Few buildings in the Caribbean can boast the pedigree of Clarence House, English Harbour. Once home and residence of Royalty, naval commanders, commissioners and governors, Clarence House is set in a picturesque location overlooking English Harbour and the Naval Dockyard on Commissioner’s Bay. It was built in 1783 and massively altered in 1803 and has been described as a fine example of Palladian Style architecture in a Caribbean setting. Today, it still remains a majestic and excellent example of a colonial Great House from an era long gone.
In the 1990s, a series of hurricanes severely damaged the building. Termites quickly invaded the open unused building and ravaged the structure, nearly reducing it to rubble. Several studies and restoration efforts were launched but no major progress was made. In an attempt to stimulate the restoration effort, a registered charity was set up with the Charity Commission in the United Kingdom by concerned Antiguans, residents of the UK and the National Parks to facilitate fundraising efforts. This was a timely event as Sir Peter Harrison of the Peter Harrison Foundation, a highly successful businessman, philanthropist, long-time friend of Antigua, visited Antigua and won the Antigua Sailing Week in 2012. To mark his achievement and in an effort to contribute to the development of the Dockyard, Sir Peter became a trustee of the project and its donor.
With funding from the Sir Peter Heritage foundation restoration began of creating an outstanding site and place of beauty, that presents the finest in Caribbean/Antiguan architecture; a fitting tribute to the history of the site and island and those who built the numerous outstanding structures throughout the dockyard and on the ridge at Shirley’s Heights. The restoration committee was activated and the best Antiguan craftsmen, stonemasons and foremen experienced in restoration work selected. The restoration and project management team includes: architect Andrew Goodenough; Quantity Surveyor, Richard Watson; Engineer, J. Oliver Davis Jr.; Restoration and Project Managers from the Dockyard, Marius Smith and Michael Flermius; and Oversight for Historical Authenticity, Trustee Dr. Reginald Murphy. Parks Commissioner, Ann Marie Martin has been the driving force behind the project, in that she negotiated the funding for the project and is the focal person in ensuring its successful implementation.
The staff of the National Parks plays an active role in ensuring the restoration is of a high degree of accuracy and authenticity. This is not a patch or repair project, but a full restoration using the finest materials and only the best workers with significant experience in restoration, which is vastly different from modern construction. Another important aspect of the project is the involvement of apprentices. In partnership with the GARD Center, young people are given the opportunity to work along with the stone masons and tradesmen to gain insights and experience into the trade and to perhaps stimulate a new generation into restoration arts.
To date, the work is running smoothly and still within budget, despite the numerous costly surprises. It is beginning to take shape as the interior wood lining and moldings are now being installed. The stone work is in the final stage of completion and already the “wow factor” has been achieved as one admires the crisply cut lines and delicate, perfectly cut stones. All the white limestone on the outside of the building had to be replaced. Matching stone, low in fossils, hard but not crystalline, was donated by Mill Reef and other volcanic stones of similar mineral content and colour were cut from large blocks of stone recovered and saved in the seawall restoration project in 2004.
Since much of the furniture that once adorned Clarence House’s original interior has been lost over the years, photographs were sourced and pieces from the termite damaged originals were secured and authentic copies of the original pieces of furniture are now being replicated by the talented craftsmen. These craftsmen did most of the work in the restoration of Betty’s Hope windmill and many of the gun carriages, anchor crosses and capstans in the restoration of the Dockyard. The goal of the restoration team is to present a unique collection of Caribbean mahogany furniture in a celebration of Caribbean heritage and craftsmanship.
Clarence House will be used for high end events, including weddings, conferences, and small exclusive State functions. Formerly a property excluded from management by the National Parks, it has now been fully integrated into the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park and will be maintained and managed by the Parks Authority.
It can also become a major asset of the future World Heritage Site with the “ Wow Factor” that the National Parks Authority and Government envisaged. There are no other historical houses open to the public in Antigua with the potential for heritage tourism as great as that of Clarence House.
In sum, this project has returned Clarence House to its rightful place among the most important and richly endowed cultural assets of Antigua & Barbuda. This has been done, suing local skills, local material and driven by local zeal and vision – something of which we can be proud. •