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Pieces of Architectural History: Preservation, Restoration and Adaptive Re-Use

Written By Neomie Tavernier, 

B.Arch, LEED Green Associate, RA, BIA

Images Supplied By Leslie St. John, Habitats Architecture Design Inc. 

In the midst of Barbados’ capital, Queen’s Park makes up a part of Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. The park is a composition of both natural and manmade spaces, creating a lovely convergence of landscape design, architecture, and history. The continued use of this space and its importance to the Barbadian people cannot be understated. Today, the park remains an active outdoor environment within the city where people come to gather. It is an integral feature within the Bridgetown area, which is well-kept under the purview of the Government of Barbados, the Barbados National Trust, and the Barbados National Cultural Foundation. While the park grounds have remained a lush recreational space, some of the buildings have been “historically preserved” and renovated for adaptive re-use. The historic architecture was given a new purpose, encouraging both locals and visitors alike to not only appreciate the history of the park but also enjoy new functionality and purpose suitable for today’s lifestyle. 


When we hear people speak about the work that has been done on the Queen’s Park House, it is a typical misconception, architecturally speaking, to refer to it as a historic preservation or even a restoration project. In the public realm the terms preservation, restoration and renovation are used interchangeably, but in the design world, they have specific meanings and differences. 


Architectural Preservation has been defined by the Secretary of Interior Standards as: to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure, and the existing form and vegetative cover of a site. 


Architectural Restoration has been defined by the same source as: accurately recovering the form and details of a property and its setting as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of later work or by the replacement of missing earlier work. 


Architectural Renovation or Rehabilitation, on the other hand, refers to: returning a property to a state of utility through repair or alteration which makes possible and efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions or features of the property which are significant to its historical, architectural, and cultural values. 


When we engage in the creation of new functions within these historic buildings to create new purpose and usefulness, we venture into the realm of Adaptive Re-use. 


The Queen’s Park House, which originates from the early 1900s, is an example of historic building/site renovation for adaptive re-use.  The historic references remaining on the building’s exterior give us a glimpse of the old colonial architecture in Barbados, while the internal space has been adapted as an art gallery and performance theatre. The building’s first architectural restoration was for CARIFESTA 1981, when it was named the Queen’s Park Gallery and the Daphne Joseph Hackett Theatre. Its most recent renovation and extension was completed for CARIFESTA 2017, when architects again brought new life and functionality to the building after it had been closed for many years and in disrepair. With the revitalization of the art gallery and theatre came additional provisions to facilitate universal accessibility to all levels. 


Truthfully, there are buildings and sites within our islands that through a romanticized lens and deep appreciation for their history are deserving of true preservation or restoration, such as some of the old forts that have been restored throughout the region.  Unfortunately, we exist in a time when many of these buildings and sites have not been maintained well enough to permit legitimate preservation.  At this point, we can consider restoration, but it must be said that this is no small feat to accomplish properly.  Extensive study, research, cataloguing, and money are required to do justice to a historic restoration project.  The architect must determine to which historical era it would be feasible to achieve a successful renovation of the building/site and be diligent about only keeping architectural features relevant to that particular period of time. This typically takes years of planning, fund and material sourcing, followed by careful execution of the reconstruction. 


Our governments and associated entities simply do not have the financial wherewithal to undertake historic restorations on the numerous buildings designated as historic sites within our small islands, but they do make a concerted effort to support these undertakings when possible. When it comes to buildings, we mostly exist in a realm of renovations and rehabilitations with a keen sensitivity to retaining as much historic character as possible within what remains of the structure. Hence, it may seem that greater effort is made to preserve sites and landscapes rather than buildings as this can be less costly.  


Notably, in larger economies, private funding and foundations tend to be the main sources by which many historic properties are preserved or restored.  On occasion, private financiers have endeavored and achieved completion of significant restoration projects here in Barbados.  The restoration of the Nidḥe Israel Synagogue along with new and renovated buildings within the site and its environs is one such project in Bridgetown, which is now a beautiful treasure within the city. Originally constructed in the 17th century, it is now accessible as a historic museum and is once again a usable space. 


There is much to be said about the renovation of historic buildings/sites for adaptive re-use; there is also much contention as we sometimes hang on too tightly to the idea of seeing a place stand still in time, untarnished and unchanged. Unfortunately, our architectural history is sometimes left to slowly decay or is intentionally destroyed when there is no function attached to it - what use is a space with no one in it? Architecture, however, has the ability to tell a story: one of the past, present, and future. As time progresses, our individual and societal needs shift, requiring the architecture around us to respond.  As we live, grow and die; as properties change hands from one generation to the next, what is important in our spaces changes.   


While architects should never engage in the falsification of what is wholly new by making it look old, we can find respectful solutions to pair the old and new, creating a fluid conversation. We need historic spaces preserved in their full essence, with appreciation of the nuances of the smallest architectural details. However, in many more instances, we need to embrace the necessary conversion of historic sites for suitable adaptive re-use so that our history can live on and remain relevant for younger generations. 

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