Building a Future for Historic Trades in the U.S. Virgin Islands
In April 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Hands-On Preservation Experience (HOPE) Crew Staff Milan Jordan and Molly Baker traveled to Christiansted, St. Croix—a U.S. Virgin Island—for a project at the Estate Little Princess, a former sugar plantation and hospital. Today, the site is maintained as a nature preserve by The Nature Conservancy, and this spring it became a space for teaching the practice of stone masonry restoration to five local Crucian participants.
HOPE Crew launched in 2014 with the goal of bringing preservation and preservation trades to a younger, more diverse audience. This work is part of a concerted effort with preservationists across the country to grow the number of skilled historic preservation trades people nationwide. With Preservation Trades and Workforce Development serving as one of the key issue areas of the Preservation Priorities Taskforce—a partnership with the National Preservation Partners Network—the work of HOPE Crew is more important than ever.
For the five participants of the project, the work at Estate Little Princess became more than just a training exercise; it created opportunities to practice these new skills beyond this one program.
Contextualizing the Past at the Estate Little Princess
Records indicate that the 25-acre Danish colonial seaside estate—which is on the National Register for Historic Places—was founded in 1749 as a sugar plantation and rum distillery, 16 years after St. Croix was purchased and colonized by the Danish Crown. Frederik Moth and Peter Heyliger founded the Estate, and these two men later became prominent in the political life of the island, with Moth eventually serving as governor.
As with most plantations of its time the work was done by enslaved labor, and today the original complex includes two grand houses (including one that served as a hospital for enslaved people), rubble from the structures that were the homes of the enslaved community, a windmill, distillery, and remains of extensive outbuildings.
The grounds where the enslaved community once existed have been the focus of a multi-year intensive archaeology study in partnership with the Society of Black Archaeologists. Sadly, little of the original structures remains. However, the Estate Little Princess Archaeological Field School is uncovering a wealth of information about the people who were forced to work the grounds, bringing into focus a vivid picture of how they lived their lives, how they moved through this world, and how they built community with one another.
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As time went on, the estate changed hands multiple times, including ownership by another Danish Governor Peter von Scholten and an amateur forester Emil Switzer. The buildings suffered extensive damage in the catastrophic 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, and after laying in ruins for decades the land was donated to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the 1970s as a nature preserve.
Now, the estate serves as the primary location for Virgin Island coral restoration efforts. Along with stewarding the land, TNC works to preserve the historic structures on site. Made of coral stone, the walls were once covered with lime plaster wash and unfortunately patched with inappropriate Portland cement through the years.
The site is representative of inappropriate repairs that can be seen universally on historic masonry building, making it a perfect training ground. It was the recognition of an opportunity that encouraged TNC to invite the HOPE Crew to use their historic structures to train local participants on how to address this issue, in addition to generously funding the training project.
HOPE Finds a CHANT
Critical to the success of this project—and one of seven goals of the National Impact Agenda—is the importance of building a collaborative network through partnerships. In the case of the project in St. Croix that partnership came in the form of The Nature Conservancy and Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism's (CHANT) Invisible Heritage Pre-apprenticeship Program.
“Although HOPE Crew is a national program, the heart of the initiative is to empower and train the local workforce in preservation trades skills so they can work on historically and culturally important sites in their own community. Projects and partnerships like those forged in St. Croix allow us to further this mission.” explains Milan Jordan, director of HOPE Crew at the National Trust.
CHANT’s Invisible Heritage Pre-apprenticeship Program was created out of a need to repopulate the trades with practitioners who understand the challenges of protecting St Croix’s built environment in the face of natural disasters and climate change. Adding preservation trades training to the participants' wide range of skills was a logical fit.
Hands-On Masonry Training for the Future
For two weeks, under the tutelage of masonry expert David Gibney, five local participants learned about mortar analysis, inappropriate parging removal (a sometimes-damaging thin coat of a cementitious mortar applied to masonry for refinement of the surface), repointing, stone carving, and resetting on the old hospital building. The participants were eager to learn and embodied a camaraderie fostered by their CHANT program.
Participant Allem Harry said of the project, “It was a welcoming educational experience. From the beginning we were able to work together as a team. Even though we didn’t know David—in the beginning—his ability to communicate with us made it easy to learn and work with him.”
Gilberto Harry added, “It was fun doing something that our ancestors did years ago and bringing it back!” All participants excelled, adopting the new skills, and allowing HOPE Crew to connect the trainees with two employment opportunities, including one with the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center’s field training program in St. Croix.
Frandelle Girard, executive director of CHANT, said of the partnership, “CHANT’s Building Arts Institute is designed to empower the participants in our programs to become experts in their field and to fill the gap in employment created by the loss of the building arts skills. Many of the master artisans in woodworking, blacksmithing, and masonry are ageing, and we face the death of these important crafts without aggressive intervention. CHANT trainees will now not only become skilled artisanal craftspersons, they will also be stewards of our heritage and culture, and their work will stand as a symbol of the rebirth of artisanal trades that are threatened.”
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