Thanks to The Prince’s Foundation, new-found building skills may be the key to the completion of a heritage project in Antigua
Antiguan engineer Patrice Francis is keenly aware of how important the past is to securing a future for her country. “Beyond the beautiful beaches, you need other attractions to bring tourists to the area,” she says of her involvement in a project to restore the historic Government House in the capital city of St John’s and promote it as a site of cultural importance.
Built in the 18th century as a parsonage, the traditional West Indian structure has been used as the Governor-General’s office since 1800 and has seen extensive modifications over the years. The current scheme is part of a wider initiative to make Antigua – also home to World Heritage site Nelson’s Dockyard – a hotspot for heritage tourism, with restorations planned on other buildings including the hilltop St John’s Cathedral and Fort James at the harbour.
To help develop the skills needed for this ambitious project, Francis, alongside Deshawn Bailey – a recent high-school graduate from the neighbouring island of Barbuda – received tuition scholarships at The Prince’s Foundation Summer School, allowing them to participate in a three-week intensive cross-disciplinary course held between London and Dumfries House, covering many facets of traditional design from architecture to building trades and materials. “We’ve done a lot of sketching, drawing and geometry to give an idea of how different structures work,” says Francis. “Even though I’m not an architect, it’s helping me appreciate these buildings and bring that into my work.” For all participants, it’s about taking on new skills. “I’m a designer and I usually draw on a computer rather than freehand so I’ve already learned how to appreciate different approaches,” says Bailey.
The Summer School has been welcoming participants since 1990 to learn new disciplines or enrich their existing practice through lectures, workshops and practicums that can then be applied in the field. Francis, who completed a two-week placement at design consultancy Alan Baxter while she was in London, is eager to export her new-found skills. “We are limited in the number of craftspeople who know about the work that went into building Government House,” she explains. “The goal was to come here to get some hands-on experience that we can bring back with us.” Funding has been secured to enable work to start on Government House’s outbuildings, which should be completed by mid-2019, with hopes to finish the overall project by 2021. This will allow the building to be opened up to the public for the first time, while providing exhibition space and accommodation for local charities. With the floorboards starting to give way a few years ago, the regeneration efforts couldn’t come soon enough.
Beyond the potential for tourism dollars, the Government House restoration project is testament to the building’s historical significance for the island’s inhabitants. Non-profit organisation World Monuments Fund (WMF) included it on its watch list this year, citing it as a symbol of self-governance, following the island’s emancipation from slavery in 1834 and its independence as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1981.
Referring to the potential for employment and training, the WMF also called the restoration project an “opportunity to connect heritage solutions with urban deprivation, health and other social issues”. A training workshop on masonry and lime plaster was held in February, with experts providing training to a range of participants, including offenders from Antigua’s prison as part of a reform and re-skilling programme, with further training planned with a range of heritage professionals.
Looking forward, The Prince’s Foundation is exploring the potential to deliver a Summer School-style training course in Antigua and Barbuda in the coming year, focused on Government House. For now, though, the main drive is on getting the project up to speed. “We have to train the craftspeople and contractors who will be working on these restorations,” says Francis. “The timber, stonemasonry and lime plastering skills that we learned at Summer School are all things we’re able to use. We can hold workshops and apply these to the restoration projects.”
“I want to encourage other young people like me to learn about construction and design,” Bailey adds. “I want to be a good example. I know plenty of people in Barbuda who really need these skills.”