Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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Island Architecture

Bermuda holds something old, something new,something borrowed,and something blue

In July 1609, the British ship Sea Venture foundered on the reefs off Bermuda's coast after being caught in a hurricane. The shipwrecked survivors, originally bound for Virginia, went ashore to a group of uninhabited islands of pink-sand beaches. The first settlers arrived three years later. Today Bermuda is no longer overlooked -- as a steady stream of cruise ships attest -- but it's still remote. The island is free of neon signs, McDonald's arches, air pollution and the national speed limit is a civil 30 kilometres per hour. It also guards its distinctiveness as Britain's oldest colony. All this in less than a three-hour flight from Toronto.

Bermuda is a fish-hook-shaped 35-kilometre chain of islands connected by bridges and causeways. Together, they make up the world's most northerly coral atoll. Scattered throughout the islands are the pastel tones of Bermuda's one true folk art: its architecture.

The first settlers constructed houses of cedar and thatched them with palmetto leaves -- perhaps not the best idea in a hurricane zone. In 1622, Governor Nathaniel Butler built a stone house in the capital of St. George's, hoping it might persuade colonists to do the same, but his example was ignored. Then, in the late 17th century, timber had become crucial to the new shipbuilding industry and building with stone was actively encouraged in order to protect the dwindling supply of cedar. Timber-house framing was abandoned when land ownership was granted to lessees who agreed to rebuild their home in stone.

The architecture that emerged was based on English rural-cottage styles. Many builders were also shipbuilders, which certainly affected the look of the houses. Bermuda's architecture was also influenced by the lack of a supply of fresh drinking water. To compensate for this houses were designed with rooftops that collected rainwater and chanelled it to underground tanks cut from the surface-area limestone. Today, Bermuda's white rooftops, covered in limestone slates and coated with layers of liquid cement, lend a visual harmony to the island's landscape. History & Heritage Preserved

Before exploring the islands, we wanted to learn more about Bermuda's architecture. Fortunately we met the right person. On a warm summer evening in interior-designer Deborah Mackenzie's garden we were introduced to Henry Ming, an architect and chairman of the Bermuda National Trust, which is dedicated to preserving Bermuda's historic and environmental heritage.

He explained some of the things to watch for on our travels, such as ceilings built like an inverted tray for extra height and enhanced air circulation. Older houses have distinctive top-hung shutters, which, at a certain angle, provide shade while still allowing you to look through the slats. Ming also said that many of the finest Bermuda homes were originally humble cottages, but have been remodelled from generation to generation.

The next morning, we set off from Hamilton to explore the western part of Bermuda. It was pouring rain. "This is what we call a tank rain," explained our driver Lenny Holder. "You can catch a lot of water with a downpour like this." Normally we would've rented a car and gone our own way, but rental cars aren't available in Bermuda. We were glad to have a driver; without him we would never have found some of the houses we were looking for. Each time we stopped to photograph a home, we were careful not to intrude on people's privacy and occasionally asked permission, which was always granted. Cast-Iron Beacon

Along South Road, the main route on the south-west part of the island, we looked down on the sandy beaches of the south shore. On our way to Somerset Bridge we passed Gibb's Hill lighthouse, the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in the world. Somerset Bridge, on the other hand, is the world's smallest drawbridge: it opens just enough to allow the mast of a sailboat to pass. On a rise above the bridge is Bridge House, one of Bermuda's finest houses that was built in 1740 by John Tucker, cousin of Colonel Henry Tucker who was the family patriarch and a major landowner.

The style of the day was one storey, but Tucker built an almost square two-storey house with an unusual Palladian window over the front door. When we reached Somerset Island, we stopped to admire Church Hill House built in 1787. It passed through several generations of Tuckers with bits and pieces added over the years. One of the house's nicer details is its "welcoming arms" entrance steps; today they're found throughout Bermuda. The best examples of these steps are flanked by low walls representing arms that widen out from top to bottom.

In the middle of Somerset Island is Springfield, one of the most photographed houses in Bermuda. The oldest parts of the house were built by Ephraim and Mary Gilbert in the 1740s with descendants adding to it over the next 200 years. Much of Springfield's charm comes from its terraced gardens and 19th-century courtyard with its open-sided loggia and superb free-standing buttery. Butteries are small windowless square structures with pyramid-shaped roofs, and they're one of Bermuda's most distinctive features. Originally designed to keep food cool, they were more commonly used as outhouses.

