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Wantley deserves to be saved

Worth saving: Wantley, on Princess Street (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch insisted in the House of Assembly last Friday that the demolition of the historic house Wantley will go ahead despite objections from community organisations.

The Minister of Public Works defended the decision in a statement to Members of Parliament that tried to deflect attention from the abject neglect of the building by his ministry by claiming that no one had cared about the fate of Wantley until now and that there was no real point in saving it now that it had reached such a derelict state.

Perhaps Colonel Burch believes the Government’s massive parliamentary majority is sufficient protection for such a brazen denial of reality.

He may be right. But that does not change the facts.

To the Bermuda National Trust’s credit, it has corrected the record in a number of instances.

The story of Wantley has been told elsewhere, but parts of it bear repeating.

Its builder, Samuel David Robinson, was one of the leading Black businessmen of the day — a 19th-century version of Sir John Swan and Wendell Brown combined — and he built Wantley as his family home on Princess Street along with the beautiful Victoria Terrace opposite.

More than a businessman, Mr Robinson took an interest in a range of social issues, including education. It was no accident that the first meeting of the Berkeley Education Society took place at Wantley.

From that meeting, Mr Robinson and others would eventually see the Berkeley Institute founded and it has since gone from strength to strength, counting among its graduates many of the leaders of this country, including numerous premiers, and to a large extent producing the Bermudian equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth for many decades.

None of this would have happened without the vision and tenacity of Mr Robinson and the other founders of the Berkeley Education Society.

For that reason alone, Wantley is worth saving. But it is also architecturally important; an important example of Bermudian skill and craftsmanship, made all the more poignant by it being built by a Black Bermudian at a time when the barriers to progress for all Black Bermudians would have felt insurmountable. Samuel David Robinson was a genuine role model; an inspiration to his Black contemporaries and their descendants.

Buildings may be made of limestone, mortar and wood, but they hold the memories and achievements of their inhabitants within their walls long after they are gone. They are worth saving for that reason alone.

And yet today a predominantly Black government, steeped in the language and experience of the Black struggle for equity, intends to tear this monument down, all in the name of expediency and, in effect, to deny their own complicity in the building’s decline.

The minister claimed that few people had shown an interest in preserving the building after the Bermuda Housing Corporation bought it in 2008. Colonel Burch did confirm that in 2016 the BHC approached the Bermuda National Trust to see if it would be interested in taking over the property, which had stood vacant for eight years.

Indeed it was, and it was prepared to spend as much as $1.3 million to restore it. But it could not do that and buy the building, so it asked to be either given it or leased it for a nominal rent — a peppercorn is the standard in these transactions. This the BHC was not prepared to do, although in retrospect it looks like a pretty good deal. A further approach was made in 2018 and was politely rebuffed.

But Colonel Burch also claimed that the Trust expressed that it probably made more financial sense to demolish and rebuild it than to restore it. This is an astonishing claim, which infers that the Trust thought that the better option.

Anyone who knows anything about the National Trust or historic building preservation will know that the Trust would never have stated that option as a preferred route. It may well be that it would be cheaper to demolish and building something else on the site — but that is a very different thing from agreeing with that idea.

Wantley, for the reasons given already, is worth saving. It likely will cost more — it almost certainly will now that it has been allowed to deteriorate as badly as it has — but that is not the point.

Colonel Burch went on to claim that even when the BHC advertised that it intended to demolish Wantley in March, no one objected.

But the BHC never advertised its intention. It applied for a building permit — irony of ironies — for the demolition and repurposing of the building, and while building-permit applications are posted on the Department of Planning customer service portal they are not listed in the applications; it would have taken an obsessive who conducted weekly searches of the site specifically for 20 Princess Street to find the application.

A planning application has now been submitted, and will be advertised since the BHC also discovered that it needed to get special permission for the demolition because Princess Street is treated as an area of historic importance — primarily because of the building works of Samuel David Robinson and his family.

Colonel Burch went on to state: “It really is impractical for those who have a keen interest in retaining ‛historical’ buildings to watch them deteriorate to a beyond-salvage state — then raise objections to their demolition and simply expect the Government to fund their rehabilitation.“

It is astonishing that Colonel Burch could make this claim with a straight face. He knows that efforts were made to save Wantley long before it deteriorated to its present state.

He must also know that the organisation that failed to secure and maintain the building over the past 13 years was the BHC, for which he has personally held ministerial responsibility for much of that time.

And he also knows that the Bermuda National Trust was indeed prepared to fund its rehabilitation.

The minister, who has shown himself to be an honourable man in the past, should do the right thing and inform the House of Assembly of the real state of affairs.

Now the Berkeley Educational Trust and other interested parties are trying to save this vital historical landmark. The Government should give them the opportunity to come up with a rescue plan before sending in the wrecking balls.

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Published June 22, 2021 at 8:40 am (Updated June 22, 2021 at 1:59 pm)

Wantley deserves to be saved

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