Sunday, September 4, 2016

Old Christiansted Hospital Revisited

When the V.I. Antiquities Law was enacted in 1998, the V.I. Legislature and V.I. Government understood that our cultural resources were in jeopardy from not having enough protection especially for entities that owned abandoned historic properties. When I won the Christiansted Town Plan competition in 2013 sponsored by the V.I. Economic Development Authority's Enterprize Zone  and 3 years later it was enacted, I included for revitalization and adaptive reuse, a unique and important historic structure that we all know as the Old Christiansted Hospital. Periodically, as I always do, I searched online to see what relevant information exists on our rich culture heritage specifically on our stunning architectural gems. I recently uncovered this video produced by Dondre Richards.

Let me first give massive kudos to Dondre for venturing into this historic ruin and capturing this footage. We, as a community, have blinders on: only seeing what we want to see and not always seeing what we need to see. Our heritage is always front and center here even, if at times, its hidden under some verdant green foliage that can be removed with some good 'ole elbow grease. It's my belief that we don't exude enough community support to demand that these important town properties are first stabilized and then fully restored and rehabilitated. We want more visitors to come to our shores to enrich our monetary coffers and infuse our islands with economic growth ... guess what, it's staring us in the face. The best tool to make this happen is via creating original and authentic products for them to experience. So much for trying to always build new bland architectural structures that unfortunately will not survive the test of time!

At the eve of our 100th Centennial from "being sold" by Denmark as the Danish West Indies to become the Virgin Islands of the United States, we as a people must show to each other and the world, what exactly we have accomplished in the past 100 years under American rule. Trust me, we have many amazing historical achievements both locally and globally to tout if we take the time to research it. However, when I see how we treat our ancestral built environment with such disdain, I now have to say: wake the hell up. Historic properties owned by the V.I. Government, by private companies or by individuals that exert on them demolition by neglect, need to be addressed by our collective community. We need to say loud and clear to them: we do care and we demand they are treated will the love, protection, preservation and conservation they deserve. They tell our story: one historically whitewashed and unheralded of how, in the face of adversity, our enslaved African ancestors, built this unique and special place fused with the aesthetics of our 2 colonizers - Denmark and the United States of America, creating a clear cultural Virgin Islands identity. The above mentioned poor stewards of our important abandoned buildings are stymying the growth of both of our rich historic towns on St. Croix: Frederiksted and Christiansted and on St. Thomas: Charlotte Amalie and Savan. Let's change how we approach our various local problems by creating a preservation movement that will have great impact on our many varied social issues. We already know the problems that exist and let's start, through our collective community efforts, creating viable and sustainable solutions. We need to begin to come together as a community to make a difference and speak up about the places that matter to us for all of us. 

Old Christiansted Hospital circa 1920

Old Christiansted Hospital today

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Virgin Islands Preservation Commission Lecture by Gerville R. Larsen, A.I.A. August 11, 2016

It's been awhile ... I always seem to be busy trying to make a difference in my community, sometimes to the detriment of my professional practice. My time is spent being a professional architect, artist, community activist and just a citizen who cares about this unique place: St. Croix and the U.S. Virgin Islands. So many of us here in the US Virgin Islands are adversely impacted by the few who thrive on being hypercritical without providing their community with concrete solutions to the myriad of problems we face here. I recently was asked by the St. Croix Friends of the Park to speak about the VI Historic Preservation Commission. I've been on this Commission for multiple years and I really can't remember how many other of my colleagues have gone out to speak on behalf of this important regulatory body. Part of being on a Commission is not only to provide ones expertise, but it is also to provide your community with information about your organization and to get the word out. When we agree to be on these regulatory commissions, we need to be ready to speak about what we do, what we are charged to regulate by law, how we inform the community about these regulations and, most important of all, how we get our community to become engaged and buy into our mandates. I'm attaching the video of my speech that I gave recently, as well as the pdf of the presentation which isn't visible in the video.

For those who wish to be informed, enjoy.

The Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Commission

Monday, April 15, 2013

Documentary: US Virgin Islands Vernacular Cottage Part 1 & 2

A great passion of mine is saving the disappearing Vernacular "Wooden" Cottage that existed in large numbers in our historic towns. These beautifully crafted residential structures highlight the high skill level of  our African ancestors that constructed these humble abodes. They posses countless details such as beaded rafters and uprights (a small lineal routed joint) on each side of the lumber that gives the interior a finished look. Tracery or a screen between room partitions on the upper half of the wall allows heat to pass through the spaces. Of course, gingerbread (decorative pattern work) located on fascia boards and railings make these residences richly detailed. Another unique aspect of these structures is that they are mortise and tenon construction using no nails or glue, only a dowel and peg system. Each piece is typically marked so that if they had to be moved, they could be taken apart and put back together similar to a LEGO set. These structures, typically prevalent in the freed slave areas in our towns, are a legacy of the triumph in the face of adversity that our African ancestors endured during the period of slavery during Danish Colonial rule. They also tell a unique story of the transference of wealth by these same individuals who passed their homes on to future generations ... many of whom still own them today. To save them in my opinion is paramount. 

Efforts by individuals, especially the younger generation, like LaVaughn Belle and Rivert Diaz should be commended if we truly desire to save these structures for future generations. While surfing the net, I came across this YouTube video labeled West Indian Cottage Part & Part 2. 

US Virgin Islands Vernacular Cottage: Part 1

US Virgin Islands Vernacular Cottage: Part 2

This is a wonderful documentary and time capsule of what existed here in the Territory in the early 1980's. There are structures that appear here that have subsequently vanished from our landscape. During this time, as long as the building had measured drawings made, it could be demolished. After the VI Antiquities Law of 1998, that option is not the standard any more. Please note the delicacy of the details on buildings during close ups. I feel modern day replication of these details are "heavy handed" and don't reflect true proportions that were used in the past.

This documentary was posted by the Island Green Building Council in St. John. Doug White who is a member of this Council edited and produced it with George F. Tyson, Jr.  Funding was provided by the Island Resources Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Let's Talk Paint: Part 3 (Final)

As I provoke thought as it relates to paint practices in the Territory, I will now provide information of lime wash paint formulas, techniques and examples. With this information, we can become more informed on what can be done to own towns to make them look better and, as a result, create healthier spaces. To begin, let me provide some paint formulas that are derived from historic techniques used to inject color into plastered masonry and wooden surfaces. The lime mortar mix is used over rubble wall surfaces and can have pigment added to it to give the surface a longer color life span. Lime wash paint should always be made with organic pigments to ensure a natural mottled (light and dark) effect occurs over time achieving that "Old World" look that is so appropriate in our historic towns. Linseed Oil paint is used on shutters. The life span of this paint is longer than latex on wood and can be revived using the lime putty described below. The lime putty formula is also a caulking agent that expands and contracts as wood heats up and cools down. The putty is also used to fill joints between wood planks and gives the surface an even finish.

To read more information about lime wash paint, you can go to the link below.

A resurgence of interest in lime wash paint is truly needed in all our historic towns. When people travel to far away places, they can sense the age of a place not only from the architecture that exists there, but by the patina and finishes on these structures. Using lime wash paint on our buildings as a standard would yield that antique patina instantaneously. A unique quality of lime wash paint is that it can be affixed to more contemporary Portland cement plaster finishes. Therefore, even new construction infill in our towns can be coated with this lime wash paint to make them become more sympathetic to the districts. Lime wash paint is also classified as a green construction material. 

To conclude this paint series, here are great examples of appropriate color schemes, lime wash and wood painted applications that clearly give these unique historic structures beautiful patinas and keep them looking historic,  elegant and truly belonging to the United States Virgin Islands.

Danish School - Frederiksted
Preservation Award Winner - National Trust for Historic Preservation

Sion Farm Greathouse

7 Flags Building - Frederiksted

To reiterate this point, the streetscape is one of the most important features in our historic towns and when a soft subtle palette is used, the rich proportions and distinct detailing become visible and preserve our authentic character. This signature architecture and sense of place is a true fusion of the Danish Colonial Architecture paired with the highly skilled enslaved and subsequently freed African Craftsmen that erected these stunning buildings. They tell a unique story that we all are responsible to help conserve and preserve for generations to come. 

