April 9, 2004 – The beginnings of a Back Street renaissance are in the making. Bakery Square, named for the landmark Lockhart's Bakery which thrived for decades until the early '70s, is being restored and, according to the plans of its new owners, revitalized.
The complex, which borders on Back Street and Nye Gade, has fallen on hard times, aesthetically and economically in the last couple of decades.
In the old days, people were lured to the historic structures by the smell of fresh-baked bread. Nobody seems to know for sure how long Lockhart's was there. "I remember the bakery from the time I was a child," preservationist Edith Woods said on Friday. "I always remember their hot French bread."
Woods' husband, John, recalled taking a drafting class in the top floor of the old stone bakery building as part of his high school studies. A 1942 graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School, he was a student when it was located in what today is the Legislature Building.
Plans call for returning some of that vitality and more to the aging structure come late summer, according to Steven D. Morton, chief operations officer of Topa Properties Ltd. Topa purchased the Bakery Square properties last December from the Pedersen family.
"We want everyone to come back downtown," Morton said on Friday. "It's a risk, but we hope to see Back Street revitalized. We want the square to be a showcase. It's really a neat area; it's critical to breathe new life into the historic district."
Morton said the idea has met with enthusiasm from virtually every area of the community. "When people hear what we are doing, they want to share their memories," he said.
The memories are legion. "I remember that bakery, the really great bread," said Carol Sirhakis, whose Down Island Traders occupied a corner of the complex for "somewhere between 10 and 15 years."
"I loved being there," Sirhakis said on Friday. "There were great neighbors. Mavis de Jongh, Robert de Jongh's mother, had the flower shop next to us — she was one of the original owners. Then there was Sinbad's Restaurant, later the Lemongrass Cafe; the Jonna White Gallery, a frame shop, and I can't remember what else. Lots of places."
In the last 20 to 30 years, crime in downtown Charlotte Amalie has forced many businesses to close, abandoning once colorful and beautifully maintained buildings.
Morton is eager to change all that. "Once the excitement and energy are here, more people will want to come downtown to work and to visit," he said. But the major deterrent to coming into town has grown worse every year, he added: the traffic.
"It's the main drawback," Morton said, but he has an idea of what to do about it. "If the government or a private entity used some of that land to the west and built a parking lot there, maybe down as far as the Windward Passage, it would help a lot. There is vacant land there. Something has to be done."
Morton praised the "bold" Long Bay redevelopment project getting under way. "Yacht Haven will help bring people back to town, too," he said. "I don't think it will be a deterrent; people will be encouraged to come visit the downtown historic area."
Topa has been working closely with the Historic Preservation Commission on every step of the Bakery Square reconstruction, Morton said. Tracy Roberts of Springline Architects is the architect for the project.
The second story of an area of the buildings has been removed because it was not part of the original structure. "We are duplicating the old hardware, restoring the same final design elements that were here before," Morton said. "We are reconstructing it as it was originally — the rafters, all the details."
The complex has four separate buildings which could accommodate "one to 10 different business," he said. While none of the space has been leased, interest is building. "We've been approached by restaurants, retailers, offices. I think the new Economic Development Commission businesses will be interested, too," he said.
"One main thing we will do is open up the courtyard. Put in royal palms. The old dutch oven is still there, and we will renovate that." He said the structures sort of sprawl all over the area, and the buildings are not all contiguous.
"Another goal we have is to inspire neighbors to fix up their property," Morton said. This is a goal shared by historic preservationist Felipe Ayala, who orchestrated much of the renovation of the other end of Back Street last fall.
Ayala is a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust and a consultant for the Anti-litter and Beautification Commission, which brought a breath of fresh air, energy and purpose to Back Street area with its "Paint, Scrape and Rejuvenate" project. The commission partnered with the owners of several historic buildings to restore them to their former splendor and dignity. (See "Back Street: the old becomes new".)
Property owners Brandt Steele and Josie Kean pitched in and got their buildings painted. "It just shows it's possible," Ayala said, adding that he is excited about the Bakery Square project. "It's a wonderful thing," he said. "It ties together the work that Anti-Litter has put into Back Street."
Morton was raised in New England and has lived on St. Thomas since 1985, with some breaks back in the States. "I've always been surrounded by historic architecture, and I absolutely love St. Thomas's architecture," he said.
"I always loved this area," he said of Bakery Square, "and when I found it was for sale, I approached my boss, John Anderson, and he said 'Go for it.' We have a shared passion for old buildings."
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