This article was published in St Croix This Week – February / March 2018
Despite Hurricanes IrMaria trying to destroy these Virgin Islands, trying to dampen spirits, and black-out homes, perseverance and resilience are winning and life is returning to normal.
Much has been made of the destruction of the mahogany trees on St Croix – both by hurricane and chain saw. With the heightened awareness of their value as shade, beauty and utility, perhaps we should look to a viable long-term use of the timber now lying discarded.
It was a theme taken up by Sergio Fox, an environmental and sustainable resource engineer, when speaking at a recent symposium in Christiansted. Why not use it in the proposed conservation of the Old Army Barracks?
Hosted by Gerville Larsen, a Crucian architect well known for his vision for a Christiansted Town Plan, and Ulla Lunn, a Danish preservation architect representing BYFO, the Association of Historical Houses in Denmark, I learnt of the progress made on The Legacy Project, which plans to stabilize, conserve and bring new life to the current eyesore on Hospital Street. It is a dramatic vision that will benefit all who live on these islands, and beyond.
A school where Virgin Islanders could earn an associate’s degree in architecture before transferring to accredited institutions in Puerto Rico, the mainland, or Denmark. In keeping with its ideal of serving all segments of society, this venue would also teach building crafts – carpentry, metal work, brick building and so on using the old techniques that have proven, through many years and numerous hurricanes, to withstand harsh conditions. At the same time recognizing and incorporating modern methods and materials.
The provisional name, The Center for Architecture and Built Heritage, will also (provisionally) have an auditorium, an archive room, a cafeteria and gardens – all open to the public. A true venue for the preservation of Crucian culture.
Visions don’t come cheap but with the $150,000 seed money from BYFO, matched by the VI Government, this joint venture can now start raising the $20M required to see both this project, and one on St Thomas, realised. Full funding must come from foundations, organizations and government in the US and Denmark.
Some might remember the exhibition at The Blue Mutt in January 2017 showing designs drawn by students from Aarhus University after their visit to St Croix – and all of which inspired those interested in the conservation and restoration of Christiansted.
A couple of weeks ago at the symposium, first held at Balter (thank you, for the delicious appetizers), and subsequently at the Florence Williams Public Library, we were treated to a presentation of three designs drawn up by two young architects – Crucian, Felicia Farrante and Norwegian, Hildegunn Gronningssaeter. Their enthusiasm was contagious as they talked us through ideas ranging from safe traditional, to an elegant compromise of old converging into new, to a thrilling modern design that, to my layman’s eyes, made the most of the remains of the army barracks whilst giving Christiansted a brave new look. For a brave new enterprise. All the concepts, as Ulla Lunn commented, “cherish the ruins”.
Describing the history of this decaying relic, from the time it was the Danish army barracks to a military hospital in 1835, to 1961 when it became a high school and finally a police substation before being abandoned to asbestos and bush, Farrante said, “You can touch the life in every single brick in these buildings”. Gronningssaeter continued, “We cannot preserve all values at once. We have to have a focus. Something that makes you reflect on time and history.”
But why, when so many things need funding, particularly after the devastation left by the 2017 hurricane season, should we put time, energy and money into, again in Hildegunn Gronningssaeter’s words, “a beautiful decaying structure returning to nature” ?
Because to not conserve and preserve the culture is to disown the heritage – the good and the bad. By moving forward with a project like this, which must be community driven and in collaboration with BYFO in Denmark, we are valuing the past, present and future – a true Legacy Project.
More prosaically, a well preserved St Croix would help tap into an international market geared to heritage travel, and therefore tourism dollars.
As the symposium came to an end, I was reminded of Gerville Larsen’s opening words, “People are the heart of the town.” By taking a decrepit ruin and turning it into a grand design built by Crucians for Crucians and any who would like to visit St Croix we acknowledge, as Senator Myron Jackson said, “Arts and culture are the framework of a community.”
Let’s put the mahogany trees to good use. Store them, let them cure properly, then by the time funds have been raised for this exciting venture, those stately old trees will have come full circle – creating shade, beauty and utility.