A Journey Through Time and Design, Cayman Islands
Given that the Cayman Islands were not permanently settled until the 1700s, the human history of the islands is relatively short. One of the best records we have of how life has evolved over the past 300 years lies in the surviving historic homes. The National Trust for the Cayman Islands acquires, restores and maintains several such properties as part of its mandate to protect and preserve historic sites for current and future generations. The organisation also offers tours of historic buildings in order to educate the public on Cayman’s built heritage.
Words by Stuart Wilson and Natasha Were. Photos courtesy of John Doak.
In the 1700s and 1800s, Caymanians built simple wattle and daub cottages. These were usually single-room dwellings that served primarily as space to sleep and shelter from the rain. Life was largely lived outdoors, and even the kitchens, such as they were, were located in a separate structure to prevent the sleeping quarters from getting too hot or indeed catching fire. These homes were inherently sustainable, as only local materials were available at the time. Thus, early Caymanians used hardwoods – often ironwood, an endemic hardwood that does not rot or warp and is resistant to termites – to build a frame, and locally harvested silver thatch for the roof. Between the posts, panels of woven sticks (wattle) were covered with lime plaster (daub). These cottages could survive for anything from 100 to 300 years: Miss Lassie’s in South Sound is an excellent example.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Caymanian men were working at sea. On their voyages, they saw different styles of housing and brought home new building materials and tools. The availability of machine-cut lumber made housebuilding faster and gave rise to a new style in Cayman: the cabin. Ship-lapped exterior walls and long, shady verandahs are the defining features of these. Around this time the fretsaw was also invented, which gave rise to intricate gingerbread decoration on the exterior. McCoy’s Villa and the Webster House are classic examples of Cayman cabins for this era.
More affluent families seeking space began to extend their homes vertically, adding a second, ship-lapped storey above the original wattle and daub ground floor. Known as a mansion or upstairs house, these often had an exterior staircase at the front.
The fourth identifiable style of traditional Cayman homes, which appeared in the 1920s, is the bungalow. These homes were built from timber or concrete blocks and placed the porch on the short side, rather than the long side, supported by battered columns or wooden pillars. Examples of these can be seen on South Church Street.
ANCIENT WISDOMS, MODERN APPLICATIONS
On the surface, the homes we build today, with an abundance of concrete, glass and steel, bear little resemblance to those we built in the past. Yet we haven’t completely abandoned our traditions: certain features have endured. Most notable perhaps is the inclusion of verandahs and overhangs, which provide a pleasant, shady place to sit outdoors, and also prevent direct sunlight from heating interiors. Pitched roofs, that allow the heat indoors to rise and stand up better to heavy rainfall, continue to be common architectural features.
As we strive to build live more sustainably, we inevitably examine how things were done by previous generations, which leads to certain ancient wisdoms being revived. Where our forefathers raised their homes on ironwood stilts to prevent them being swept away by storm surges, today we raise houses on concrete foundations, so that they sit above the level of those same surges. Where once we caught rainwater and stored it in cisterns because we had no other freshwater supply and planted our gardens on with trees and shrubs we found in nature, today we are returning to these practices to preserve natural resources and minimize our environmental impact.
Thus, our homes are evolving, blending the best aspects of our traditional ways with new technologies and materials, to create homes that are adapted to our environment and our lifestyles.
To join, volunteer, sponsor or donate to the National Trust of the Cayman Islands, visit: www.nationaltrust.org.ky
Article sponsored by LG Contracting, Cayman Islands
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