Old Customs House on Main street


Preserving The BVI's Architectural
Heritage

The Millennium Committee commemorates four buildings of significance


Story by Jane Bakewell

Illustrations by Aileen Malcolm

Governor Boyd McCleary (left) & former Premier Ralph O'Neal (center) with members of the Millennium Committee
Governor Boyd McCleary (left) and former Premier Ralph O'Neal (center) with members of the Millennium Committee (l-r): Sandra Adamson, Jennie Wheatley and Ermin Penn. Photo Jane Bakewell


The BVI has gone through some dramatic growing pains over the last 40 years. Most remarkably the architecture has evolved from simple West Indian gingerbread houses to expansive concrete structures with a potpourri of international styles. Even Road Town, the "little city with a big heart," which once sported a more lateral visage, has turned distinctively vertical with numerous four-story commercial structures gleaming with a modern 20th century glow.

While economic prosperity and growth have many positive aspects, I wondered if the importance of historical preservation has also been recognized? I posed this question to three prominent Tortolian women, who make up the core of the Millennium Committee. This committee was formed just before 2000, encouraged by the then Chief Minister Ralph O'Neal, with a mandate to identify and preserve the islands' historical heritage sites for future generations. Interestingly enough, our meeting about the territory's history took place within the walls of a wonderfully authentic historical building – the Old Custom's House on Main Street, in its new genesis as a coffee shop and gallery. "Historic Main Street" as it is sometimes called, has retained many of Road Town's charming West Indian style buildings and it is this area that the Millennium Committee has selected to focus their preservation efforts on.

Ermin Penn, a member of the Millennium Committee is a walking repository of Virgin Islands history. She is able to reference many dates, times, even historical documents from a mental filing cabinet as easily as if these events happened last week. A proud Virgin Islander, she can trace her own family roots within this island group to the 1600s. Presently serving in the position of historian at the BVI Tourist Board, Ermin has had a life-long appreciation for the VI's rich cultural and architectural past.

The first organization to rally an effort around historical preservation in the territory, she explained, was the VI Historical Society, which was formed in the '80s. This resulted in the establishment of the VI Folk Museum, on Main Street, a traditional West Indian house, which holds Amerindian pottery as well as many nautical and plantation-era relics of BVI history.

The J.E. William George's shop

Above: Illustration of The J.E. William George's shop

Two other buildings that survived the wrecking ball due to the efforts of ardent preservationists, are the 1780 Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum, an over 300-year-old sugar factory that houses historical artifacts and local artwork, located next to Sir Rupert Briercliffe Hall, and the Old Government House Museum on the Blackburn Highway on the western edge of Road Town.

The Millennium Committee took up the baton with an initial goal to compile a list of buildings and sites that might be in danger of being destroyed if their historical value was not properly researched and identified. Xandra Adamson, another Millennium Committee member and longtime resident of the BVI, who is originally from Trinidad, explained, "We knew our long list would not be effective unless we focused on just a few buildings to start with. We let the Chief Minister select from the list his top four buildings of importance and that is how we came up with the ones designated for historical plaques."

The four buildings chosen for their historical significance are all located on Main Street, the site of many traditional West Indian homes now converted to businesses. St George's Church Hall (owned by the Anglican church), Her Majesty's Prison and the J.E. William George's Compound are all on the west side of the street. The locally known "Fireproof" building owned by the J.R. O'Neal family (across from the Methodist Church) is located on the east side. Each has a unique history for the significant events or purposes that it served.

Jennie Wheatley, the third core member of the Millennium Committee, is another local historian with a wealth of knowledge. Her credits include starting the Virgin Islands Studies program at the H. Lavity Stoutt College, inspiring many of the territory's youth to take an interest in their history and culture. She remembers the George's Compound well. "There were other places you could pick up a few items in the early days, but this was the place to go to get it all – from birth to death. They stocked clothes, groceries, tools, even lumber to build a coffin."

Serendipity Spa

Above: Illustration of Serendipity Spa

This Main Street all-in-one general store supplied the territory exclusively with imported goods until the mid '60s. The building dates back to the Plantation Period in the Virgin Islands, generally stretching from the mid-1600s to mid-1800s.The building was purchased by J.E. William Georges sometime between 1838 and 1900. Today, although it sports a brass plaque and fresh paint job, it is not in use as a commercial property.

The "Fireproof" Building, which last operated as a large crafts complex, got its name from surviving the Road Town fire and riots of 1853. Although emancipation from slavery was officially declared in the BVI in 1834, islanders still struggled to make ends meet. When, what many felt was an unfair cattle tax was levied less than twenty years later, riots broke out and many buildings in Road Town were burned to the ground. However this one survived due to its thick masonry walls. Surviving along with it was Lieutenant John Cornell Chads, President of the Virgin Islands from 1852 to 1854. The first floor of this building served as his office and also the site where the Abolition Act of 1834 was read in official presentation.

Just up the street and sitting at a right angle to the St George's Church is the historic Church Hall. Built shortly after 1863, it served as a schoolhouse for Virgin Island children whose family could afford the school fee. It also served in a governmental role as the meeting place of the Legislative Council of the Virgin Islands from 1851 to 1967. Today, it is used as a facility for various functions for the Anglican Church.

The historic HM Prison was completed in 1774
Above: Illustration of The historic HM Prison that was completed in 1774

Sandwiched ironically between the Anglican and Methodist Church is the historic HM Prison. Known photographically for its small red arched door amidst tall thick white walls, it is according to records, the first of any Crown properties built in the Virgin Islands and was completed in 1774. Death sentences that required hanging were performed at the prison until capital punishment was outlawed in the territory. The prison also had an office where residents obtained their ID card and it also was the clandestine storage place for rum during the Prohibition era. Her Majesty's Prison served as a detention center for prisoners until 1997 when work was completed on the new prison facility in Huntum's Ghut.

Although each of these structures has received a brass plaque and are designated as historical sites, there are not yet in place rules that govern use or change in the building's structure. "We hope that this historical designation with plaques will help and that other sites will follow soon," Mrs. Penn added. The hard-working women of the Millennium Committee would agree that the effort has begun and many others are beginning to see the value of the past in helping to define the present. American preservationist and author, William J. Murtagh captured it best in his writings, "It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future."

A stroll along Main Street is definitely a stroll through some of the territory's architectural treasures and a stop along the way at the VI Folk Museum, or the Sunny Caribbee Spice Shop (housed in a historical building that was once a guesthouse) might just round out your Road Town historical tour.

Giclée prints of Aileen Malcolm's paintings are available through The Gallery, BVI