Traditional architecture: a vital component of our cultural heritage
Do Bermudians, young and old, believe that our traditional architecture is one of the key cultural heritage features that make Bermuda so unique? If so, would many agree that our traditional building style is being lost, or at least undermined, and that white roofs and pastel colours do not in themselves make a traditional building?
The earliest surviving buildings were mostly of one storey or living quarters above a cellar cut into a hillside, although we are exceptionally lucky that several fine two-storey, cross-shaped houses have survived. A small, single-storey building probably grew in several directions as the family expanded and more rooms were needed. Gradually, the early gable roofs gave way to hips and a more symmetrical Georgian style evolved.
Ornamentation was simple to start with — perhaps only an eyebrow to protect a window or a finial at the top point of the roof. Later, keystones over the windows and ornamental moulding at the corners of the building became common, although never to the proliferation of ornament seen on some modern buildings.
The law gives the Government the power to take over a building in danger, repair it, and then bill the owner or sell the building. But this power has never been used and several extremely important buildings have been lost, or are now at the risk of being lost through the Government’s reluctance to use its power. Once a building falls beyond a certain stage of disrepair, it can become more economic to demolish it and rebuild rather than repair it. In Bermuda, with the pressure on our land so extreme, it is important that all buildings at risk, listed or not, should be saved as an alternative to using away limited green space for new houses.
Some traditional buildings are being lost by being allowed to fall into ruin. This can happen through a traumatic event such as a hurricane or fire when the owner has insufficient funds to make repairs. More often there are multiple owners, the lack of a probated will to determine ownership, or a part-owner who cannot be traced. Sometimes a property is left to an ultimate owner, such as a church, and the interim owner has no incentive to maintain the building. Even “listing” is no protection in these cases.
In 1974, the government of the time, realising that our best buildings were disappearing at an alarming rate, included the section “Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest” in the 1974 Development and Planning Act, which stated that a list of buildings to be protected was to be compiled. But it was not until about 1990 that Minister of the Environment Ann Cartwright DeCouto set up a small committee, the Historic Buildings Advisory Committee, to compile such a list. For several years, the committee, accompanied by a member of the Department of Planning, worked on the list, ranging the island, using a scoresheet balancing architectural quality, age, condition, and historical and social significance.
There were three grades of listing — from Grade 1 for the finest buildings, where few or no changes could be made, to Grade 3, where controls were looser and mostly advisory. Each building proposed to be listed had then to be written up, owners contacted, and relevant information compiled. Finally, in 1999 the Progressive Labour Party government implemented the list.
Some owners were proud and pleased to have their buildings listed, but others regarded it as a burden. One of the reasons that listing has not been more widely welcomed is that there are almost no official financial benefits to be gained from it. Originally, a low-interest scheme backed by the Government was available, but the amount was small and the scheme has lapsed. The HBAC continues to do the important job of advising on planning applications for listed buildings and usually the Development Applications Board takes its advice, so to that extent the law has worked although some DAB decisions have been disconcertingly overturned by a government minister or buildings have been delisted controversially.
In the 2020 Speech from the Throne, we were told that the legislature would be invited to discuss a National Cultural Heritage Policy for Bermuda. This policy would combine those strands that speak of Bermuda’s uniqueness and shared identity with those peoples from whom we are descended.
If you feel that traditional architecture is a key cultural heritage feature, together we need to make this known to the legislature as it discusses the heritage policy. We ask you to engage your local MP to express this concern. As well, we ask you to support our traditional architecture, including the listed buildings process, in every way possible to ensure this unique aspect of Bermuda continues to be enjoyed by visitors and locals for years to come.
• Myles Darrell is a conservation officer with the Bermuda National Trust