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Home sweet home

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'If Bermuda's prosperity continues to increase, it is to be hoped that the designers of new houses that appear will seek their inspiration in Bermuda's older architecture. It is eminently appropriate to the climate and other local conditions, harmonious and in scale with the surroundings. It has the unity, charm and simplicity of an architecture that is the unaffected expression and natural outcome of environment, and, from its simplicity, is entirely adaptable to the modern requirements of Bermuda.John S. Humphreys, Bermuda Houses, 1923.There can be no monument more indicative of the ethos of Bermuda than the architecture of its domestic buildings, a style that took birth in this islands, probably in the 1640s.

That is what John S Humphreys of the School of Architecture at Harvard University understood in 1923 about the heritage character of the place when he published his remarkable book, Bermuda Houses, on the vernacular architecture of these islands. In his original introduction, Professor Humphreys wrote: 'The photographs presented in this book have been taken with the idea of collecting and preserving for architects and others interested in small buildings some of the characteristic features and picturesque aspects of the older architecture of the island that are tending to disappear.'

Remarkably many of the wonderful Bermuda homes illustrated in the Humphreys' book have managed to survive into present times and it is that outstanding facet of the built-heritage of the island that is under discussion here. Humphreys appreciated what most Bermudians and the government before the Second World War did. He understood that the unique form of Bermuda architecture was one of the most charming things about the place and it was the magnet that drew people here again and again. When faced with the potential disruption that the proposed U. S. Base could cause to Bermuda in 1940, the Americans were made to comprehend that 'Government has always pursued policies which have tended to preserve the peace, charm and amenities of the islands, not only for the purpose of attracting visitors ... but because the preservation of such amenities is essential to the Bermuda way of life.'

Such is the intensity which many on this island feel about the place as home and of course the architecture that makes buildings 'Home Sweet Home', that excerpts from John Howard Payne's song of that name for his 1823 opera might express the sentiments of a lot of Bermudians on our masonry monuments.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home;

No more from that cottage again will I roam;

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Home, home, sweet, sweet, home!

There's no place like home, oh, there's no place like home!

Payne, who was the first international dramatist from the United States, wrote the opera, Clari, about a maiden lured away from home by an evil Duke and whose wistful refrain became one of the world's most famous songs.

Back at home, some have been concerned about the kidnapping and destruction of our heritage of historic homes by dukes of haphazard and anti-tourism 'development'. That concern resulted in the creation of the Bermuda Historical Monuments Trust, which evolved in the late 1960s into the Bermuda National Trust. Believe it or not, the former organization was a 'public-private enterprise', founded in 1937 by the then doyen of Bermuda historical literature, Dr. Henry Wilkinson, and funded by government: 'It was a relationship to be envied', but was dissolved on the creation of party politics in 1968 and its historic buildings and nature reserves fell to the National Trust. Today, with little central authority support, that institution 'holds in trust, for everyone, forever' over 50 historic buildings on some 240 acres of properties and nature reserves. The latest contribution of the National Trust and its dedicated volunteers, with respect to the subject of this column, are the six of an intended ten books on the built-heritage of Bermuda, including homes, official buildings, and churches. If proof was ever needed in the court of public opinion as to the remarkable legacy of our unique vernacular architecture, one need only open one of those books to get a persuasive sample of what we have and other islands do not, with regard to heritage tools for tourism.

Our heritage architecture is an outgrowth of geological fact and the imagination of early Bermudians of all formats, so it is truly national, if also in part international, heritage. Mother Nature gave us the full deck when she arranged for the easily-worked limestone cap on the volcanic Mount Bermuda, and developed the endemic 'cedar', convenient and sweet-scented, for roofing, flooring and cabinet timbering. Burnt limestone produces quicklime for making mortar, concretes and most important, whitewash paint for waterproofing of the porous roof slates and building blocks. What Mother Nature provided in abundance was matched by the elegant architecture our forebears created and much of which has endured, fortuitously, in these development-savage times.

Presaging Professor Humphfreys by 300 years, the third Governor of Bermuda, Capt. Nathaniel Butler wrote (of himself in 1621): 'When Paget's Fort had been improved, the Governor began to build a fine new house of cut stone in the town; he constructed this with a flat roof, like the ones he had seen in other similar countries, and he built the roof of stone as well, hoping to set an example and encouragement for others to do the same. This type of construction seemed most appropriate for the nature and climate of the island, because of its tightness against the violent downpours of rain, and for strength against the strong winds and sudden hurricanes, as well as for coolness, due to the thickness of the walls and the shape of the roof.'

Thus in the chronology of stone buildings at Bermuda, there were first a group of masonry forts, followed by the 'State House' at St. Georges in 1621, and later in the 1640s and 1650s, sweet stone homeseventually thousands of them. The Town of St. George's was inscribed as part of our World Heritage Site, largely due to its extraordinary collection of homes, sweet homes, and business and official buildings built in the Bermuda vernacular, a collection, by comparison, a sister capital, Williamsburg, Virginia, had to build anew on buried foundations. Yet the budget of Colonial Williamsburg some years ago was equal to that of the government of these islands, proof of the value of using architectural heritage for job creation and cultural tourism. St. George's has virtually no budget for its outstanding architectural heritage and, not inexplicably, is 'dying on the vine', for lack of nourishment and appreciation.

Bermuda homes, 'sweet' (in that Bermudian sense of the word as cool and lovable) homes are the main feature that makes Bermuda Bermuda, and not, say, The Bahamas or Barbados, or any other island in the West Indies, or in fact, anywhere on this Earth. So one would expect that heritage to be at the top of the agenda in a national tourism plan, if such a plan has any basis in what is really Bermudian about Bermuda.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.

Children on the steps of the 'oldest house', probably around 1890 or earlier, as the home sweet home appears in good repair, when compared to its picture when it was declared to be ?246 years old? (courtesy of Mark Emmerson).
Inscribed in a photograph about 1900 as 'Oldest house?246 yrs. old 'Harrington Sound', which would date the building into the early 1650s, showing that the Bermuda style had been established by that time.
2. The original dust jacket of John Humphrey?s seminal book, Bermuda Houses, published in 1923: many of the homes in the volume are yet extant.
This old home in Paget, as yet unidentified, like many others, appeared in early postcards touting the delights of Bermuda: that here has a red roof for, as Horst Augustinovic has noted, the tinting was done by people who were unfamiliar with Bermuda.
Artists were captivated by Bermuda architecture and captured images of it in their work: this is a pastel by Abbott Fuller Graves, about 1900, and its title, ?Old Slave House? is indicative of its original use (David L. White Collection, Bermuda National Gallery).
6. The cover of the Bermuda National Trust?s book on Hamilton Parish, shows the bridge and some of the architecture at The Flatts, painted by Thomas Driver in 1835 (Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, Bermuda Archives).
A late 1800s photograph of a home in historic St. George's, with typical chimneys for the cooking and bread ovens: the town is now part of Bermuda's UNESCO 'World Heritage Site'.

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Published March 03, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated March 03, 2012 at 7:13 am)

Home sweet home

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