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A monumental achievement

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A painting of a cottage in Warwick given by the artist Hanna Rion to John Humphreys in 1923 to use on the cover of his seminal book, Bermuda Houses

Islands, both physical and isolated within greater geographical contexts, have been linchpins in the evolutionary history of the Earth, not only for nature but for homo sapiens and our ancestors in Africa and elsewhere. Indeed, where else would you find the strange blend of peoples that are now known as Bermudians, except on this small Atlantic mountaintop, left to cahows and cedars until anno Domini 1505?

One is reminded often of David Quammen’s epic book, The Song of the Dodo, a tribute in part to that extinct bird of Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island uninhabited like Bermuda until the coming of European seagoing vessels. I often think of the last dodo sitting high on a volcano hillside, looking to sea, and wondering where all of his kind had gone and knowing that living things would neither hear nor know his voice ever again.

The late Orville Bascome, the last member of the extinct clan of “Limestone Burners”, who stopped burning when he ran out of coal. Today, he might be run out of town for using coal

Then, too, one thinks of our own kind in the haunting Nevil Shute book, On the Beach, when the last human survivors of nuclear war are in Australia, waiting for the “mushroom cloud” from the northern hemisphere, as one land after another — and its people — is asphyxiated by radioactive air, not the carbon dioxide of late notice. And if, one day, we are all as “dead as a dodo”, what will remain to claim this land as Bermudian: our extraordinary architecture, of course.

When all else living has gone the way of the dodo, the remarkable achievement of our vernacular homes and buildings will stand as the triumphant reminder that “Mount Bermuda”, with its limestone cap, produced a unique species of architecture, which, if nothing else, has given most a sense of place and belonging down the past four centuries. To paraphrase the great architect Sir Christopher Wren, “If you would seek our monument(s), look around you” — and, indeed, they are everywhere on this small and beautiful land.

The monumental achievement that is Bermudian architecture has been captured in all its essentials by the now-completed ten-book series on the subject, authored by the Bermuda National Trust and supported by Bacardi International over three decades. Like the buildings themselves, that record of the structures of each of the nine parishes and the City of Hamilton was brought into being by a team of volunteers from across the community, ultimately led by the indomitable Margaret Lloyd. Their names are a matter of record, given modern methods, but the creators of Bermuda homes, the burners of lime, the cutters of cedar and stone, and a myriad of masons over the generations are largely unknown and largely extinct.

The cover of the Southampton Parish book, published, as the last in the series of ten books by the Bermuda National Trust in honour of Bermuda architecture

The task, not achieved in many islands and countries, began in the 1980s with the identification of all the houses recorded on the great Savage Map, published by the Ordnance Survey in 1901, and a comparison with the modern maps of the island. Out of some 4,000 buildings, more than one quarter appear in the Bermuda National Trust’s Architecture Series, the last volume being for the parish of Southampton. Aside from the narrative for each site, the books are replete with illustrations and detailed ownership data. The monumental work on our outstanding structures of stone, lime mortars and whitewashes is complete, and all who contributed to this achievement are to be congratulated, nay, very highly praised, for their dedication to the cause of preserving, at least on paper, what is most essentially Bermudian — our self-created buildings.

A gem in Pembroke showing a classic Bermuda roof and broad chimneys, taken in 1915 by the team of John Lyman and Edward Babcock for a book never published on local houses

It is a fact that much of the beauty of Bermuda today has been created by people manipulating the landscape and building structures within it. The appreciation of those architectural wonders is one of the main reasons many fall in love with this place. It may also be said that the architectural monuments of Bermuda are the foundation pillars of our essential tourism economy.

• Edward Harris, PhD is the founding executive director emeritus of the National Museum of Bermuda

A sea captain’s home in Warwick, about 1915, with the intrusion of the coming modern times by way of a telephone cable reaching into an upper room

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Published March 18, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated March 18, 2023 at 7:39 am)

A monumental achievement

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