One of the Cayman Islands’ most acclaimed architects, Burns Conolly, passed away peacefully on Wednesday afternoon, 1 Sept., surrounded by his family, following a long terminal illness. He was 62.
Conolly, who was the first architect in Cayman to be registered with the American Institute of Architects (AIA), set up his architectural firm, the Burns Conolly Group, in 1993. His company, over the years, has been involved in some of the biggest and most recognisable developments in Cayman, including Camana Bay, Health City Cayman Islands and Bayshore Mall.
Mark VanDevelde, CEO of Dart, which developed Camana Bay, said, “We were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our friend and former colleague Burns Conolly. Burns was an important part of the Camana Bay project team for a decade and was instrumental in bringing our vision to life. He has had an immeasurable impact in the architectural and design industry in Cayman, sharing his expertise in master planning, design and development not just with us, but with a future generation of architects in Cayman.
“His love and understanding for Cayman’s architectural history has greatly influenced the design of Camana Bay’s Town Centre, and we will always be grateful for his wisdom, advice and friendship. Our thoughts are with his daughter Lara and his family during this difficult time.”
Conolly held both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture and urban design, from the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively. He also studied hotel design and appraisal at Cornell University. As well as working in Cayman, he worked in Miami, the British Virgin Islands and Sint Maarten.
Among the many positions he held over the years was chairman of the Planning Law and Regulations Review Committee, and he was instrumental in drawing up proposals for a number of changes to planning laws, including the creation of Planned Area Developments for projects in excess of 40 acres with complex land planning and design.
‘Ambassador’ for Cayman
Christine Maltman, who moved to Cayman in 1994, first met Conolly when she worked at the government’s Planning Department back then.
“Burns was one of the most kind-hearted people I have ever met,” she said. “He would come into Planning to get his business done but would always leave us with some historical planning anecdotes. For example, I remember him telling me that his dad [Warren Conolly] was the first planning minister to help get planning laws in place. Burns planned to write a book on his dad’s legacy, and had started recording all his father’s records and manuscripts.”
She recalls how passionate her friend was about his home, describing him as a “wonderful ambassador for Cayman”.
“He was so positive about Cayman, and he loved sharing Cayman with people,” she said. “It was always so wonderful to speak to Burns because he always would have the historical background on how things were and why they were, and he shared it in a way that was so inviting.”
Maltman, after leaving the Planning Department, joined Dart and worked with Conolly on the Camana Bay project, at which, she said everyone deferred to him due to his superior knowledge of all things Cayman, as the intent was to echo Caymanian architecture in the design.
“I would sit in meeting with Burns, who was the local architect, along with other architects and engineers and consultants from overseas, and Burns would hold court,” she said. “All the other firms from overseas had the utmost respect for him. Burns was the one who put the Cayman flavour in Camana Bay.”
As well as being kept busy running his own business, Conolly also found time to serve as president of the Cayman Society of Architects, Surveyors and Engineers and as president of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce.
On Thursday, the Chamber shared the news of Conolly’s passing on its social media pages, describing its former president as “a tremendous visionary leader in the development industry”.
In its post, the Chamber said Conolly served as president from 2001-2002 “during some of the most challenging times when the world and the Cayman Islands were coping with the terrible tragedy of 9/11”.
Conolly was the son of Islay and the late Warren Conolly. His father was an attorney and politician, who served in elected office between 1944 and 1976. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1975 for his contributions to the islands’ development, and in 2012 was named a national hero in the Cayman Islands. His mother, a teacher and chief education officer, was named a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 1981 for her contributions to education on the islands, and was the first recipient of the Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Education.
At one point, Conolly sought, like his late father, to enter political office, and ran unsuccessfully in the 2009 general election as an independent candidate for George Town.
Phenicia Fraser was his personal assistant between 2008 and 2013 and, during his political campaign, provided administrative support. She said he’d been disappointed that he had not been able to make the kind of difference he’d hoped to make if he’d been elected.
He poured his heart into his architectural career, and took his work very seriously. However, his office was a place often filled with laughter, Fraser said.
“He was very laid back, but was serious at the same time. He was always story-telling. He’d have little anecdotes here and there about him growing up and about his time at Knox College in Jamaica,” she said.
She typed up many of the cassette tapes on which Conolly had recorded conversations with his father Warren, which detailed the early days of planning and development in Cayman. “There were about 20 tapes, I think we had about four more to transcribe,” she said.
“There was so much on there about the history of Cayman, that even me, as a born Caymanian, did not know,” she said, adding that she hopes one day the tape transcripts may be published.
Architect Alex Russell worked at the Burns Conolly Group from 2007 through 2012 after moving to Cayman from Bermuda.
“From a personal perspective,” he said, “Burns truly immersed me in Cayman culture and imparted his love and passion for the Cayman Islands in all things, in particular architecture and design.
“He was pragmatic and passionate about creating contextually appropriate design. His involvement in the early master planning and development of Camana Bay aligned perfectly with his focus on urban design and interest in creating spaces as much as creating buildings.”
Russell said Conolly’s ability to guide and educate others in the craft of Caymanian and regional Caribbean architecture was “fantastic”, and he recalled, “Burns loved to talk, to impart knowledge and to see the results, he was immensely proud (as any architect is) of completed projects and seeing the impact they had on people, Bayshore Mall held a special place in his heart.”
He described Conolly as a “standard bearer for both the Cayman Islands and Caymanian architecture”.
He also recalled his humour, humility and warmth, which he said would always remain with him. “As much as he loved to talk and recall the old days of Cayman, he also saw the opportunity for the betterment of the country and wanted to be part of that effort,” he said.
He is survived by his mother Islay, daughter Lara and siblings David Ritch and Jacqueline Conolly.
Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time, the Conolly family said.
Readers are invited to include any tributes to Burns Conolly they wish to add in the comments section below.