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School Daze

Project: The Danish School, Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Architect: William Anglin Taylor, AIA, Christiansted, VI

By Martha McDonald

A 1799 classically styled building in the town of Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, has a long and varied history. It was built by the chief Danish civil authority Byfoged Eylitz as a residence and offices and was purchased in 1835 by the King of Denmark, then the ruler of the islands. A few years later, in the 1840s, it became part of the von Scholten (named after the governor general who promoted the schools) system, and part of a very progressive idea – free and compulsory education for enslaved children in the New World colonies to prepare the people of the Danish West Indies for emancipation, which occurred in 1848.

The Danish king and von Scholten realized that education was an important feature in any society. They were mindful of the unintended consequences of the hastily declared emancipation in the unprepared British Virgin Islands in 1833, and did not want to repeat their experience in the Danish West Indies.

In addition to buildings that were converted into schools, such as the Frederiksted building and another in the town of Christiansted, eight new schools were built in the Neoclassical style. In response to the 1839 Country School Ordinance of 1839, they provided "free and compulsory education in the Danish Virgin Islands for the unfree as well as the free." They were designed to reflect "the highest principals of architecture," and to be "aspirational as well as educational." All designs were personally approved by the king.

The renovation of the Frederiksted and Christiansted buildings into schools, both prominent structures, was done by the same Danish architect who had designed the new Neoclassical schools – Albert Løvmand, who trained at the Classically infused Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.

Dedicated in the early 1840s, the Danish School in Frederiksted continued to operate until the 1960s. "The Neoclassical design of the building was of the highest order," says William A. Taylor, AIA, the architect responsible for the restoration. "It was brutally renovated in the 1970s into offices without regard for its architectural significance." Then Hurricane Hugo nearly destroyed the building in 1989 and for 15 years it sat empty. Trees took root in the mineral-rich masonry and squatters took over. On several occasions the building had been considered beyond saving. Through the efforts of the St. Croix Landmark Society, and especially Bob Merwin, it was saved, and Bill Taylor was brought in to restore it in 2006.

The project involved restoring and stabilizing a 45x100-ft. two-story ruin back to its Neoclassical design to be used as offices for the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands and his staff. The first floor now includes a reception room, along with other offices. A separate outbuilding, a kitchen, was also restored and a new second floor was added to it to accommodate a public meeting room.

"What we had to do was to establish the condition of the building. The Danes kept a lot of records so it was easy to find information," says Taylor. "We measured the building, which had been untouched since 1989, in its ruined state. We researched archival material to restore the compromised exterior elements: the stairs, porch details. The exterior molding details had to be discovered under concrete over-plastering and the roof pitch was established through truss members cut angles. Trees had taken hold in the walls, feeding on the mineral-rich masonry." He adds: "They had to be carefully removed to not do any more damage to the building. This took months."

The original walls were made of Danish ballast brick and rubble stone and cut coral stone, and then plastered with lime plaster. They were rebuilt using original materials, including lime plaster. "We found a source for the lime plaster and rebuilt the walls using lime cement and water-based epoxies," Taylor notes. The new material is St. Astir pigment and paint supplied by Jean Renoux Designs, Sarasota, FL.

One of the biggest challenges was reintroducing structural strength to the second floor. A slab of unknown strength had been poured over the original wood floor in the 1970s. It was decided to keep this structural membrane in place to stabilize the walls but with a new steel structure added underneath. "We reinstated the masonry masses on the north and south ends of the porches that had been shamefully removed in the 1970s," says Taylor.

"We put in very high-strength concrete flush pilasters that tied discretely into the concrete bond beam around the top of the wall. Other important elements are the flat concrete roofs on top of the reconstructed masonry porch elements that act as horizontal shear membranes for hurricane resistance. They are tied into the pilasters and bond beam to create a sound, discrete, frame around and within the ancient stone walls."

