Heritage House- Sekondi (Garage) (Copyright ©2008)

Island Where, January 2008

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After a few months of meticulous renovation, The Garage Bar and Grill on the ground floor of ‘Sekondi House’ opens its doors to the public. An architectural jewel situated on Hanover Street in Roseau, the newly refurbished two storey building is an excellent example of preservation through reuse and adaptation, and comes at a time when Dominica’s architectural history is in dire need of preservation.

If you take a jaunt through Roseau, you may notice while it is not particularly sophisticated or stately, like most Caribbean capitals it is teeming with architectural history. The town is pleasantly interspersed with a mélange of European and African architecture reflecting a true Creole style, indigenous to the region.

One of the greatest challenges facing owners of historic architecture today is restoring the structure without compromising architectural integrity. As a result, ten years ago, the Society for Heritage Architectural Preservation and Enhancement (S.H.A.P.E) was established in Dominica in order to promote public awareness to protect the island’s unique architectural heritage. A necessary task that is gradually gaining appreciation on the island.

At first glance, I liken The Garage Bar and Grill to a modest version of the Hard Rock Café in Nottingham, England, as it too is a trendy bar occupying one of the most prominent historical buildings in the city.

Researching the back-story of Sekondi House took me on a virtual journey from Dominica, to Africa, to the United Kingdom, and then back to Dominica. I found out the building which includes a basement, dates back to the early 1900s, when a Dominican lawyer Dr George James Christian returned from his expedition in Ghana and built the structure from funds amassed during his time away. He named the building Sekondi House, after the coastal town of Sekondi of the Western Region of South West Ghana where he lived and managed a private practice. Likewise he built a house in Ghana called ‘Dominica House’.

The sturdy basement and ground-floor of Sekondi House was constructed using stone ballast (mostly limestone) brought over on cargo ships in those days, while the top floor was built using timber.

In recent years, the building has served as a multi-purpose building for the Armour family, where the basement was used for storage, the ground floor as a solicitor’s office, and the upper floor as a residence.

Although the Garage Bar and Grill has a contemporary look, the refurbishment has had very little impact on the framework of the building itself. Thick aged stone walls with large oversized window and door frames remain a valuable feature giving both the interior and exterior a dated look.

For Len Royer, a third generation offspring of the Armour family it was very important to modernize the building while maintaining its essential character. Len explains that “…maintaining the structure of the building came very naturally, as I have great appreciation for traditional buildings.”

The act of preserving historical buildings is itself an act of sustainable design, and so, the owners have demonstrated an essence of greenness in sourcing sustainable materials to uplift the interior.

The décor is sensitively enhanced with the use of bamboo, copper and mahogany wood for the bar and furniture, while recycled car tires serve as bases for bar stools. Outside, the original steps extend to a wooden deck onto the verandah overlooking Hanover Street.

Henry Shillingford, an environmental and heritage activist says the bar serves well as a prime tourist attraction. “It’s current, it’s hip and it’s new. This is exactly what we are talking about, adding value by not adding. It has worked in places like Tuscany and Venice and it’s an extremely good addition as it’s done authentically. They should be recognized for such an accomplishment.”

Through the years, many historic buildings in Roseau have been altered without maintaining essential characteristics, resulting in a loss of precious architectural history. With minimum alteration to its existing fabric, Sekondi House provides a new benchmark for traditional property owners who are considering restoration work on their own buildings. Here we have a creative balance of modern design and historic preservation.

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