Protecting properties of significance in the Cayman Islands
Words by Andrew Gibb. Photography courtesy of The National Trust for the Cayman Islands
The built environment, in any community, is a physical manifestation of its culture, history and social structures.
Events that shaped the evolution of the Cayman Islands took place in many of the historic buildings here. These places reflect the past and inform the future, so their preservation anchors us to our past and provides a context in which to understand the present.
What are the key areas of historical property preservation that the National Trust focuses on?
First is the general preservation of buildings deemed to be of historic or cultural significance. The Trust records the location, built form, appearance and any cultural links, for every traditional, historically or architecturally significant building or property in the Cayman Islands.
Second are the at-risk buildings. These are old buildings that may be slated for demolition or
are decaying structurally. Such buildings may be offered to the Trust as a ‘rescue’ but, due to limited funding, we can usually do little more than survey the threatened structure, so that a record can be preserved for posterity.
The third area of interest is the portfolio of ten or so properties actually owned by the Trust, acquired either by donation, cession or by purchase. A small number of these are conserved and restored, then used by the Trust as places of interaction and interpretation by the community.
What factors make a property a site of historical significance?
There are no fixed criteria that determine a building’s status as ‘historic,’ but any building that is at least 50 years old and has obvious architectural merit or has a provenance of cultural or familial significance (sometimes both) will merit consideration as being of historic significance.
How many properties has the Trust restored or protected? Describe the programmes in place.
The National Trust has some ten properties under its care, each of which it restores, preserves or maintains, as needed. There is also a small research component to ensure that the work carried out on each property is as accurate as possible and recognises its social, historic or cultural context.
The primary Trust property is the Mission House in Bodden Town, which is a functioning museum that showcases a typical 19th century Caymanian ‘mansion’ and also interprets the lifestyle and social status of the various occupants of the house over the years.
It is not only houses that are of interest to the Trust though. Fort George on Harbour Drive is the Trust’s most important property in George Town and a significant part of the capital’s historic precinct. Other sites are Dr. Roy’s Ironshore site on South Church Street (once used for schooner launching and careening), the Watler Family Cemetery in Prospect Point and the Lighthouse Park in East End.
How many more properties worthy of preservation are there in the Cayman Islands?
Just about every existing house, cottage, outhouse or traditional building in the Historic Register is worthy of preservation in some way, but the shortage of funds puts almost all of them beyond the reach of the National Trust to acquire and conserve.
There are of course some national treasures that should be protected in perpetuity from destruction, inappropriate renovations or re-development or from disposal by alienation. These include the Constitution Hall, Central Post Office, the Legislative Assembly building, all the district libraries and, of course, the Glass House – beloved by many as a symbol of the optimism Caymanians held for the future of their fledgling island nation.
Just south of the Four Way Stop in West Bay and adjacent to Boggy Sands Road, is a clutch of traditional houses of exceptional architectural merit that have in recent times become run down and in need of conservation. Unfortunately, the National Trust does not have the means to acquire any of these.
Recently, a series of fresh water step wells – the early settlers’ principal, and sometimes only, source of drinking water – have been discovered in the South Church Street area as well as further east in Spotts. These, along with turtle meat, made the Cayman Islands a strategic victualling station in the 16th and 17th centuries and are thus of historic significance.
How does the Trust use its restored properties?
Most likely as museums or as artefacts that can be interpreted interactively or, in the absence of funding, properties are simply closed until funding is available for further preservation or renovation.
How is the National Trust’s historic preservation funded?
By donations and by allocation from the general revenue funds of the Trust. These are very small amounts and barely cover the basic costs of insurance and ongoing maintenance of the Trust’s property portfolio.
Whilst there is considerable interest in donating funds to the National Trust for land acquisition, the donors’ interest is usually environmental. The number of potential donors willing to help the Trust acquire properties of historic significance is very small and acquisition costs are considerably more than that of raw land.
Do you welcome donations in the form of buildings or property?
If a property owner is considering making such a donation, the Trust is now requesting that it be accompanied by an endowment to assist with the preservation or conservation of that property in the future.
The Trust may also be approached by a developer who finds a traditional cottage on land intended for development a hindrance and seeks to dispose of it by ‘donating’ it to the Trust. This is usually done with the best intentions but requires that the building be relocated from the site in question.
Whilst there have been a few successful relocations of historic houses to sites such as Pedro St James, this is not the most desirable solution as it is not always possible to re-create the street or urban landscape in which it was originally set. It is always preferable that the structure be re-purposed or integrated into the site redevelopment as a whole.
How can the National Trust assist owners of properties of historic or architectural significance?
The Historic Advisory Committee of the National Trust can advise owners on conservation methods or opportunities for re-use or re-purposing. The Trust is particularly interested in properties with unusual historic features such as ‘slave walls’ (drystack stone field fences) or freshwater step wells.
In the event that properties cannot be rescued, conserved or re-purposed, the Trust can deploy volunteer teams of architects, surveyors and engineers to ‘map’ the traditional structure or artefact to create accurate records of the structures before they are demolished.
Are there laws with regards to preservation of historic properties?
The legal protection of properties deemed worthy of preservation is very limited. Under the Development and Planning Law certain areas in the Cayman Islands are zoned areas of historic importance. However, this simply means that when applying for planning permission in these areas, there are certain conditions relating to the preservation or renovation of such buildings, but there are no laws preventing their demolition or disposal. The Historic Buildings Register maintained by the National Trust is the only list of historic buildings or buildings of architectural significance.
How can the community assist in preservation efforts? Funding? Volunteering?
The restoration and conservation of historically significant buildings is an expensive business, so donations are always welcome. Volunteers willing to work on the properties are also welcome. In fact, the Trust has a Group Volunteer Programme whereby local firms offer the Trust a workday carried out by their staff. It’s an excellent way to promote community outreach while providing the volunteers a great team-building opportunity.
For more information contact, The National Trust for the Cayman Islands:
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