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.


THINGS THAT MATTER:  Old buildings: Economy of Adaptive Re-use

Henry S. Fraser

Two recent events highlight the wisdom and economic sense of the restoration and adaptive re-use of old buildings. This is especially important at a time of recession, when big money isn’t available to finance architectural dream-scapes!

Two weeks ago the Barbados National Trust awarded a plaque to Hastings House, and last week awarded one to Verona at Bank Hall. Both buildings are important for both historical and architectural reasons, but they also serve as symbols of the brilliant exercise of common sense! Both illustrate the appreciation of heritage and beauty, and both are glowing examples of saving money by adaptive re-use of abandoned buildings, and giving new life to the old. And with reasonable maintenance, these coral stone fortresses will most likely long out-last comparable modern structures, and will be enjoyed by their occupants for the character and harmony they provide as workplaces.

Verona is of special importance for many Bajans, as it was the Government’s Maternity Hospital from 1947 until 1965, soon after the Queen Elizabeth Hospital opened in 1964 – so many of my generation, aged 48 to 66, were born there. The old General Hospital, built by public subscription with a modest contribution from the government of the day, opened in 1841, to serve the newly emancipated majority, but for the next century most babies were delivered by midwives doing their noble work in the mother’s own home. (I and two of my siblings were delivered by the famous and redoubtable Nurse Forde, a staunch and stout lady of ardent Church of the Nazarene conviction, at the little house Spooners, near Four Cross Roads in the Republic of St. John!) But concerns about infant mortality led to the opening of a Maternity Hospital at Verona, an elegant early Victorian residence built by 1841, according to my friend historian Warren Alleyne.

When the QEH opened, with provision for three consultant obstetricians, Verona was closed and became the Labour Office or Employment bureau for the next three decades, but was then abandoned. It was vandalised, the copper flashings (roof gutters behind the parapet walls) were stolen, and the interior, drenched by rain, was growing luxurious bush by the time the Ministry of Transport and Works took the wise decision to rehabilitate it for their Electrical Engineering Department.

The architect’s brief was to consider both the merits of historic preservation as well as the comfort of the occupants, energy use of the restored building and economic costs of restoration and future maintenance versus new build. To the great credit of the entire team at the Ministry, final costs provide a persuasive argument for refurbishing abandoned government buildings. If air conditioning, security systems and emergency generator are excluded, restoration costs came in under $190 per square foot, and if these extras are included, just over $215 per square foot. These costs compare extremely favourably with between $250 to $350 per square foot for contemporary domestic building, depending on the arrangements vis a vis architects and quality of finish.

The other recently plaqued building was Hastings House on Balmoral Gap. This was the original Hermitage plantation house, renamed Hastings in association with the building of sea side villas in the 1830s, comprising Hastings Village. Several of these villas had bath houses - huts built above the water, at the end of jetties, where bathers could change into their Victorian swimming costumes and descend into the water without their profiles being seen (their flesh actually being well covered by the swimming costumes of the day!) The last of these is Villa Franca, the only one remaining on the beach side of the road, but without its bath house.

Hastings House was occupied by Governor Sir Evan McGregor from 1835 until his death in 1841, because he found Government House in poor repair. It was converted into apartments upstairs and shops downstairs in the last century, and for many years housed the famous Turtle Shop of the late Jean Blonding. But for the last two decades it was virtually abandoned.

Its recent restoration provides yet another example of cost-effective refurbishment and impressive facilities for adaptive re-use – in this case as elegant office space. The entire flooring had to be gutted; in fact some of us walked the ground three feet below the floor level, examining the coral stone structure of the foundations and looking for old nails and other artefacts. Hideous external stairs and internal changes had to be removed, windows returned from doors back to windows and vice versa, complete re-wiring and plumbing, and rotten timbers of roof, panelling et cetera replaced. A handsome double portico with sweeping staircase to the upper floor was added, and all Georgian detailing restored or simulated. All was achieved at a cost of $204 per square foot, admittedly without architect fees - another outstanding example of economic adaptive re-use. And there are others. Costs normally only exceed new build if walls are badly damaged, e.g. by vegetation or collapse caused by ill-judged remodelling.

New buildings of this quality simply cannot be achieved for this kind of price. The long list of buildings abandoned by government, from the Carnegie Public Library and the Old Eye Hospital to more recent examples like Pine Plantation House, all provide opportunities for refurbishment and adaptive re-use. Huge sums spent in rent for government offices can fund refurbishment, to restore pride in our beautiful historic buildings, help our economy and improve the environment. Congratulations, Ministry of Transport, for a job well done.

Professor Fraser is Past President of the Barbados National Trust, and past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI.

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

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