Islands Lure with History: With an Eye to Heritage Tourism and Long-Term Economic Development, Bahamians Are Preserving Unique Vintage Properties

By Murphy-Larronde, Suzanne | Americas (English Edition), November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Islands Lure with History: With an Eye to Heritage Tourism and Long-Term Economic Development, Bahamians Are Preserving Unique Vintage Properties


Murphy-Larronde, Suzanne, Americas (English Edition)


Perched on a bluff above the bustling capital city of Nassau, on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, historic Graycliff and its lush surrounding gardens were constructed by an early eighteenth-century privateer grown prosperous, like many islanders of his time, from the plundering of French and Spanish treasure ships. Enlarged and embellished over the years, the Georgian colonial mansion of wood and cut limestone was by turns a boarding house, an officers' mess for the West India Regiment, an upscale inn catering to the likes of Winston Churchill, and the private residence of British royals. In 1973, the property was given yet another new lease on life with its purchase by Enrico Garzaroli. The Italian-born entrepreneur upgraded accommodations, filled them with fine furnishings, and added a spa white carefully orchestrating the hotel's transformation into one of Nassau's most sophisticated attractions, renown for its unique blending of European savoir faire and Bahamian hospitality.

Steps from Graycliff's corner location on bougainvillaea-draped West Hill Street, a two-block stretch once revered as "the most beautiful in the Caribbean," stand Postern Gate and Montbatten House. Both vintage properties have taken on new roles as well, one as the Graycliff Cigar Company and Humidor Restaurant and the other, with its arresting louvered facade and hidden tropical gardens, as a popular venue for private parties and catered receptions. Anchoring the street's western boundary are two other nineteenth-century standouts, St. Francis Xavier's Roman Catholic Church and Villa Doyle. The latter, a neoclassical mega-mansion trimmed with lacy verandas, was meticulously restored under the guidance of preservationist architect Anthony Jervis, and proudly opened in 2003 as the new National Museum of Art, And these are just a few of the gems on view in the city's remarkable open-air museum.

The town of Nassau debuted sometime in the mid-1600s as a modest assemblage of wooden shacks clustered around a fine, protected harbor, but the pastel-tinged colonial city we know today was born in the 1780s when British Loyalists flooded the seven hundred-island archipelago off eastern Florida in Cite wake of America's War of Independence. With the help of their slave laborers, the prosperous immigrants quickly set about transforming the local economy and infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the buildings they erected were patterned after the Georgian-inspired architecture of the New England and southern colonies from which they came. Cool verandas, louvered windows, and high-pitched roofs were soon added to the mix in a nod to the sultry summer climate. Over the following centuries through boom and bust, Nassau evolved into a compact city of stately public buildings and grand hotels, austere churches, elegant two-story houses, step streets, and leafy parks, guarded by a pair' of brooding hilltop fortresses, Port Charlotte and Port Fincastle, that never saw military action. In the decades following World War II, the downtown's residential population began its slow but steady exodus to kite suburbs, making way for a proliferation of 'law firms, banks, offices, and trendy shops that catered to art increasingly lucrative tourist trade.

To date, about two hundred of Nassau's vintage beauties have earned Historic Register status and some figure prominently in its popular city walking tour. Among the best known are the octagonal-shaped Public Library, originally built as a jail in 1798; Vendue House, an early nineteenth-century slave auction site that has been reincarnated as the Pompey Museum of Slavery & Emancipation, and palm-fringed Rawson Square, located in the heart of down,town, between Parliament Square and Festival Place, a converted complex of rundown customs and immigration buildings that has been reborn as a colorful, West Indian-style welcome center for cruise passengers. On the western edge of the historic district are other architectural gents: kite elegant British Colonial Hilton, still fresh from a meticulous, multi-million dollar revamping several years ago; pink and white Government House, the former residence of British governors general where changing of the guard ceremonies take place on alternate Saturdays; and up on West Hill Street, Graycliff and Villa Doyle National Museum of Art. …

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