The Saga of Saving the Old Government House
How the historic house was saved from demolition
In 1996, then-Governor David Mackilligin’s wife refused to live in their dilapidated house any longer. The roofs leaked, termites were everywhere, the plumbing and electricity were shot, cracks were appearing in many walls—so the governor and his wife were moved to temporary quarters on Beef Island. Built in 1926 around the hurricane-damaged building of 1890, Government House had definitely fallen into disrepair.
The building was condemned by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the overseas government agency responsible for housing our governor and his family. The old house was scheduled to be demolished and plans were drawn up for a modern replacement to be built on the same site in Road Town. This caused dismay and horror among many, and the governor’s wife started a movement called The Friends of Old Government House to try and save the old building. They wrote letters, had meetings, got the local papers to write editorials, and drew up alternate plans—but all to no avail. The FCO would not budge, and the BVI Government was reluctant to consider alternatives. But, several events would happen in 1998 and 1999, leading to the building being rescued from its looming destruction.
A meeting in San Juan of the 8th International Conference of National Trusts sent to all concerned a resolution that “unanimously expressed its concern at the loss of another architectural gem of the Caribbean.” The FCO replied, determining the building “unsafe” and suggesting its demolition and rebuilding as the “best value-for-money” option available. No mention or consideration had been given to saving the old building and erecting a new government house elsewhere on the site.
Next, a pretty devastating article was printed in the London Times. Above a lovely colour photograph of the building was the headline, “£650,000 ‘monstrosity’ will replace attractive old Government House.” This savage article was instigated by Marcia Brocklebank, whose family owned property on Tortola. She also got the director of the World Monuments Fund to produce a detailed report, which said, “No proper historical and archaeological appraisal had been carried out.” This led to her employing Brian Morton, a restoration engineer. His report spelled out how restoring a building to become a heritage site was a very different task than transforming it into an inhabited residence again. “It is a considerable heritage asset to Tortola. Its history and association with Royal visits, together with its remaining decorations [he mentions a late governor’s wife Margaret Barwick’s murals], and structural elements, some of which date back to the last century, make it a very special building. … The loss of the building, once demolished, would be seriously regretted.” The report made sensible reading and became the basis of my involvement and subsequent reports.
Many others wrote in, including Professor Henry Fraser of the Barbados Parks Trust and even then-Governor Frank Savage politely joined in—and the pressure grew.
By then, Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal, bearing his title of the time, began to have a change of heart. He began to feel this mounting pressure from these many sources—which paid off. In September 1999, the chief minister called upon my services. At the time, I was a semi-retired contractor and designer who had supported the push to save the building. He called on me to do a quick study to see if the old building could be saved and, subsequently, what it could be used for. He also questioned if a new building could be built on the same property. My answers were all yes and I listed its many potential uses, primarily as a visitor center. I said, given the modest sum of $150,000, the old building could be restored. But first we needed to meet on site.
So, armed with my proposed site plan, which incorporated ideas from a plan by the late Michael Arneborg, I met with the governor, chief minister, and other senior government officials in the yard behind the old house to lead them through what I described as a “visualization tour.”
I told them to imagine the abandoned garage being demolished, opening up an entertaining terrace to allow for a great view of Road Harbour and an inviting breeze. I asked them to imagine the house keeper’s house demolished, to expose parts of the old fort walls, built by Royal engineers in 1796, the first building on the site. This would make room for a 70-seat reception hall for “additional space I felt a governor’s house should have,” I told the officials. And this would provide for the transition from the old to the new.
We then moved into the old kitchen garden, where I proposed the new house would be sited.
“You are now standing in the new living room, and if you peer through the bushes you should be able to catch a glimpse of the harbour,” I told them, adding that “if that large eucalyptus tree were cut down—[the only tree we’d cut down later to provide for the new house]—an impressive view out to the sea and outer islands would be exposed”.
They must have believed me, and listened to all the protestations, because soon after that meeting the Chief Minister called me to say that the Government’s Executive Council had approved my ideas, OGH was to be saved and he would like me to be the BVI project manager to pull it all together. Never has the old proverb “be careful what you wish for” been more apt! The next two years would prove somewhat difficult and frustrating—supervising the restoration work and of the construction of the new buildings- but ultimately rewarding.
The Old Government House stands strong in Road Town. Photo by Hugh Whistler