Know your Islands Every house has its own story

When I was changing jobs back in February 2006, an acquaintance asked where I was heading for my new job. I explained I was going to the National Trust, as their historic programmes manager. He responded that was no surprise as he knew I’d been volunteering for a few years. But after a brief pause he continued with these memorable words: “Historic programmes . . . I have dogs back in my hometown that are older than your history!” Then, a born and bred Caymanian told me I was crazy to leave my good job for “that”. So this is how I began my uphill battle in the Historic Programmes.  

When I arrived at the Trust as an employee, I was the only staff member in Historic Programmes. Three out of the 11 historic sites under the Trust’s care were destroyed in Hurricane Ivan and were in splinters on the ground. We had four sites open to the public at no cost, and another four closed and in need of restoration. My first task was to work with the Trust’s Historic Advisory Committee and others to ensure the Mission House was rebuilt and opened to the public as quickly as possible. A little over a year later it opened and one employee was hired to operate the site.  

The programme was also conducting various historic tours, architectural and cultural presentations, and organising fundraising events. But there was one additional task looming heavily in the background that also needed attention – the upkeep of the National Heritage Register. 

 

What is the National Heritage Register?  

According to the National Trust Law, the National Heritage Register is “a register of Cayman’s natural, historic and cultural resources, which have been recognised and designated by the Council as being nationally significant and worthy of preservation…” The Trust’s district committees and the Historic Programmes staff are responsible for maintaining the portion of the register relating to historic and cultural resources. In the early 1990s work commenced on the register and over 300 homes were documented, serving as the basis for the register’s creation. The Trust has continued updating the register with photographs and information, which we are now make available on the Trust website. Please check out our website at www.nationaltrust.org.ky as we roll out this resource district by district over the coming weeks. 

 

Who are the potential users of the National Heritage Register and what benefits does it provide? 

School students – to learn about local history, architecture and/or people.  

Future generations – to understand more about who Caymanians were and what shaped their lives and their construction methods. 

Genealogy buffs – to learn more of the origins of their family homes. 

Property owners – to ascertain if their property has significance to Caymanian history. Also to aide them in decision making on how best to use historic structures/architecture in development. 

Tour operators – to provide accurate narrative during island tours to visitors. Excellent tours lead to financial gain in the tourism industry. 

Department of Planning – to ascertain if a proposed new development will adversely affect an historically significant site. To encourage owners to incorporate historic homes within the new development. To encourage property owners to use local architecture and design in new developments. 

Government – to assist in legislation for the protection of historic neighbourhoods or sites to be saved for future generations and the good of our tourism product.  

 

Why do we care about old houses?  

The first Historic Programs Manager of the National Trust, Arthurlyn Pedley, who began the work on the historic registry, explained it best when she said, “Every house has a story to tell”. The homes of significant shipbuilders, sea captains, contractors, missionaries, medical professionals, politicians, businessmen and artists together give a full view of the Caymanian story and experience. Pride in who we are is instilled by knowing how far we have come, learning from the journey travelled and sacrifices made to succeed. If those things are lost, we inevitably lose our unique qualities, pride in who we are and our identity as a county.  

Telling our story can come in many forms. Some buildings are significant enough to become small home museums; some can remain in government or religious use, as was intended when they were built. Others can become commercial space; some can become residential rental properties. Preserving the structure and using it maintains an authentic Caymanian ambiance for our children and our visitors. 

 

Should all old houses be saved? 

On your next visit overseas when you have to chance to visit historic sites important to other cultures, ask yourself what does Cayman have when visitors come knocking and what legacy are we leaving our children? 

When it comes to demolition, unfortunately at present no application or notification is required to demolish a historic home on private property. Many have disappeared early on a Saturday morning and will continue to do so until some basic legislation is written into law. With every demolition, one more story is lost and our Cayman ambiance is diminished.  

The Trust fully understands not every home can be saved for various reasons and some homes are more significant than others. However, we need to be informed to ensure we choose wisely which houses stay and which have to go. The information provided by the National Heritage Register will help us make these decisions in a more educated way. 

When demolition is carried out it should only be after all options have been considered and have failed. As a way of preserving our history for future generations, the National Trust can photo document, measure and salvage any material possible if adequate notification is given. This information will also be recorded in the National Heritage Register. 

If you think about it, Fort George and our slave walls may not be as old or as long as the Great Wall of China but it protected our ancestors. The graves at Watler Cemetery are not bejewelled like the Taj Mahal or as mysterious as the burial mound at Stonehenge but it was our way of paying respect to loved ones long gone. We may not have had the prestigious walls of Cambridge in which to hold school but our wattle and daub one room school houses offered quiet spaces to learn the three R’s, and we managed to become a leading financial center. No matter how rustic or unadorned our built heritage may have been, it still tells a story of an island whose people made do with very little and achieved much.  

While I often wish for more hours in the day, another set of hands and more funding for the Trust’s historic projects and sites… I’m still here five years later and ever more passionate about the Historic Programs and preserving our built heritage. It may not be as old as some dogs in this world, but worth saving nonetheless.  

 

For more information on how to assist the National Trust Historic Programs, please call Denise Bodden, Historic Programs Manager on 749-1123 or e-mail [email protected] 

CaymanianHouse

Old Caymanian homes can co-exist with newer models.
Photo: Submitted