Sunday Market Square Christiansted

King Cross Street Christiansted

Company Street Christiansted

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Let's Talk Paint: Part 2

Now that we have the background information on the Territory's historic town color schemes, let's establish the pre-approved colors that meet the paint color requirements for these districts. The St. Croix historic towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted are controlled by the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee (STXHPC). The Charlotte Amalie/ Savan historic town is controlled by the St. Thomas/St. John Historic Preservation Committee (STT/STJHPC). These two committees make up the Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Commission (VIHPC). I've attached the color samples that are used in the St. Croix historic districts. The St. Thomas/St. John historic district has additional shutter colors that St. Croix does not use. As one can see, the recommended colors are soft pastel hues. This does not mean that these are the only colors allowed in the districts. As long as the colors are in this range, the VIHPC Committees will entertain other colors. All color selections whether pre-approved or new colors must be reviewed and approved  by the Committees prior to commencement of any painting of a building in the historic districts. This ensures the color schemes are authentic, relevant and enhance the aesthetic character of the towns and, more importantly, compliment the streetscape. These are unique historic towns that existed long before the arrival of our present day inhabitants and these towns have stewards, the VIHPC, who ensure they will exist long after we are gone and for future generations. 

I want to debunk some myths about using certain types of paint and colors in these historic towns. First, let's discuss the myth that dark colors cover up dirt and stains in this climate. I think most people would agree that a black car is one of the most elegant car colors on the market. Most of us probably would also agree that a black car is the most difficult car color to maintain and keep clean. In general, dark colors are hard to keep clean: dust and dirt are visible almost instantaneously on dark surfaces. If the rationale for using a dark color is because people put their feet up, lean against and dirty wall surfaces, then let's deal with the bad human behavior and stop punishing the building. Why is a dark wall color a bad thing on our historic buildings? With our intense Caribbean Sun, dark colors help heat up our buildings. From a sustainability and green building perspective, it is the "wrong way" to go. If you have a concrete block structure and you paint it a dark color in the Tropics, during the day, your cooling costs increase for a business or residence because the walls  "heat up". At night, if you have a residence, the heated block walls now expend the accumulated heat and keep your interiors way warm for awhile which requires mechanical cooling via a fan or A/C. In these hard economic times, this is not a good move. 

Dark brown painted base looks extremely dirty

Most people don't realize, our historic buildings, even our wonderful wooden vernacular structures, all have rubble wall construction as foundations and/or enclosure walls. What are "rubble walls"? They are thick masonry walls created from stones and bricks fused together with lime mortar. These thick walls that exist throughout our historic towns absorb moisture from the ground and from rain accumulated during showers and storms. They are always moist. Consequently, they need to have a coating that will allow them to breathe: expending this moisture through tiny air pockets in the surface. The only proper surface treatment that allows this moisture to escape is lime wash paint. Latex and alkyd based paints do not allow historic rubble walls to breathe. When latex paint is applied to a rubble wall, especially on the outside and inside surfaces, moisture becomes trapped in the wall. This causes the paint to spall (peel off) and actually damages the wall. Overtime, mold can grow between the plastic paint surface and rubble wall and can create an un-healthy living space. A closed space, as in an air conditioned building, compounds this problem and promotes mold growth even more. When you add a dark color in latex, you are truly creating a recipe for disaster. 

A previously lime wash painted rubble wall foundation covered over with latex paint in a dark burnt orange color ... a definite no no!

Here's a great example to analyze, especially right next to the historic town of Christiansted. Being an artist as well as an architect, I have to say there is an art to paring colors that allow them to be complimentary and pleasing to the eye. Dark colors against dark colors just don't work in this environment on so many levels. In this example, the stone base is the only "light colored" element saved on this building front and with the best intentions to uplift the surroundings, it doesn't quite hit the mark. 

