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Resurrecting History

 Resurrecting History

Editor’s note: This story concludes a three-part series devoted to restoration efforts at the Old Government House in Road Town.

After the reprieve came the hard part! Our budget to resurrect the Old Government House was limited to $150,000, and the task was to both make the old 1926 building safe as well as presentable and interesting. Concern about safety was expressed from the start, especially from earthquakes. It was unfortunate that the word condemned had been used. Damned, yes, though everyone was in agreement that it made no economic sense to try and restore the old building for a governor to live in. But, thankfully, agreement was made to restore the historic landmark into the functional museum it is today.


The original 1799 two-foot-thick masonry walls would probably survive better than the concrete parts, in the event of a serious earthquake. But as there are some eleven outside doors downstairs, any visitors could be quickly evacuated.
The crumbling front arches were the first safety priority, and the simplest solution proved to be steel beams, clad in wood, to protect them and make them less visible. Two rows of balustrades at the back had to be completely recast, and many cracks in the exterior walls had to be chipped out, the exposed steel treated and the cracks plugged with 120 gallons of patching compound. Then the whole exterior was sandblasted and primed and painted brilliant white, the work admirably carried out by young Brian Russ and his hardworking crew.
The original flat, concrete roof had leaked, a problem solved many years ago by the use of a sloping tin protectant. The fix remains temporary and will call for a complete tin replacement or proper seals to ensure its water resilience. The termite infestation problem was easily dealt with by a $28 spray bottle, after a professional’s offer of $4,000 to do the job was declined.
The roof over the back entertaining area, which was built in 1972 for Princess Margaret’s visit, was a total wreck. Therefore, it was all scrapped and, instead, two smaller roofs were built to protect the dining room glass doors and to provide a small sitting area. The original supporting columns were retained and a pergola linked them together. Flood lights were installed—a first in the BVI—to provide a backdrop to the future entertaining area at the new Government house.
Once the exterior of the building was cleaned up, it was on to the interior. The kitchen was stripped, since it was of no historical importance, and a window removed to make a side door so that all visitors could be controlled in and out—strategically through a small gift shop. This door was then opposite a large door in the divider wall to the new Reception Hall and the new Government House, allowing all three to be used in unison for large functions.
Ghastly soft pink carpeting was removed from the stairs and the dining room and several floorboards were replaced. The white walls around the famous Margaret Barwick murals were repainted dark green, as recommended by the artist, immediately bringing the murals back to life. The damaged top for the dining room table sent out for Princess Margaret’s visit was there and Jones Woodworking made some carved replacement feet. At last, the dining room had returned to its former glory.


The living room was initially furnished with scrounged furniture until funds could be raised for more authentic items. The old pantry became a small museum room, after cabinet doors were built over the original shelves and over two-foot-deep niches in the 200-year-old walls. Numerous interesting artefacts from different sources were found to outfit the museum. These included Governor Savage’s ceremonial uniform and a 4-pound cannon ball found on site. The OGH also brandished a visitors’ book, with several royal signatures—all telling of a house that many local hands worked long hours on. Their signatures now rest beside the administrators and governors and their wives—all who who had steadfastly served the people of the Virgin Islands over many years, now part of the story of the Virgin Islands.

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