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St. Croix Survivor

Project: Revitalization of Sunday Market Square, Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands

Architects: William Anglin Taylor, AIA, Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands

Contractor: C/R Contractors, Christiansted, U.S. Virgin Islands; Tip Top Construction, Christiansted U.S. Virgin Islands

By Nicole V. Gagné

Originally from New York City, William Anglin Taylor, AIA, has resided in St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, for nearly 30 years, and describes himself as "kind of a native now." However, few natives have worked as determinedly as Taylor to preserve St. Croix's architectural heritage. "I got involved in preservation somewhat through academic experience, but also I was inspired by the Danish colonial towns here," says Taylor. "We have an almost unmatched collection of 18th- and 19th-century structures. Doing restorations and additions and new constructions that followed traditional elements became a focus for me. Also, in a small venue like this, you can't really specialize. It's especially interesting to do planning projects and consultations and to write historical assessments." That particular interest enabled Taylor to address the massive challenge of rescuing Sunday Market Square.

Arguably the most important of the three major public spaces in the town of Christiansted, the square dates from 1735, making it one of the oldest planned public spaces in the territorial United States. Designed by the Danish government – which controlled the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John until they were purchased by the U.S. in 1917 – Sunday Market Square served as what Taylor calls "the chat room of the 18th century."

"On Sundays," he says, "the market would bring farmers and small tradesmen and other non-propertied people into town, along with the enslaved laborers. The owners would exchange goods and produce and products, and the laborers would exchange news of dislocated families and friends – news that wasn't legally transmitted from plantation to plantation, except through a device like the Sunday Market Square. The three open spaces in Christiansted also gave themselves over to festivals, performances, parades and funerals. Obviously, they connected the main streets, but they were also animated on a regular basis by the whole community." Taylor has a special respect for the double row of mahogany trees, originally planted by the Danish, which defined both the design and function of the square. "The trees grew to 60 ft. and touched crowns in both directions, which made it a viable space for gathering during the day," he says. "It was populated by lots of people, and the trees provided total shade all the way across the square. The Danish government had given it a distinct geometric shape, in the placement of the buildings, to make a sort of 'living' room that could function during the week as part of a transit system, and then on Sundays become this pavilion, if you will.

"There was still a vehicular path down its axis, but when it was being used as a public space, there wasn't any cart or wagon traffic. The planting of the trees was in lieu of a physical pavilion like a market building – which another of the squares in town has, but which was precluded here by the shared traffic use. It was a terrific solution, so well considered that, after hurricanes, the Danish government would replant small mahoganies to replace the ones that had been blown down. This was a continuous architectural feature since the beginning of the town's founding, and it anchored the western loop of circulation through town. The eastern loop was closer to government buildings and other more important structures, as well as the shore, and it was maintained over time; but this western end was outside the jurisdiction of the local architectural-control district and fell into disrepair."

The deterioration of Sunday Market Square began with the felling of its trees. "The local power company decided that the trees interfered with their poles and lines – even though the trees preceded the power poles by some 200 years – so they cut them down." Taylor laments. "Some of the stumps were covered by asphalt, but others were still there, pathetically announcing their former life. The complete takeover of the square by vehicular users resulted in the downgrading of the space and it became unsafe at night. Crime moved in, people moved out, stores stopped functioning – the typical litany of urban degradation."

A non-profit community organization, the St. Croix Foun-dation, played the decisive role in rescuing Sunday Market Square. "The foundation acquired several buildings on one side of the square, intending to fix them up serially, in hopes of a general revitalization," Taylor explains. "I'm a charter member of the foundation, and I was concerned that the square's central feature, its public use, had been lost. We convinced the powers that be not to maintain a wholly vehicular orientation to this public space, but instead to change the balance back to what it had been: occasionally vehicles and occasionally pedestrian use. The new design became a deliberate attempt to integrate these two important functions."

In the late 1990s, Taylor began preparing a master plan for the restoration of Sunday Market Square. "We presented it to the local authorities and they were receptive – as all of the government agencies have been toward this project. The local government is really the client for this project, with the St. Croix Foundation as the sponsor. There's been unanimity about the value of regenerating this section of town. It made sense to everyone right away that there needed to be a re-balancing of the use of this space – and to bring back people."

