Re-Imagining Colonial Properties in St. Croix

In All, Ideas, Theories, & Stories, Latin America & Caribbean, Planning & Design, teju, Urban Inspiration by Teju Adisa-Farrar

Project Lead: La Vaughn Belle
La Vaughn Belle is a visual artist from Trinidad & Tobago who now lives and works in St. Croix. With her artistic background as the foundation, she has renovated and revitalized a building in Christiansted, which has now become The House That Freedom Built. The documentary, of the same name, follows her as she renovates this property. The documentary also relates some of the rich history of St. Croix and how the architecture came to be.
Usually when we hear about cultural preservation and revitalization we think of large scale projects that are usually initiated by outside development companies or corporations. This type of project is local and conceived by someone who has been and continues to be apart of the community.
I asked Belle some questions about the intersections of her art, this project (and documentary), and the larger implications for revitalization in the Caribbean.
In your work, what is the connection between being an artist and revitalization?
Art in its essence comes from something that already existed in a material form, what you do is “revitalize” it, give it new form, new life. In the traditional sense this would be re-imagining paper, pencil, paint, clay, wood, but in the context of these buildings it of course takes on new meaning, but is the same process. It begins with vision and re-imagining existing forms.
Did you look at this project as an extension of your work before you took it on, or did it become more of an art project as you began the redevelopment process?
Absolutely not. I was in the beginning simply looking for an inexpensive but permanent space to house an artist studio. It was only after learning the story behind the building that I became inspired to do a project about it. It’s the narrative that was there that made me want to transform it into an art project.
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Why was this project important to you and why is it important to the larger architectural landscape of St. Croix?
This project is important to me because it’s integral to who we are as Caribbean people. Architecture shapes how we live in the world. These buildings are handcrafted from imported wood from the U.S., coral cut from the ocean by the enslaved Africans make up the foundations, the bricks were imported from Denmark; it is to say that the very materials of the building and how it was made tells us the story of who we are. The smaller buildings, the wooden structures tell the story of the labor class which were mostly people of African descent. The scale of these buildings, the beautiful handcrafted wooden details are precious. They are a part of our cultural patrimony. They have became especially important to me because of the stories behind them and because both the buildings and the histories are “endangered,” in the sense that they are abandoned from our collective memory, literally and figuratively.
 
How does your documentary “The House That FREEDOM Built” connect to this project and specifically historic preservation in St. Croix?
What started off as a real estate investment turned into a passionate art project and converted me into a big and very vocal advocate for the preservation of these buildings. I believe that if this happened to me because I learned of the history of the previous owners of my building and began to understand the larger context, that this could happen to other people if they too only knew the stories. So the purpose of the documentary is about making these stories accessible, making the renovation accessible and redefining what historic preservation can mean. For many people there is a push back with historic preservation. They think: why they telling me what color to paint my building? They think: I don’t have the money to do all of what they want me to do! They don’t see how the guidelines help to cherish our town structures, they don’t see how we have inherited this amazing architectural legacy. So I am hoping to inspire people to see that.
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Do you believe individual projects like this one are an effective way to address revitalization and historic preservation?
I suppose I do otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. I think that art has a certain agency that is unique and can be transformative for a society. However I think this is only one part of a larger multifaceted task. We need effective preservative laws, we need resources as in money and education. I believe that a lot of the agencies connected to the towns could do a better job with outreach to the owners of the buildings and the larger community, and I hope that my documentary and the blog can be used as a tool for that. I mention the blog because the documentary has it’s own constraints, but I plan for the blog to be converted into a larger platform to continue to promote these issues.
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To see more of the process involved with this renovation, please visit her blog. To learn more about her art and other projects, you can visit here.