The rich yellow ochre color for the walls was typical of the Danish period, Taylor says. "It’s not the faded tropical palette seen in tourist ads." It was re-created from French ochre mineral pigments dry mixed into a lime under-plaster and a final lime wash. Moldings were finished with a white lime wash.

The roof structure is a heavy timber truss system with modern steel plate connectors. "The West Indian roofers were trained as apprentices in the geometrics and fabrication of this complex joinery. Ditto for the lime masonry," says Taylor. Another feature that was re-created was the imported cast-iron work that was prevalent in the 19th-century West Indies. New cast-iron columns were fabricated by Robinson Iron, of Alexander City, AL, and Steptoe & Wife of Toronto, Canada, created the new cast-iron stairs and fascia.

Because almost none of the original interior details remained, they were re-created from research and period pattern books. Local joiners assembled the elaborate cornices and moldings on site from parts supplied by Dimension Lumber of Brooklyn, NY, Enkeboll Designs of Carson, CA, and local sources. Mahogany (supplied by Medley Hardwoods of Medley, FL) was used for all molding and trim, wall and ceiling boards, floor boards, custom window louvers, sash and casements and doors. The panel doors and shutters were locally made by Plantation View of St. Croix, VI, and were, along with the wood floors, hand finished by the West Indian craftsmen, who uniformly worked to the highest standards.

The original floors upstairs were wood, so Taylor followed that style and put down mahogany floors in the public rooms. In other places, typical marble floors in a checkerboard pattern were used. A local firm, Italia Marble, supplied the flooring, which was honed in place.

The breezy upstairs had been the school portion of the building, but Taylor was charged with restoring it to what it might have been. "It would have included a salon, some receiving rooms and perhaps an apartment, all elaborately detailed," he says. No original partitions existed, so the first floor was partitioned to suit the needs of the 21st century. The governor and his staff will use both floors.

The 1970s windows were replaced with new appropriately proportioned window frames made to receive shutters. All of the windows are custom made in mahogany and have shutters inside and outside – for protection against hurricanes. The exterior shutters were locally made, as were the frames, (by Plantation View). Weston Millworks of Weston, MO, built the custom windows. Door and window hardware came from Crown City Hardware of Pasadena, CA, and D.C. Mitchell of Wilmington, DE, supplied the shutter hardware. The Shutter Depot of Greenville, GA, supplied the interior louver shutters.

Historic precedent also dictated the style of the interior lighting fixtures (supplied by Brass Light Gallery of Milwaukee, WI, and chandeliers by Schonbek Lighting). The cast-iron ceiling grilles were supplied by Reggio Register.

One of the requirements was that the building be air conditioned, so a small-duct high-speed Unico (St. Louis, MO) system was installed. "This system is effective in reducing the moisture content within previously un-air-conditioned historic structures," says Taylor.

Another requirement was ADA compliance. "We were able to accommodate this by subtly shifting the gallery elevation," explains Taylor. Gentle, stone-edged brick ramps were incorporated into the entry porch to bring visitors to the main floor level where there is an elevator to the second floor. Also added were contemporary communications, fire and security systems. In the ’70s an outbuilding, the kitchen, had been converted into a one-story concrete building. "We used the original 18th-century walls and added a meeting room above that, making it into a two-story building," says Taylor. "This created another arcade to mirror the arcade of the main building."

Landscaping was also an important part of the project. A Tamarind tree was kept at the center of the courtyard and fence components came from King Architectural Metals. Brick pavers were supplied by Brick America of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and Garza Brick of Laredo, TX. The cut stone pavers were recycled from the site. The custom granite planters were from North Carolina Granite of Mt. Airy, NC.

Work started in 2006 and was completed in 2008 and the $3.9 million project came in on budget. The restored Neoclassical building, now known as The Danish School, is once again serving the community as a prominent government structure providing a celebration site, offices and a public meeting venue.

"The lesson here," says Taylor, "is that no treasured structure is beyond restoration if the community values it enough. We took an 18th-century ruin and brought it into the 21st century in ways derived from the historic fabric itself." TB

 

 

 
 

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