for Terra Caribbean’s The Red Book 2010 Pink Pages by Professor Henry S. Fraser – President Emeritus, The Barbados National Trust.