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Undercurrents: Do Jumbies Haunt Historic Fort Christian?

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Maybe we never should have moved those unidentified remains.

If it seems like a curse is hovering over Fort Christian, and no one could feel it more deeply than the government officials and private citizens involved in restoration attempts over the last 30 years or so. All well-intentioned, all incomplete.

The latest set-back involves a memorandum of understanding that somehow turned into a “memorandum of misunderstanding.” Members on both sides of the agreement – the St. Thomas Historical Trust and the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources – are stressing their mutual respect and good intentions to continue to cooperate and work together for the common goal.

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But officials say the MOU that was signed last fall does not do what the general public thought it did. It did not give the trust any authority for the fort and its restoration.

And despite some language that says the trust can conduct tours at the fort while repairs are made, despite its having conducted a well-publicized school tour in January 2014 and announced intentions to open Fort Christian to all fourth-graders on the island, one school at a time, before the end of the school term which closed in June, there have been no more tours and there won’t be any for awhile.

Citing liability issues, the government has shut down all tours until construction is complete.

And that time will be …

Hopefully, by next summer.

If the one-year timetable sounds familiar, that’s because it is. When the Notice to Proceed on the “conservation and stabilization” of the 400-year-old landmark was issued in 2005, the estimated completion time was one year.

That was before an archeological delay caused by the discovery of the skeletal remains of a man – intact except for the missing skull – in a grave in a portion of the fort that was once used as a church, and of another grave containing bone fragments.

That was before the discovery of lead and asbestos, requiring extra abatement measures necessary to ensure safe removal.

That was before funding delays.

That was before a contract dispute that turned into a suit and countersuit (now settled) between Tip Top Construction and the V.I. government.

That was a couple million dollars ago.

Sean Krigger, historic preservation architect and acting director of DPNR’s State Historic Preservation Office, said last week that the government is close to hiring a new contractor to finally finish the job and it’s conceivable that Fort Christian could reopen in the summer of 2015. Krigger said he felt better about that prediction when he thought work would start in July, but he’s hopeful it can still happen.

Tip Top actually did a lot of the work, he said, and “all the surprises have pretty much been vetted…” The initial phase involved a good bit of teardown, so “it’s mostly putting things back at this time.”

A contractor has been selected, but Krigger would not say who it is or at what price, since the agreement is not complete. The Department of Property and Procurement is still mulling over the actual contract, he said.

Krigger did give a detailed account of the work that is to be done:

– Completion of the roof reconstruction on the eastern side of the fort, including water-proofing;
– Replacing historic style brick pavers on the roof that were removed in the 1930s and 1940s when a concrete roof was put up;
– Completion of lime plaster covering on the walls – some of this work was done but is already deteriorating and must be repaired; some sections were not yet begun;
– Application of silicate, a specialized, mineral-based paint used for lime mortar buildings;
– Reinstalling wood floors in the sections that once housed the governor’s residence and the church, using pitch pine or another wood used in the historic period;
– Re-interring the remains found in the church section. They have been at the State Preservation Office since they were removed from the site several years ago. Slate tiling will cover the section of the floor over the remains and the rest of the area will be wood; there may be a plaque posted to indicate their presence (as was done at Government House on St. Croix for remains found at that site.)
– Upgrade the restrooms;
– Complete electrical work that will provide for the removal of all above-ground lines and make a “significant improvement” in the aesthetics and historical appearance of the site. Tip Top did all the necessary trenching and installed conduits, so this part of the job is relatively simple and includes things like installing outlets and panels;
– Putting in what Krigger called “improvements for functionality for public visitors” and “security upgrades”;
– and repainting the outside walls

“The fort is going to be red,” Krigger said. “Historically it has been white longer than it has been red,” he said, acknowledging the debate over the proper color. But in the “collective memory” of long-time residents alive today, it has been a red building.

The color is just one of many changes made over the centuries since the fort was erected in the late 1600s. A major make-over in 1874 resulted in the installation of the clock tower and widening the window openings on the side facing the Legislature building; originally they had been slits just large enough to accommodate a gun, as the fort was the primary defense site for the island.

Even its placement has changed, as subsequent generations created landfill that pushed it back slightly from the harbor it was built to defend.

It’s unclear exactly how much money has been spent so far on the project or how much more it is expected to cost. Krigger referred questions on funding to Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls. Reached Friday before the holiday weekend, Smalls said he was out of the office and couldn’t verify amounts.

The settlement with Tip Top cost about $570,000, Smalls said, but that was in addition to monies the company had already been paid. When the project was formally launched in 2008, two funding sources were cited: a $1.2 million Federal Highway Administration grant and $2 million in bonds floated by the V.I. Public Finance Authority. In November 2012, the Legislature approved a $93 million PFA bond issue that included $2 million for the fort.

Whatever the current funding, Krigger said it isn’t enough for the third phase of the project – work on the grounds around and leading to the fort. It will include landscaping and changing what is now an asphalt drive to one that mimics what was originally there, perhaps stone and dirt. There will also be site lighting, signage and access control.

According to a timeline presented at the 2008 ceremony closing the fort for the current renovations, it was the first seat of government in the Danish West Indies and housed the colony’s first Lutheran Church as – well as a residence for early governors. Over the years, it’s been used as a prison, a courthouse, a police station and a museum.

What it hasn’t been, except intermittingly and in a limited way, is a tourist attraction. Proponents say the landmark is not only a concrete lesson in history for island residents, it could be the centerpiece of the territory’s offerings for historical tourism.

“It’s a jewel sitting right there,” said Ronald Lockhart, president of the Historical Trust. “It’s very disappointing it’s taking so long” for the renovations. Tourists do come by to see it and are turned away. “It’s sad,” he said.

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