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Buildings that speak: Architecture series brings our history to life

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Bermuda Architectural Heritage Series: Southampton written by Edward Harris, published by the Bermuda National Trust (Photograph supplied)

Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage: Southampton

It was more than 30 years ago that a small group of dedicated volunteers at the Bermuda National Trust began to make a list of Bermuda’s old buildings. The task they set themselves was first to identify, then photograph, sketch the roof plan and note the condition of all the surviving structures marked on the island’s first ordinance survey, a six-sheet map by Lieutenant A.J. Savage of the Royal Engineers, published in 1901.

The project, known as the Historic Buildings Survey, provided both the inspiration and the foundation for further research that would result in the steady production of the parish-by-parish series of books, Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage. The final volume in the series, Southampton, was published by the Trust this month.

Like the series itself, Southampton is organised geographically. After an introduction that details earliest land ownership records and mapping more than 300 years as “landscape background”, a first chapter looks briefly at the parish’s few public buildings, including graceful St Anne’s Church and the once-lively Top Hat Ballroom. Chapters then move zone by zone, house by house, occupant by occupant until, like Bermuda’s first surveyor Richard Norwood, we reach the fertile Overplus.

Southampton was always valued for its rich soil. Chapters are interspersed with sidebars that elaborate on its farming and on its histories of whaling and fishing, keeping poultry and turtles. A final chapter documents the casual political negligence that destroyed several 18th-century houses that had withstood the years when Morgan’s Point was the US Naval Operating Base.

The book ends with useful appendices. There is a short essay on how the architectural heritage project evolved and one on documents that tell the after-story of failed provision for school lands on shares once owned by Sir Nathaniel Rich. Perhaps most importantly of all, there are the source notes that tell us where all this information came from. This is essential because very few people reading about Southampton will come away without wanting to know more.

You might wonder, as I did, if some parish idiosyncrasies, such as yoke-shaped eyebrows over doors or scooped out corner pilasters, might be indicative of the as-yet unnamed craftsman who made them. Or how a house, now destroyed, might once have been experienced as a home.

Old home: Grade I listed Lemon Hill was built around 1700 on part of the Overplus. It is perhaps the earliest surviving house in Southampton parish.

There is a tantalising description of The Old Homestead on Riddell’s Bay, rented to Americans who wintered there at the turn of the 20th century. We know who owned the house from the public record but visualising it needs the detail that only private documents by previous owners provide, telling us about how its rooms used to be, and how much people enjoyed being in them. Or the story of The Grove on the Overplus, demolished when swathes of Southampton’s greatest asset, its farmland, made way for a golf course. This house is brought to light through the recollections of the members of the last family to live there. Oral accounts are a wonderful way to give voice to the territory, as it were, when the map is missing.

One whole chapter of Southampton is devoted to the so-called Gardener’s Cottage, as are two of the appendices (one on its timber framing, the other on its importance as evidence of how a Bermudian building was transformed from wood to stone from the later 17th century). This cottage, on land purchased by the Fairmont Hotel, was slated for demolition, but with the intervention of the National Museum of Bermuda was carefully dismantled rather than bulldozed, and its timber frame put into storage against a day when it can be reassembled on public property. It was the research of the late Edward Chappell, the architectural historian to whom the Southampton book is dedicated, that helped save this building and take this series to scholarly heights. Part of Chappell’s life’s work was in recording the origins of framing techniques and several of his drawings are generously shared here.

The picturesque Radnor Buttery: Butteries in Bermuda had different uses and this one, with its vestigial chimney, might once have been used for smoking fish or meat.

Early volumes in Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage were written by emerging young scholars, by journalists and by the occasional dilettante. But the writer is never really the author in this remarkable series, playing a relatively small part in what has been an extraordinary collaborative effort. Over the years, hundreds of people have contributed, adding archival research into land ownership, contributing family photographs and recording personal accounts. It has become a project for the whole community.

But for me the real value of this book – and of the series as a whole – lies in the way it opens up space for future interpretation. The series has the potential to bring to the foreground a more inclusive history of Bermuda – and indeed it has moved gently in that direction since the first volumes were published.

“This is our story,” I heard one woman proudly say, showing a photograph of the house where her family once lived. History goes on relentlessly but when our built heritage is destroyed, we destroy the evidence needed for future generations to write their own stories.

And there are many more stories still to be told.

Bermuda Architectural Heritage Series: Southampton is available at Waterville, the Bermuda National Trust’s headquarters in Paget, at the Globe Museum in St George’s and at Hamilton bookstores for $55

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Published December 21, 2022 at 7:59 am (Updated December 21, 2022 at 10:34 am)

Buildings that speak: Architecture series brings our history to life

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