Government House, St John’s, Antigua
Having withstood the ravages of fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and termites, Government House in St John’s is an extraordinary survival of shared heritage; one of the most important historic buildings on the island, and indeed, in the Caribbean. Threatened with demolition, the Governor-General, Sir Rodney Williams, intervened decisively to save it. Launched by HRH Prince Harry two years ago, the project is unique by showing how an operational government building can be opened to the public for a range of multiple uses.
The house has served as the residence of the head of state since the late 18th century. Adapted by Lord Lavington in 1801, like so many historic public buildings, it has grown organically over time as subsequent generations have added to it. In 1841 it was described as ‘a genteel West Indian residence, possessing some good apartments and having its stabling and outbuildings upon a respectable scale.’
What can be seen today is a fascinating accretive building – layer upon layer of history superimposed on the building and its garden compound. This makes it vital that everyone understands the complexity of the building before embarking on its restoration.
A huge amount of investigative work has already been done pro bono in a global collaboration with inputs from the UK, the USA and Jamaica alongside local expertise and guidance from the World Monuments Fund and Princes Foundation. With the benefit of private funds from British sponsors, this is now being complemented by world-class expertise from Insall’s, a leading UK conservation practice. They will develop the draft Conservation Management Plan and verify the works as they proceed.
But the project is not just about the sensitive repair of an important piece of shared heritage, important though that may be. It will celebrate all those who have contributed to its complex history – both enslaved and free - whose craftsmanship and skills have left a truly shared legacy of which all descendants can be proud.
What makes the project unique is that, as it is completed in stages, it will become the national focus for celebrating Antigua’s rich architectural heritage with exhibitions, education, training, receptions and hospitality all taking place alongside a functioning government house. There will be an art gallery for local artists, teaching space for school children, a café, a bookshop and a living museum of the history of the house and the country - even a therapeutic gardening programme.
The project is engaging people from all walks of life – the young and old, skilled and unskilled, and even the incarcerated with prisoners learning new skills under expert supervision. It provides real opportunities for developing local expertise and jobs in horticulture, conservation, craft skills, museum curation and visitor management.
Part of the legacy will be to provide a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider historic precinct, and a template for future heritage legislation for the island.