Professor Henry FraserArchitecural Historian / Heritage Consultant
Chairman, Sentinel Committee, Barbados National Trust
Writer, TV Presenter, National Orator & Motivational Speaker
Professor Emertius, Medicine and Clinical Pharmacology.
Immediate Past Dean, Faculty of Medical Sciences.
University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados.

 



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COMMON SENSE AND EVIDENCE: Arlington House Museum, #249 for Sunday, March 2, 2008

“Cultural treasures are the raison d’etre of tourism, life blood of Barbados today and tomorrow.”  (The final sentence of Historic Houses of Barbados, by Fraser and Hughes, Pub. Barbados National Trust and Art Heritage Publications, 1986)

Heritage tourism has had another shot in the arm with the preservation of 17th century Arlington in Speightstown, and its opening as a splendid house museum on Monday evening.

It was a wonderful, inspiring event, with former Prime Minister Owen Arthur and new Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy sharing a platform (well, actually, a restored nineteenth century balcony) in singing the praises and sharing their vision for Speightstown and its further restoration and re-development.

The Importance of Arlington

I have been aware of Arlington and many of the houses in Speightstown since childhood, because my mother was a daughter of St. Peter (born at the Castle, schooled at the Alexandra School, now the popular Mango Restaurant, postmistress of St. Peter and living at Galena, the now abandoned Post Office building, and in desperate need of restoration).  When we were children, public holidays were an excuse to visit old friends in Speightstown, like the Roaches of Roach Pharmacy, the Jordans, and the Skinners of Arlington.

Arlington was brought to the attention of the National Trust by Jimmy Walker, then Vice President, in his efforts to preserve this splendid seventeenth century town.  It was clearly one of the very earliest of Speightstown’s houses, surviving in reasonable condition, in a part of the town with several “survivors”.  (I believe it is seventeenth century, and not eighteenth, as I wrote in Historic Houses of Barbados.)

Arlington is a three story building, with a tall gable roof and gable windows (hooded windows projecting through the roof) on the top floor.  It’s long and narrow, with an elegant entrance on the street front and ground level, and doors along the north side.  One of the interesting features is the fact that the front of the building, on the street, is four feet wider than the back of the building – it’s not a true rectangle!  Why would any sensible builder create such a building?  The most likely answer lies in the practice at the time of long narrow lots, to give everyone a frontage on the street, and in the early days they weren’t too fussy how the lots were drawn, resulting in boundary lines that weren’t parallel, and buildings shoulder to shoulder.

Most of Speightstown’s old houses are of three stories, while few three story buildings survive in Bridgetown.  Why is this?  Again, we have likely answers, as most of Bridgetown, except for the block which includes the old Nicholls building (now Harford Chambers) on the corner of Lucas and James Street, was destroyed by fire at some time.  But if we look at the beautiful Copen engraving of Bridgetown in the Barbados Museum (1695) we see  the typical medieval townscape of tall narrow gabled houses jeek by jowl, that has survived only in Speightstown.



Most of these buildings were shops on the ground floor and the home of the merchant above.  Arlington was a ship chandlery, and belonged for centuries to the Skinners, a family here since the settlement.  One reason for its interest is its resemblance to the single houses of Charleston.  After “discovering” the unique Single House of Charleston, South Carolina, settled by Barbadians in 1670, I read the passage in Ligon (1657) describing single houses (a single room wide) and double houses in Barbados.  These terms have survived only in Charleston, to describe their long, narrow houses!

The Museum

Arlington was the site of the first Public Health Centre in the Caribbean, established by Sir Maurice Byer in 1953.  It was almost demolished when the Barbados National Bank bought the site; in fact the bulldozers went right up to the walls, exposing two feet of foundation of loosely packed stones; only God saved the building!  Paul Altman, then President of the Trust, then moved in, with the gift of a most generous benefactor, and the dedication of restoration architect Bruce Jardine, to accomplish the fine restoration.  And with a Canadian museum development team and the brilliant work of Robbie Davis, producing an enthralling inter-active museum of Speightstown, all master-minded by Paul Altman, the result is another gem in the Treasures of Barbados.  Go and see it for yourself!

The Work to be Done

At the opening, Mr. Arthur revealed that most of his memorabilia will be donated to the Museum, to be displayed in a special room.  Minister Richard Sealy spoke of his vision for Speightstown, and the possible restoration of a ferry service to and from Bridgetown.  Paul Altman spoke of the Arbib trail, a nature and historical walk beginning and ending at Arlington.  But there’s much more to Speightstown – from the restored old warehouse and the Mango Restaurant nearby, to the oldest houses on Sand Street (look at the tiny seventeenth century doors in these ancient, neglected buildings in the unfashionable corner of the town); from St. Peter’s Church “around the town” to the Methodist church, to the old Denmark Fort; there are many splendid, decaying buildings, the loss of which will be a tragedy.  We barely have time to save a few more and justify the key role of Speightstown in our life-blood tourist trade.


Professor Fraser is Dean of the School of Clinical Medicine and Research and Past President of the Barbados National Trust.


Henry Fraser Historic Houses Of Barbados Book CoverHistoric Houses of Barbados
Written by Henry Fraser & Ronnie Huges.
Available at all book leading book stores in Barbados.


Henry Fraser Treasures Of Barbados Book CoverTreasures of Barbados
Written by Sir George Alleyne and edited by Henry Fraser.
Available at the UWI Bookshop the publishers.


Henry Fraser Chattle House Book CoverBarbados Chattel Houses
Written by Henry Fraser and Bob Kiss.
Available at all leading book stores.


Henry Fraser A-Z Barbados Book CoverA-Z of Barbados Heritage
Written by Sean Carrington, Henry Fraser, John Gilmore and Addington Forde.
Available at Days Bookstore Barbados and Amazon.com


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