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The state of the State House

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As we approach the designated year for the celebration of 400 years of settlement of the island, many will hopefully be reflecting on the heritage and characteristics that make Bermuda Bermuda and us Bermudians.

One of our most enduring and endearing traits, an outstanding courtesy to visitors and our fellow citizens, seems sadly to be on the wane, most obvious on the roads. Be that as it may, such transient traits can be relearned, if the will is to be found in the circles of authority in homes, at school, and in Government.

Built heritage, once destroyed, cannot be relearned and thus its loss is perhaps of greater consequence to society than changing values of civility and other transient heritage. However, some lost architectural monuments can be replicated, but may be taken as original, as memory of its recreation fades. One such case is the State House, one of the enduring images in the World Heritage Site of St. George's.

The State House, that is to say the original one, is a Bermudian icon, being the first building made of the local stone, excepting the first fortifications in St. George's Parish that are undeniably the first stone structures of the settlement of Bermuda.

The "Towne House" was designed and erected at the behest of the dynamic third Governor of Bermuda, Captain Nathaniel Butler, who held sway on the island from 1619 to 1622. In Butler's History of the Bermudas, recently published for the 400th anniversary by the Maritime Museum, he recorded the circumstances.

"When Paget's Fort had been improved, the Governor (Butler) began to build a fine new house of cut stone in the town; he constructed this with a flat roof, like the ones he had seen in other similar countries, and he built the roof of stone as well, hoping to set an example and encouragement for others to do the same. This type of construction seemed most appropriate for the nature and climate of the island, because of its tightness against the violent downpours of rain, and for strength against the strong winds and sudden hurricanes, as well as for coolness, due to the thickness of the walls and the shape of the roof . . . When this fine house was finished, the Governor designated it for public service, and therefore called it the Town House. One very large and handsome room in the house was thirty-two feet long and twenty-two feet wide, and was fitted out to be the meeting-place of the General Assembly."

The Town House was later called the "State House" and in the late 1720s, it was severely damaged by hurricanes. Its flat roof apparently leaked badly and by the early 1730s, the upper floor and walls of the building had to be removed. It is presumably at that time that the hip roof seen in the 1960s photographs was installed.

In 1816, the Governor of the day granted the State House, according to Richard Lowry, "to the 'Mayor, Alderman and Common Councilors of St. George's', to be held in trust for the 'Master, Wardens and Brethren of the Free Mason's Lodge, forever, to be held of the King in free and common socage', at the yearly rent of 'one peppercorn', payable on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist."

Perhaps the Governor's kitchen was short of condiments, for in 1919 the Lodge had to pay 100 peppercorns that it was in arrears in rent! Out of that rental socage arose "The Peppercorn Ceremony", yet a major ceremony of the Government and tourism year, apparently established at the instigation of Dr. L. Dunbar Bell, the Southampton polymath, after the Second World War. The State House today is occupied by Masonic Lodge St. George's No. 200 of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, which hopefully has a goodly supply of peppercorns.

In 1854, a veranda and blinds were added to the State House. For the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Bermuda in 1959, the Historical Monuments Trust wanted to "restore" the State House, but the Lodge is said to have thought that that would "mar the historical and emotional value of the property". Nothing came of that idea until the early 1970s, but in the meantime in 1959, the Government proposed extensive renovations, to be painted red, but that scheme was not followed up.

In the early 1970s, the Historical Monuments Trust prevailed and the State House was recreated on a design by Dr. Bell, based upon the image of it published by Captain John Smith in 1624, but now considered drawn by Governor Butler or at his instruction.

According to Richard Lowry, chairman of the Archaeology Committee of the Bermuda National Trust: "In 2004 the Bermuda National Trust and the University of Bristol began an archaeological survey at the site of the old State House. With the Bermuda Maritime Museum, a preliminary investigation took place under the floor of the building, but due to the disturbed contexts that were littered with artifacts associated with the 1970s reconstruction, it was decided to concentrate on the grounds outside the State House and on the privy.

"Excavations in the lawn revealed that the area had been quarried and backfilled, probably during the reconstruction. The privy was far more interesting, as cesspits are often archaeological goldmines because of rich assemblage of artifacts they preserve. From the State House 'three-holer', we found a wide variety of 18th- and 19th-century artifacts ranging from Masonic pottery to the remains of a sea turtle."

As Lowry noted: "There is still much to do at the State House and further work under the floor might reveal new information on the foundations and the original construction of the building."

Such is the state of our State House and hopefully archaeology might eventually tell us something more of the original structure, which has been obscured by its replication, made with the best of intentions, including a flat roof, only a few decades ago.

In this, the State House is one with much of the famous Colonial Willamsburg, where many of the buildings are modern replicas on original foundations. The Town of St. George's, on the contrary, and as a whole, contains mostly original buildings and thus has an astounding array of 18th- and 19th-century architectural monuments. It is perhaps without parallel in the English New World and is a major cause for celebration in 2009, including the "ancient" State House.

The author thanks Nora Kast, Margaret Lloyd, Richard Lowry and John Gardner of Cooper & Gardner for their contributions to this article.

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Dr. Edward Harris, MBE, JP, FSA, Bermudian, is the Executive Director of the Bermuda Maritime Museum. This article represents his opinions and not necessarily those of persons associated with the Museum. Comments can be sent to drharrislogic.bm or by telephone to 332-5480.