Putting the cart before the horse
Televisions, washing machines, cars, bikes ... Manuel Lopes has at least one of each stored away somewhere.
But he does not see his growing piles of items as a problem.
“I just like stuff,” he said with a shrug. “Yes, there’s a fine line between hoarding and collecting antiques. Hoarders are people who collect trash like old pizza boxes. I don’t collect trash. I collect things that interest me.”
Three years ago, he learnt through The Royal Gazette about six antique carriages rotting on a property on Wilkinson Avenue in Hamilton Parish.
The sight of them made Mr Lopes, a lover of all types of vehicles, almost physically sick. Some were complete write-offs, others had rotting wheels or were without steering; the seat cushions were in tatters.
It turned out they were remnants of the Carriage House Museum, a St George’s tourist attraction that shut after it was badly damaged by Hurricane Fabian in 2003.
“They’d been put under a tarpaulin, but that had rotted off,” Mr Lopes said. “They’d been there for several years.”
The 59-year-old tried to buy them, but was told they were under appraisal.
Then, in June 2016, Ralph Terceira called. He had the carriages in his barn and, as he had heard Mr Lopes was interested, invited him to take a look.
Two in particular drew his eye: an opera coach that wasn’t in too bad a condition and a vis-à-vis. The wicker in the second carriage, designed so that passengers in the front and back seats faced each other, was coming apart; it had no steerage and its wheels were rotten.
“It took a lot of foresight on my part to see that one as anything but garbage,” Mr Lopes said.
He asked to buy the opera coach and was surprised when Mr Terceira threw in the vis-à-vis as well.
“I’d considered restoring them myself as a project,” said Mr Lopes, who runs Scooby Roofing & Construction.
“Then I said, ‘Hell no’. They are important pieces of Bermuda’s heritage. To do them justice, I decided to have them done professionally.”
He sent them to Double E Carriages, a Pennsylvania company he read about in Carriage Journal magazine.
It took about 16 months to restore the coach, and a year to do the vis-à-vis. The Amish carpenter, Ephraim Fisher, discovered through its serial numbers that the coach once belonged to American Clinton Ledyard Blair, a wealthy businessman who owned Deepdene Manor in Smith’s in the 1920s.
A luxurious carriage he built in 1901 is still a landmark on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“I don’t know how the Carriage House Museum acquired the coach,” Mr Lopes said. “We weren’t able to trace the owner of the vis-à-vis. I’m not really sure how old it is.”
He refused to say how much he spent on the restoration, describing it only as “a fair bit”.
“One day Mr Fisher called me and said he didn’t understand why I was doing this; I didn’t even have a horse,” the Paget resident said.
“He said if I was doing this to flip it later, I should stop. I’d already gone over whatever I would have earned selling it. I said I wasn’t doing it to sell. Some people have a don’t-want-to-sell price. I don’t have that. I really don’t want to sell them.”
His only goal was to have the carriages restored to exactly what they would have looked like back in the day.
While on display at the Carriage House Museum, the coach was maroon. Restorers discovered, by stripping the paint back, that it had originally been black and yellow. They also discovered the letter B in the middle of the door frame.
“This was often done in those days,” Mr Lopes said. “The B stood for Blair. They were sandblasted, powder-coated and restored. Everything was done by hand. The wheels were redone and the wicker and cushions repaired on the vis-à-vis.
“Remember, these people are Amish so they did not use electricity for this process.”
A diesel generator helped power a pump for spray painting. The coach still does not have lamps because Mr Fisher hasn’t yet found the right ones.
Mr Lopes said the carriages would certainly have been used by wealthy people.
“I think in those days ordinary people would have driven around in carts or trolleys,” he said. “These vehicles were like the Bentleys of their day.”
The coach arrived back in Bermuda in December; the vis-à-vis just last week.
“When we opened up the containers I was in awe,” he said. “It definitely felt like Christmas. Now I can just stand and look at them all day or just sit in the vis-à-vis. They are exquisite.”
The coach is probably his favourite. “But it is like trying to find a favourite out of your kids,” he said. “The coach is more impressive but the vis-à-vis is more relaxing and airy. It is designed so people can sit facing each other. It’s a social carriage.”
He keeps them both in a back room at his house. The doors had to be modified so he could bring the carriages inside.
“They say you shouldn’t put the cart before the horse,” he laughed. “Well I’ve already done that with two carriages.”