For several decades people who love the town of Christiansted and who have a history here as natives, residents, property owners, historians, community planners, shopkeepers and others with vested interest have been exchanging ideas about how to restore its unique character, while enabling it to answer some of the pressing questions of the present, and positioning it to be a foundation of a sustainable Virgin Islands future.
There have been town plan charettes, architectural renderings and symposiums, historical research, collaborations between government and non-profit agencies and legislation. This activity led to participation of VIAC’s founding members in the Transfer Centennial’s In Search of Identity Project and ultimately the formation of the non-profit Virgin Islands Architecture Center for Built Heritage and Crafts, Inc. (VIAC).
What is VIAC? We are a non-profit organization that wants to create a school that will train the young people of the territory with the skills needed to renovate and rehabilitate the buildings in the historic towns on all three Virgin Islands. We believe that the establishment of an architectural school in the town of Christiansted at the Old Barracks property can create the demand for housing, small businesses, and other economic activity within the town. We believe that a school that also has coursework in the history of the town, in small business development and entrepreneurship, and in environmental and community sustainability can be a catalyst for the revitalization of not only Christiansted, but other Virgin Islands, Caribbean and historic towns. We believe that the creation of the school can be an engagement project that involves all sectors of our community.
St. Croix architect Gerville Larsen whose concepts for the school won the town planning charettes sponsored by the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority posed the following questions at a December 2017 workshop of community stakeholders.
Question: What are the current problems concerning built heritage?
Answer: Lack of resources and means; lack of skilled craftsmen, damages caused by hurricanes.
Question: Would you support the concept of a school of architecture and crafts?
Answer: Yes.Important for government, non-profit community, the private sector and the people to support the project.
Question: Would you endorse or support the school?
Answer: Yes.With basic funding and proper marketing support.
Question: Is this the right time to set up such an institution?
Answer: Yes.There is a heavy demand for skilled craftsmen and more knowledge and education on the history of the town, its architecture, and its craftsmen. The need is now before the centuries old structures are destroyed.
With VIAC, we have begun the journey of answering these questions and the larger overarching question of whether cultural heritage can be an economic driver in the Virgin Islands providing a pathway to training, jobs, small business ownership, preservation and sustainability.
Larsen often speaks of the architecture in Christiansted as “Afro-Danish fusion,” an acknowledgement while the Danes invested codes, capital, aesthetics and design to the town, it was the skills of enslaved Africans and their descendants that were crucial to the building and history of the two-and-three-quarter-century-old town. Larsen echoes the scholarship of historian George Tyson who in his 2011 paper on the history of Christiansted for the Society of Virgin Islands Historians wrote that:
“The exceptional historic buildings that comprise the Christiansted Historic District, as well as the many neglected and rapidly deteriorating vernacular buildings that once graced the remainder of the town and sustained family and community life, constitute a significant legacy of these skilled workers to present and future generations. All of these buildings stand as monuments to the outstanding Afro-Crucian craft tradition that materialized through their production. Their craft tradition allowed enslaved and free African/Crucians to express their creativity and fashion their own aesthetic.”
The In Search of Identity Project and VIAC envisions a 21st century collaboration between Virgin Islands, Danish, West African, Caribbean and American partners. It imagines a collaboration that will bring history, education, and economic development together to benefit community and be the catalyst in the evolution of a town. To learn more about VIAC, its history, vision, and progress, visit our website at www.viacstx.com.