Kudos to freshing up the exterior paint, but this doesn't really say St. Croix or Caribbean in my view.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Let's Talk Paint: Part 1

So let's get down to business and talk paint. Yes, paint, that visible element that affects the outward appearance of any structure here in the USVI. It's one of the most dominant features a building can have and has great implications when we are referring to structures in our historic districts or antiquities monuments that dot our landscapes. I'll begin with what was here historically and then show the evolution of paint color practices used and those that should be used today. The predominant color in our historic towns and monuments was white - white wash paint, lime based in composition and infused with white pigment. The second predominant pigment color used was ochre and hues of yellow. The third predominant pigment color used was a rose pigment. The cedar shingles found on many buildings, even today, were left natural which then turned from yellow/brown to silver grey color over time. In St. Thomas, the red colored metal roof was dominant while on St. Croix, the silver galvanized roof was most common replacing the earlier cedar shingled  roof. Therefore, the original paint scheme that existed here had an emphasis on light colors which were almost homogeneous (uniform:same) in character. The streetscape as a whole was the design intent, not the individual buildings, and  the composition of varying building types were used to create a dynamic and beautifully framed street lined with gutters, low walls and wells. Not only is there historical documentation through paint analysis of these structures, but there are historic color photographs that show this paint scheme. Let's take Prince Street in Christiansted as an example.

Prince Street Christiansted, 1910 Axel Oversen

Prince Street Christiansted, 1941 Jack Delano

Prince Street Christiansted, 2005

I believe even the 1910 black and white photograph depicts a more inviting and engaging street compared to the look of this street today. Jack Delano's 1941 color photograph is proof of the homogeneous yellow color paint scheme that dominated the streetscape with its silver and red roofs that drew you into the space and made you want to walk through and experience it. After Cuba closes in the 1950's and the USVI begins to develop itself as a tourist destination, the use of pastel colors become the norm for the streetscape that is required today. This multiple pastel color scheme, at times, makes the street look a bit more disparate and disjointed: a bit less inviting in my view. This is why having the expertise of our V.I. Historic Preservation Commission weigh in on a building's color selection if paramount and is the law of the land. When I hear people say "What our historic towns' need are brighter and louder colors", I have to say, these individuals don't know the history of this place and don't realize how sophisticated and well designed these towns are ... because they don't need bright and loud colors to define them.  Their fine detailing and superb proportions speak loudly enough and with a muted soft palette against a blazing Caribbean sun, these towns already have  a distinct calling card for anyone living here or visiting our shores. 

Why do all white walls with blue colored roofs scream Aegean architecture like on the island of Mykonos in Greece? Why have bright and jarring colors become associated with Caribbean architecture? It is my position that without fine detailing and superb proportioning in the architecture of a place, you need to use bright  jarring colors to give a structure character. Since that is not the case here, let's keep our own well defined signature color scheme on our sophisticated and unique architecture and brand this look: selling it to all who live here and visit our shores.

Cruz Bay, St. John 
"A garish color scheme in my view"

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"We Preserve US.VI"?!!!

“We Preserve US.VI” … yes, it has a meaning: a play on words of course. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is one of my trademarks. We preserve US because if we don't who will? We preserve the USVI (United States Virgin Islands)  because it's those of us in the know that need to speak up about what is here, why it is here, how it got here and how we are going to keep it here. Why we all need to get involved is because if you are fed up with everyone else charting your course for you, try setting the compass yourself and experience how shaping your own destiny is beyond a spiritual experience and is truly fulfilling. Embark on a journey with me  to learn about this unique set of Caribbean islands: how culturally rich they are and how we can restore and develop them wisely and effectively.  By using preservation and conservation practices as an economic engine, we can  build truly amazing green and sustainable spaces here in the USVI.

Sunday Market Square, Christiansted (northside) looking down Company Street - Jack Delano Dec. 1941

King Street, Frederiksted - Jack Delano Dec. 1941

Main Street, Charlotte Amalie from Grand Hotel - Jack Delano Dec. 1941

vonRohr Cruz Bay Survey 1766 (Danish National Archives) via David Knight, Sr. 
- a new USVI historic district in the making (justifiably so)