In countless communities around the world, old and historic buildings, which have withstood multiple decades, storms and (as with changing seasons) have seen different occupants, passers-by and guests across centuries, are being torn down. Erased from history and from memory, merely for being old. In instances like these, is architecture merely an opportunity to witness the end result, prime notoriety comprised of modern materials and a 'forward-thinking', encrypted vision? Or can old, decrepit shells of 'what once was', hold both beauty and lessons of practicality and good craftsmanship for new designers to take note?
When you see an old home, descriptors like 'decrepit', 'unstable', 'old-fashioned' and 'eyesore' can often flow from the mouths of the next generation (or two, or three). What these offhand utterances fail to suggest is that for a given time span, which has seen not just seasons change but entire shifts in society’s structure and makeup, these structures have been just as they were built to be: a 'home' to people long before our time. People with far different plights that we #struggle with today. They hold history, memories...embedded in their 'being' like thick, peelable layers of paint. Take a look closer, within their walls and their foundations, and some can tell quite the tale.
A prime example of homes with a similar story can be found on one island, unknown to many, but with history and craftsmanship intertwined in a final few examples of traditional Bahamian architecture. In the Western waters of the Atlantic Ocean, time stands still in the colonial settlement of New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay. One home in particular is a two-story build, circa 1860. Not as old as some other homes which once populated the 5-kilometre-long island, this one example is one of the remaining few. You can now count the number of 'decrepit', 'unstable', 'termite-ridden' homes like this, the Chamberlain House, on one hand.
This island, and this building for that matter, may seem entirely insignificant in the bigger picture but there's a catch. In 1860, Green Turtle Cay was a hub of activity. It was lively, buzzing for its time and it brought 'all kinds' (a local phrase which means different types of people) to its cinema, live performances and ongoing activities. It was a source of great wealth in its industries from sponges to pineapples. Its primitive jail was used slightly more than it is now, and acted as a stern reminder of one's consequences for perhaps having one too many slugs of rum.
The Chamberlain House plays a significant role in the history of the now less populated island, partly for its look, but mainly due to it’s previous owners and tenants. Its first stages in life bear little evidence, but it's said to have been built by a veteran of the sea – a local mariner, Augustus Roberts. Augustus was also known for building the island's infamous New Plymouth Inn, and these two structures are near parallel in their history and their location. The house, however, has a more manageable history and that slightly more extraordinary presence.
Akin to an adult-sized tree-house, it was first owned by Neville Chamberlain's family. A young Chamberlain (long before his years as Britain’s Prime Minister) was sent to investigate the Bahamas' potential profitability in the industry of sisal farming – traditionally used for making twine and rope. However, this did not succeed and Chamberlain's stint in the region and in the house is marginally insignificant,merely a name most people can easily recall from History lessons.
The next tenant left a far longer and more sustained impression: Dr Walter Kendrick. In 1932, this medical missionary and his family moved into the home – the same year as the Great Hurricane of '32. This mighty storm ripped through the region taking with it people's lives, their livelihoods and their homes. It permanently marred the island and was the turning point in its population growth, profitability and popularity. Such devastation forced many to relocate, some of whom literally moved their lives and similarly styled homes (those that had survived) to other islands or further still to Key West in Florida.
In a journal entry by a journalist from New York who was visiting Green Turtle Cay during the Great Hurricane, he told how he had taken shelter in Dr Kendrick's home which quickly became a place of safety and refuge. While winds ripped and tore roofs and collapsed other structures like child's play, this house quickly became a makeshift clinic, as many huddled in the basement. Yet although many houses around this 'Clinic' were destroyed, this house stood and continues to stand after over a century of hurricanes.
The answer as to how that may be potentially lies in the inner shell of the house, which today merely echoes its stories. The foundation was carved out of local coral (or possibly even out of the island itself) which undeniably aids in its longevity. Or there's another reason.Many locals, whose parents or grandparents lived or even built houses like this, will give you one straight answer for their resilience: “Abaco pine”.
Once locally grown, perhaps over-taken by the once profitable sisal industry, Abaco pine was a unique and entirely local building material heralded for its resistance of the elements, its longevity and hardiness, and most importantly its natural scent which repels termites. But this home, is one of the last to use this particular resource because it's no longer grown. This sad fate, in light of the evidence that the use of Abaco pine by early architects or craftsmen or standard builders (who were also mariners, doctors and missionaries), has been a key factor as to why these houses still stand as they once were.
In a means to keep this one example from collapsing, its current owner (a retired American architect) decided to step in, disgusted at the idea of this beautiful relic being torn down. What she referred to as a 'gentle restoration process', the new owner has used much of the materials that were capsuled in the basement such as the dismantled downstairs’ wooden floor which had been cleverly elevated off of the ground on top of pieces of coral to prevent rotting. Blocks of wood, which originally provided support for the building, can still be picked up off of the dirt basement floor, still distinctively pine even now, 150 years after it was built.
What can also be witnessed is also the backdated structural techniques of pegging the wood together, a simplistic yet probably fairly standard procedure of house-building in its time. With hurricanes an annual threat (a clock-work season starting June until November), could this have been a proven method of keeping the structure strong yet able to flex against extreme wind? Long past a generation of mariners, hardy island people who had made practical yet easily stylish homes using local materials, it is fair to say that regardless of their simplistic solutions concrete is presently man's more valued protector.
In a time before Columbus' discovery, when the islands were populated by its native Indians (the Lucayans), these original Bahamians lived in straw huts on beaches. In the event of a hurricane, these indigenous tribes would seek shelter in nearby caves. Man forever has had the ability to adapt and survive, even if given the most limited of resources. Each step-up in the process of becoming better equipped with the knowledge of style and the development of the next, increasingly cutting-edge materials, what is notably lost are elements of what those before us proved to quite simply work.
There is due admiration in the amount of craftsmanship that went into the construction of houses like this one. If a structure can withstand 150-years-worth of hurricanes, built with local materials and simple techniques of wood and stone, which possesses an ever growing history, why erase something that is more of a solution, a relic, than it is 'old'...'decrepit'.