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Roger Downing’s Legacy

By Traci O’Dea

On May 7, 2012, the British Virgin Islands lost 72-year-old architect Roger Downing, BVI resident since 1969 and Belonger since 1979. Though he is gone, Roger’s architectural legacy endures. His manifested designs boldly define the business district of Road Town, subtly blend in to the boulder-strewn landscape at Rosewood Little Dix Bay, and warmly accommodate residents and visitors to Peter Island Resort, Oil Nut Bay, Chalwell, Setting Point and Belmont. “There’s no doubt that he has done some very unique and different things in the BVI. He set a new standard, especially in resort work, homes and office buildings,” said engineer Miles Outerbridge, Roger’s business partner. The work of Roger Downing & Partner Co. Ltd. has helped create the structures that identify the British Virgin Islands—a boast-worthy achievement for someone known for his humility.

The commercial district of the territory’s capital is anchored by the strength of Roger Downing’s design. Projects by the firm include the Roger Downing & Partner offices tucked back on historic Main Street, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court across from the ferry terminal, the Banco Popular building in the territory’s banking center, and JOMA Properties Ltd.’s The Barracks Building and The Commerce House in the heart of the financial district.

Of Roger’s designs for JOMA Properties in Road Town, Colin O’Neal relayed to me, “I think he accepted that at some point, you have to move away from trying to recreate the past.” The JOMA CEO added, “He was someone who was open to ideas that perhaps didn’t exactly match his own design preference but he could take it on… and still achieve the same objective which was to build an office building with an efficient volume envelope and something that had a landmark presence.”

Across the Channel from Road Town, at Rosewood Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda, Roger’s firm designed about two thirds of the current structures and outbuildings—including the spa, villas and Sugar Mill Restaurant. Since their first collaboration in 1970, Roger’s designs have contributed to the vibe and luxury of the five-star resort. For the July 2010 issue of BVI Property Guide, I interviewed Roger about his “invisible architecture” at Little Dix. At the time, he had spoken of how he employed a different approach for each project at the resort to camouflage the buildings. For the spa, the architect had matched the roofs to the granite boulders; the villas used lush landscaping for privacy; and the Sugar Mill Restaurant borrowed design from the nearby copper mine ruins to evoke historic design. Miles Outerbridge told me, “He was famous for making buildings blend in with the environment. If there was an overgrown area, and a client wanted to build on it, and after it was built, you could go a short distance away and not be able to see it, that was Roger’s idea of success. Particularly in homes and resorts—where things should be natural.” Colin O’Neal added that a lot of the buildings Roger designed are “outstanding without standing out.” He said, “You could almost approach them and not even realize that they were there, particularly in Virgin Gorda.”

ROGER DOWNING & PARTNERS PROJECTS:

Roger’s decades-long relationships with Little Dix Bay/Rosewood Hotels and JOMA Properties Ltd. are indicative of his first goal as an architect—making the client happy. “One thing he was most proud of were the long relationships with clients,” said Thor Downing, Roger’s son, now President of RDP. Thor and I spoke about the diversity of Roger’s creations as we flipped through the firm’s project list, starting with Roger’s first design in 1969—former Deputy Governor Alford Penn’s porch. Over the next half hour of looking through the document, I noticed the same names appearing over and over. The O’Neal family, Little Dix Bay, Pusser’s Ltd., Necker Island, H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, the Soares family, the Haycrafts, and many others have maintained protracted relationships with Roger and his firm. One of the main reasons that Roger established a following from the beginning was the quality of his work. When discussing the early years with me, longtime RDP employee Ruth Solas said, “He took pride in his work. He wanted everything done up to par. RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] standards was what he based his work on. Top-notch.” Thor emphasized how his father believed in building for the future—always allowing for possible additions or developments and seeing the property as a growing, evolving entity instead of a finished unit.

Roger’s ability to foresee the possible evolution of a property came in part from his close relationship with his business partner, engineer Miles Outerbridge. Miles and Roger visited the BVI together in 1969 and soon thereafter established Roger Downing & Partner Co. Ltd. “I had been [to the BVI] before,” Miles said from his home in Bermuda, “and I thought it had good business potential…We spent a whole week talking to people to see if our business was wanted there, and they seemed receptive to the idea.” The first office was on Main Street where the Roti Palace is now located. Since the beginning, Thor said, every design was a conjunction between architect and engineer. “It was great working with him as an engineer,” Miles said, “because Roger had an ability to understand how buildings worked, how they went together and how to build them. He was very cognizant of the fact that we were working in a hurricane zone and a seismic zone, so buildings had to be structurally sound.” He added, “He would talk to me about these things before he put them on paper. We’d chat about it as it progressed. He liked the idea of having an Engineer as part of the firm…this way, he got input all along.” Colin O’Neal praised the work of the architect-engineer team and laughingly described the charming duo as “gentlemen with a slight touch of the swashbuckler.”