The return of the mahogany trees was essential if the square was to accommodate people once again. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture manages the federal forest reserve here and allowed us to use mature trees of the same species," explains Taylor. "They were in a secured, hard-to-reach area in the center of St. Croix, but we were permitted to go in and tag and loop all these trees in advance of transplantation. We picked the biggest ones we felt we could take: about 25 ft. high and 7 in. or so in diameter. We also did a lot of research concerning root infiltration and the penetration of utilities in our proposal, and when we applied for a transplant grant, we got funded."

Tip Top Construction tackled the square's landscaping; key partners in financing the project include the Virgin Islands Government, through a $247,600 Community Development Block Grant, and the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, which provided $215,000 in the form of low-interest loans and grants, as well as the Public Finance Authority and the Public Works Department.

Trees weren't the only historical materials to re-emerge at Sunday Market Square. "The Federal Highway Administration was also willing to recreate some of the original textures that would be conducive to pedestrian use, such as cobblestones and bricks and granite curbs," Taylor notes. "We had inklings from archival materials that there had been transverse cobbled gutters running from west to east to drain this area – also, we thought that having raised cobbled strips would slow down the traffic. So we mimicked these phantom cobbled gutters in the spacing of the raised cobbled strips between the brick panels, and when we did the archeology, of course we found them. We salvaged all the large cobbles and used them in part of the drainage system; we had to protect the original Danish brick culvert, and for its apron we used these large cobblestones. We also put all the utilities lines – fiber-optics, telephone, cable – underground, burying them in large manholes that appear as cast caps at the top, flush with the bricks. The transformers went underground too, with nearly invisible brick access covers to provide entrance."

One special feature of Sunday Market Square's history had become the stuff of legend: a wooden wellhead that evoked the darker side of pre-emancipation St. Croix. "We knew that the well had existed in this area, but we didn't know where," says Taylor. "It had long been bulldozed off. In doing the archeological work, we found it not too far from where we thought it was. After we'd sliced off the asphalt, we took the cap off and were amazed to discover that, although it didn't have a raised drum, it was still completely intact and full of very clean water. We also found the brick apron, fairly intact, so we had bricks to repair it in place, and then we rebuilt the drum-shaped wellhead itself, and put a new cap on it. It's mainly decorative now; we don't want people trying to use it, because the water table changes with more population and gets less clean. The well is a symbolic focus of the square – some slave sales actually took place on the wellhead itself. In re-establishing it, the well becomes something of an altar, if you will. It's very much valued for its historic association."

The re-emergence of the square also entailed the restoration of its buildings, some of which had suffered severe weather damage. 22 King Street, at the northwest corner of Sunday Market Square, was in the most desperate need after Hurricane Hugo. "The entire top floor had been destroyed," says Taylor. "I worked with C/R Contractors to restore it as part of the first activity here. We brought it up to code and made sure it had the proper number of exits.

"Although it still looks like an authentic wooden building, it's now really masonry: a fireproof, storm-proofed masonry building covered in wood – with functioning shutters, which people close as soon as they get the storm warnings. It houses a cafe and a law office and two residential units above. Other associated architects are restoring various buildings in the square. Gerville Larsen is busy with the Creagh Building, an 18th-century structure that is going to be used as a training center. Hortensia Lanio is restoring 35 King Street, the building at the end of the square, which is intended to house the offices of the St. Croix Foundation."

A theater building that borders Company Street has also commanded much of Taylor's attention. "The theater is really an important element, introduced in the 1950s," he says. "They took this almost unmanageable bulk of the theater auditorium, and in placing it behind an 18th-century structure, made it disappear; they brought just the historically scaled lobby out to the street. The facade of the theater lobby uses architectural elements of the area, which are in the building next door, and it blends seamlessly into the streetscape.

"I don't know who the architect for it was, but it couldn't have been done better. Old movie theaters make ideal performing-arts centers, and although this one wasn't opulent, it does have a very large auditorium that's very sound and seats about 500 people. I'm working on the designs for its use as a venue for dance, music, film and drama. We're in the process of replacing the theater roof for up-to-date structural codes and also to handle theater loads, which involve much more loading than a movie-house ceiling. That's well along at this point. We should have the theater's roof replaced by October."

"The planning for the square has taken a number of years," Taylor adds, "but it's been finished for about a year; it took about a year to construct. The Sunday Market has already hosted block parties, street festivals and children's events, and, full of people, it feels just right." TB

 

 

 
 

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