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Little Dix Bay

“The buildings curve along the crescent of the beach in small clusters, tucked away among coconut palms and sea grape trees and altogether camouflaged by the lush vegetation.”
Architectural Digest, November 2005

I’ll admit that on the occasions I’ve visited Rosewood Little Dix Bay Resort in Virgin Gorda, I’ve barely noticed the architecture. This seemed hard to believe as I flipped through Roger Downing’s photos of the mountainous, shingled roofs that, with little else besides some stone support columns, comprise the main buildings. I had breakfasted beneath the pavilion, the tallest of these roofs, the week before, but visual memories of my meal consisted of the sapphire sea, several graceful shorebirds and the lovely Casey McNutt (see Women Under Water in this month’s Yacht Guide).

I felt better about my lack of observational skills when the charming and unassuming Roger Downing showed me a photo which at first glance I thought was a picture of a boulder-strewn hillside. When I studied it closer, I recognized that the picture actually was of the rooftops of Sense, a Rosewood Spa at Little Dix Bay, as seen from above. Each building’s granite-coloured roof looked completely natural among the surrounding foliage. And that’s the whole point of the exterior design at Little Dix Bay, encouraging guests to focus on the organic beauty of Virgin Gorda instead of the manmade structures.

The rooftops can easily be mistaken for boulders. Photo by Richard Finnegan.

“The main theme up at Little Dix is we always went for hidden architecture,” Roger Downing said. “Within six to eight months of a construction site, Jeremy [Brown, previous horticulturalist at Little Dix Bay from Anguilla] would have the whole area beautifully landscaped. The spa that we did up there, I mean, you can’t even see the buildings anymore—they’re gone.” Of the spa, the November 2005 issue of Architectural Digest says, “[Rosewood] earmarked a stunning bluff at the western end of the property and enlisted BVI-based architect Roger Downing to build an oasis on it. The more than presentable result—done nonetheless in the Rockefeller style of understated, indeed all but invisible, architecture—consists of an open-air peaked-roof reception pavilion, a number of treatment bungalows and a spa-suite for ‘post-treatment repose.’”

When I asked Roger how he felt about the idea of his work being hidden in the Virgin Gorda hillside, he said, “It’s fine by me. I have no problem with that.” He then added, “We were invited to a competition some years ago in St Barts on David Rockefeller’s property, which he was selling, and we were short-listed with two other architects from different places. We didn’t get that job because our design was too hidden; it went too far the other way, so it can work against you as well.”

Roger Downing and Partner, Ltd. have worked on different aspects of Little Dix since the early 1970s. Their first project was to build “a proper bar,” as Roger called it, to replace the three oil drums under the pavilion that served as the previous watering hole.

Photo by Roger Downing. 

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“We spent a lot of time on many different designs that would not offend the original architecture—such a strong concept. After many designs, we said, ‘Let’s pretend we were here first,’ so we designed the Sugar Mill in sympathy with the Copper Mine ruins—old style stonework—and the elements we designed around it were all more modern type stonework. And that cantilever is about fifteen or sixteen feet off that roof, and it’s still there,” he proudly pronounced. Roger Downing and Partner (RDP) also designed the activities building, front desk, beach house and dock, and additional guest rooms. “Then the last things we were doing were the villas dotted around the hillside. They’re sophisticated. Spacious. We always use stonework, rough-sawn cedar, mellow colours and things like that,” Roger said. “You have to see the villas now—some of them are vanishing.” He again credited Jeremy Brown’s landscaping for the hillside hideaways.

As Roger gingerly flipped through an album of postcards from seventies-era Little Dix, I commented on how the design has stood the test of time. He spoke of the different phases and owners that Little Dix has endured since Laurance Rockefeller sold it. “I’ve seen all these cycles go through,” he said and moved his hand up and down like a rollercoaster. “And now Maritz Wolf and Co. own it with Rosewood Hotels and Resorts managing it. I went around the whole property on Sunday, and it’s fabulous. They really have upgraded and beautifully maintained the hotel. It is truly a world-class property.”

Photo by Roger Downing

Not all the Downings’ designs are invisible, though. A visit to the centre of Road Town proves this—RDP designed the visibly striking Commerce House for JOMA Properties Limited with its cool, chartreuse glass and rufous walls. Roger said, “You’re here to interpret what your clients want…to interpret their ideas, basically, and that’s what’s really important about being an architect and doing it successfully, too.” 

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