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Roger’s true gift came from being able to put his clients’ visions to reality. Colin O’Neal said, “He was able to listen to you, garner from you what you wanted, and steer you in the direction of a design where form met function…The project ended up being a collaboration, or a meeting of minds.” Barbara Myers, Office Manager at RDP, said, “He had a wonderful way of turning things around if there was a problem…He listened to what people thought, then managed to turn it around to be exactly what he thought was best.” Colin further praised Roger’s ability to collaborate as a project manager. “This is a high-testosterone kind of environment with a lot of egos, a lot of bullying, a very tough environment to work in, and Roger was someone, and it’s happened many times around this conference table with engineers and builders and so forth,” he said, and gestured to the large table between us, “he was able to deflate egos very effectively and by the force of his personality, broker positions which didn’t give everyone what they wanted, necessarily, but everyone walked away satisfied.”

Paulo Santana, director of the construction firm TRS Services, said, “He was the most experienced architects I ever worked with. Nothing was ever a problem. Wherever you work in the world, you look for people like that.” Ruth Solas added, “It was teamwork. When you work as a team, you get much accomplished.”

When it came to his own signature style as an architect, Roger tended to shy away from incorporating unnecessary elements into a work simply for the sake of aesthetic design, but he did often use natural materials—especially stone—whenever he could. When I visited the RDP offices in Road Town, Barbara Myers shared a photo of Roger and his wife Dr Jana Downing from the 1970s in an open-air patio in St Barth’s surrounded by stone columns. “It was a building that inspired him,” Barbara said, and I recognized design elements that I’d seen in Roger’s work. “He always used to love going down [to St Barth’s] to check out the stonework and try to get the guys here inspired about it,” Thor said. After Thor and I compiled photos for this article, I noticed masonry in most of Roger’s designs—at their offices on Main Street, at The Sugar Mill Hotel and even at The Barracks Building in town. Miles Outerbridge contributed that Roger also used exposed wood in his designs. “He liked the warmness of wood, and he wanted to show as much of that as possible,” Miles said. “He enjoyed the combination of stone and wood. He liked natural things and wanted them to blend in to their natural environment,” he added. Of Roger’s design tendencies, Colin O’Neal said, “He wanted his buildings, his houses to work with the environment…He didn’t like radical excavations of a site in order to situate a house or building…he worked around boulders, he didn’t fell trees if he could avoid it. He didn’t want a house to break the skyline of a hill, for example. He preferred it to be more organic.”

“One of the things that made Roger an interesting person was that he wasn’t just an architect,” said Miles Outerbridge. “He got involved in many different projects that he did for his own pleasure or to help the community. He was very proud of having become a Belonger of the BVI and wanted to help out whenever he could, to be a good citizen.” Roger donated his architectural expertise to such organizations as the Old Government House Museum, National Parks Trust, the Royal BVI Yacht Club, the Tortola Sports Club, H Lavity Stoutt Community College, Rotary Club, BVI Philatelic Society and the BVI Diabetes Association. Of his contributions to the Old Government House Museum, Governor Boyd McCleary said in a written tribute, “His expert architectural and technical knowledge and his sheer interest in the development of the museum were driving forces that helped the Board achieve so much.”

When I asked Thor, Barbara and Ruth to describe the philosophy of the Roger Downing & Partner offices in one word, they simply said, “Family.” The RDP building, built on the site of an old foundry on Main Street, exemplifies this word—Roger once shared the space with the medical practice of his late wife Dr Jana Downing, and the current office, now run by Thor, also houses Virgin Island Surveying Services, son Marc Downing’s surveying company.

Throughout his lifetime, Roger extended his family to include colleagues, clients, employees, friends and peers. I had the distinct pleasure of dining with Roger, Thor, Marc and Marc’s wife Amanda Georges at Roger’s cozy home in Chalwell. I also truly enjoyed interviewing him at the RDP office where he humbly discussed his work—giving credit to all the others involved and taking none himself—while he showed me a portfolio of stunning projects spanning his expansive career. He started a business in the BVI over 40 years ago that will continue to thrive and define the islands. Colin O’Neal said, “His greatest legacy is in the practice that he’s left behind.”

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