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Historic home of 19th-century Black merchant threatened with demolition

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The historic Wantley Building on Princess Street (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A demolition order has been issued for a historic Victorian home in North Hamilton where the founders of the Berkeley Institute school first met more than 140 years ago.

The news this week prompted historians and residents to question why Wantley House on Princess Street had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

But the Bermuda National Trust held out hopes yesterday that the building, once the home of the baker and leading Black merchant Samuel David Robinson, would be spared the wrecking ball.

Amanda Outerbridge, the Trust’s interim executive director, said the charity had been told plans for demolition of the building now owned by the Bermuda Housing Corporation, were “on pause at the moment”

Alana Anderson, president of the Trust, said: “It is the building where the Berkeley Institute was conceived and founded, and it’s of utmost importance to Bermuda history as well as Black history.

“The BNT has been very interested in it for many years.

“We have been trying to find a way to ensure some use for it, whether commercial or as apartments.”

Ms Anderson said the Trust was still trying to ascertain the building’s fate.

Historic background of “Wantley”

A Victorian home on the west side of Princess Street in Hamilton, “Wantley” was the residence of Samuel David Robinson, a prominent Black Bermudian businessman who bought the land in 1875.

A baker, Robinson dealt in a variety of goods and opened several stores.

He also built Victoria Terrace, a row of housing on the other side of Princess Street.

In 1879, Robinson’s drawing room at the house held a gathering in which the Berkeley Educational Society was founded, dedicated to the education of Black and White Bermudians.

Calling the situation “distressing”, she added: “We would really have preferred to have a conversation on restoration as opposed to knocking it down.”

The house, at 20 Princess Street, adjoins the new Hilton Hill Diabetes Centre, which opened last August.

Kim Day, executive director of the Bermuda Diabetes Association, said she had spoken with contractors this week who said parts of the building would be knocked down for safety reasons, but the exterior preserved.

She added: “The demolition is not going to be complete. Part of it adjoins our building and we wanted to make sure it remained.”

Ms Day said homeless people had been sheltering in the house, where there was a fire last summer as well as a mattress fire sometime in the last six months.

She said that people were still living in the deserted property last week.

Ms Outerbridge said the Trust had “tried to buy it and could not”.

She added: “We carried out a feasibility study to refurbish it in 2016, but the cost was prohibitive.

“If we had been given the property we could have raised the money to do the work. Nobody is saying it was in beautiful condition, but when you look at the details of its architecture and its historic value, it’s an amazing property.”

She said she hoped the building’s full structural details would be drawn up and preserved.

A BNT statement called the demolition order “shocking”.

“This is a building with considerable historic and architectural value, built in the 1870s by Samuel David Robinson, one of the most prominent Black businessmen and community leaders of the time.

“Samuel and his brother Joseph Henry left a rich legacy in the city, especially in the buildings they developed.

“Among them are The Emporium on Front Street, the Arcade on Burnaby Street and the eight-townhouse Victoria Terrace on Princess Street.

“Samuel Robinson, a proponent of higher education, was one of the founders of the Berkeley Educational Society which was dedicated to providing integrated and improved education for Black and White Bermudians.

“Holding its first meeting in the drawing room at Wantley, the Society went on to establish the Berkeley Institute in 1897 at Samaritans’ Lodge on Court Street.”

The BNT said that as recently as 2013, Wantley had been called “a very fine and virtually unaltered example of Victorian domestic architecture”.

The house is known for its elaborate wooden veranda with decorative wooden railings.

The statement added: “Tragically, this building was allowed to deteriorate over the next few years to the point that it has been scheduled for demolition.”

A source familiar with the property confirmed a demolition order had been given.

Workmen began clearing out debris on Tuesday.

Under threat: Wantley on Princess Street (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Karl Outerbridge, a Princess Street resident, said the building had been a haven for drug abuse over the years.

“It’s just a shame to see this – it’s a beautiful part of Hamilton and the house is a Black landmark,” Mr Outerbridge said.

“Over the years, every resident I’ve spoken to is upset the building has been allowed to get run down. Business owners in the area are disappointed.”

Maxine Esdaille, of the African Diaspora Heritage Trail, said she started her history tour, “ Exploring Bermuda's Black Mecca”, from outside Wantley.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Ms Esdaille said it appeared the house would be “destroyed by neglect and a lack of understanding of the importance of preserving our heritage”.

She added: “Are we destined to destroy all of our unique sites?”

Yesterday Ms Esdaille, a Berkeley Institute graduate, told The Royal Gazette: “It’s part of the history and heritage of Bermuda.

“It is architecturally significant; it has one of the last porches of that design, built by an African Bermudian relative of Samuel David Robinson’s.

“It’s also where talks about the Berkeley Institute started. Mr Robinson used to have persons come to his house to have discussions about the founding of the Berkeley Institute.”

The interior of Wantley on Princess Street (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Ms Esdaille added: “It’s another one of those things where we have an opportunity to take care of our heritage as a country and we are letting it go. This is not the first time people have been aware of issue around the maintaining of that building.”

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Published June 10, 2021 at 11:45 am (Updated June 10, 2021 at 12:10 pm)

Historic home of 19th-century Black merchant threatened with demolition

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