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Classic Caribbean Style!

Exploring the stunning architecture of tropical homes

When someone envisions the Caribbean, thoughts can’t help but include soft sands, swaying palm trees, and water with as many different hues of blue imaginable.

The scenery is what makes this unique region unforgettable, and its people, culture, and traditions are what create a lasting impression on anyone who visits or dreams of experiencing the islands in person.

The Caribbean is a melting pot in every sense of the word, and the architecture is no different. Spanish, French, Dutch and British colonial influences each left their mark on the region’s architecture, and it continues to evolve today.

African culture that arrived with slavery and indigenous Indian influences are present as well. With harsh environmental conditions balanced with the stunning natural beauty of the islands, exploring the different elements of Caribbean homes and buildings arrived and their unique style brings a new perspective on how these breath-taking places came to be.

Verandas and Courtyards

In a place where the sun shines more often than not, ways to stay cool became imperative hallmarks of an island home. Harkening back to sprawling Spanish plazas, many homes of the Caribbean feature large outdoor spaces.

Island living is outdoor living, and having a porch, veranda or courtyard provides a space to enjoy the beautiful view. These courtyards and verandas often offer necessary airflow functions, as a calm breeze keeps things cool. Covered porches serve as essential places of shade while still allowing for a beautiful view.

Caribbean Colour

The style of the Caribbean is nothing if not colourful. One tradition claims that General Albert Kikkert, governor of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao in the early 1800s suffered from migraines, and blamed the sun reflecting off the water onto the white buildings for making them worse.

Tradition then says he ordered the people of Willemstad to paint the town a vibrant rainbow of colours.

The natural vegetation offers cool greens and purples, while flora provides vibrant reds, oranges, and pinks. These colours found their way into the architecture and give a distinct personality to the different homes dotting the hillsides of the islands.

Intricate Details

In addition to island homes being open, breezy places that allow for a natural way of life, there are many details that contribute to their style, and also let each home’s personality shine through.

Gabled roofs—often in a rainbow of colours—provide the necessary protection from the sun and rain. This style of roof also improves ventilation indoors and allows for vaulted ceilings to incorporate an open, airy feel indoors.

Another intricate and iconic detail of island homes is known as ‘gingerbread.’ This charming exterior detailing began in Haiti in the late 19th century and adds an air of sophistication to otherwise simple structures.

Styles range greatly from rolling scrolls and scallops to more angular designs resembling fleur de lis or star shapes.

In addition to gingerbread details, many railings and gates have complex patterns or fretwork designs, adding visual interest on verandas and covered porches, thought to have been introduced by French, Spanish, and other colonial European influences.

Natural Elements

Historically, homes were built with the materials that could be found in the natural environment. Elements of this tradition can still be found in Caribbean homes today. By harvesting shells and coral washed onto the beach, stone walls and pillars are adorned with these icons of island life and create a beautifully contrasted texture to the home .

Dark hardwood flooring and beams—sometimes from local mahogany trees—give homes a warm feel. These darker woods have given way to cooler tile flooring and lighter ceiling beams  to provide a brighter more modern feel while still keeping the flavour of traditional island style. Bold hardwood furniture with strong silhouettes and natural-fibre rugs—think jute and seagrass—also add to the organic feel of a Caribbean home.

Plantations and Great Houses

The sugar industry dominated much of the Caribbean throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and many plantation architectural structures are still present today.

One of the most recognisable elements of the plantation life is known as the Great House. These elegant homes were lived in by plantation owners and house servants. They were often filled with luxurious solid wood floors and furniture, and also featured verandas, wrap-around porches, and balconies.

Many of these homes were built with bricks that were used as ballast on ships travelling to the region, making the great houses strong contenders against Caribbean weather and sun.

While the sugar industry had pretty much vanished from the region by the mid-1800s, many great houses still inspire new buildings today with their particularly lavish style.

Though the elements of a classic Caribbean home or building are reminiscent of colonial times, the region has modernised the architecture and adapted it for tropical living today.

New materials, technology, and accessibility have driven changes in the way people build and live in their homes. Through unique design, sustainable materials and modern decor, the spirit of the Caribbean’s architecture is kept alive and celebrated as a rich piece of island culture.

Photography by Rainbow Visions BVI, courtesy of Coldwell Banker BVI

Sara Sherman
Sara Sherman is a former St. Thomas resident and the editor of Virgin Islands Property & Yacht.
Sara Sherman

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