Ross Perot's modern Bermuda mansion has its own buttery, but somehow I don't think it's used as an outhouse. The internationally renowned firm of Venturi, Rauch and Brown designed the home in the vernacular style and called it Vertigo. Perot bought the manse for several million dollars in 1985 and spends every US Independence Day at his huge hideaway by the sea. Fine Stonework & Yellow Fever

At the tip of Bermuda's "fish-hook" is Ireland Island, where you'll find the Royal Naval Dockyard, which was abandoned by the Royal Navy in 1951. The site has since been restored and now houses the Bermuda Maritime Museum. Some of the exhibits are in former munitions buildings that have brick barrel-vaulting fine enough for a cathedral. The museum site is dominated by the Commissioner's Building, easily the most important building standing in Bermuda today. With the finest stonework around, the building's cost outraged the Navy Board in London, until its members were reminded that they were the ones who had originally approved the project. Long neglected, the Commissioner's Building is once more open to visitors and contains exhibits on slavery in Bermuda, sailing and Portugal's connection with the islands.


After the American Revolution, when Britain could no longer use the ports in its former colony, it chose Bermuda as the link between Halifax and the British West Indies. Over a period of 50 years, nearly 10,000 convicts were sent from Britain to build the dockyard. Hundreds of men died of yellow fever and other diseases in the process. The dockyard repaired and provisioned the Royal Navy's ships and was surrounded by stout defensive bastions that were never challenged. The base on Ireland Island became known as the Gibraltar of the West. Pretty in Palmetto

The next morning, we took a ferry from the dockyard to Hamilton and met Holder, our driver, to explore the eastern part of the island. On the way to St. George's we stopped at Palmetto House, one of the most splendid houses in Devonshire parish. It's built into the side of a hill and was originally thatched with palmetto leaves. Maintained by the National Trust, the house unfortunately has limited opening hours. We were able only to see its fine "welcoming arms" entrance.

Travelling along North Shore Road toward St. George's, we stopped at Carter House -- said to be Bermuda's oldest house (it may actually date from the late 17th century). It has an imposing chimney and narrow "welcoming arms" steps with a bench where people could wait to be received.

St. George's is the oldest continuously inhabited English-speaking town outside Britain and almost one third of its buildings -- most of which date from the 18th century -- are classified as having architectural merit. The shift of the capital from St. George's to Hamilton in 1815 helped preserve the town's original buildings. Narrow winding alleyways follow the route of footpaths from the colony's earliest days and bear names like Needle and Thread Alley and Aunt Peggy's Lane. The oldest building in town is the Old State House. Built in 1621, it was used for storing gunpowder and served as the seat of the colony's administration. Its fortress-like appearance is quite unlike any other in St. George's. Since the shift of the capital to Hamilton, the State House has been rented to the Masonic Lodge at a cost of one peppercorn per year. Pirates and Slave Traders

One of the oldest houses in St. George's is the Old Rectory on Broad Alley; probably built in 1699. Strangely, the house never served as a rectory. It was built for George Dew, an occasional pirate-turned slave trader, who later made his home in St. George's and became an assemblyman, much like a town councillor. The house is typical of its time with a simple two-room plan. It features a central entrance, chimneys at each gabled end and windows set snug against the eaves. The Old Rectory is one of 11 buildings in town owned by the National Trust but, as a private home, it's open to visitors one afternoon a week.

Nearby, on the aptly named Church Folly Lane is St. Peter's, the oldest Anglican church in continuous use in the New World. Rough cedar pillars and solid box pews make it a wonderfully evocative building, and the exposed cedar rafters reminded me of an old English barn. I learned that the first church on the site was used as a warehouse for storing tobacco. In the 19th century, St. Peter's decayed slowly and was almost demolished when work began on a arger church. The church was never completed since financial concerns and infighting split the congregation and the church still stands roofless today.

Before leaving Bermuda, we returned to St. George's on a Sunday morning with Ming as our guide. We apologized for cutting into his weekend, but he just laughed and said there was nothing he liked more than sharing his passion for Bermuda's architecture. As we drove he talked more about this passion, saying it was important to appreciate how the early colonists built in harmony with their environment. "These days we rely on air conditioning so we don't need traditional high ceilings anymore. Buildings are placed on small lots, because we don't have the room to position them and take advantage of prevailing breezes like our ancestors did."

Seeing St. George's through Ming's eyes allowed us to focus on the details like the strength of a dry-stone wall, the sturdiness of a massive chimney, the grace of an embellished balustrade, the symmetry of an unusual gable or the elaborate capital on a simple gatepost. We visited Tucker House, still furnished largely with pieces inherited from the Tucker family, and stopped in at the National Trust Museum in the former Globe Hotel on King's Square.

But the best was still to come. On our way to the airport the next day, Ming was waiting for us at Verdmont to show off the jewel in Bermuda's heritage crown. Built around 1710, Verdmont is a square two-storey Georgian mansion that has survived almost unchanged for nearly 300 years. The last occupants stayed there until 1951, despite living without electricity or plumbing. The reception rooms are lined with Georgia pine and the staircase is considered one of the best in Bermuda. Furnishings are of the period, but not original to the house. We lingered at the nursery, with its display of children's items, but Ming was anxious to show us the attic. This wonderful room is the best place to see the traditional construction of Bermuda rooftops with cedar rafters and limestone slates. "I could talk here forever," he said. And we would've been glad to listen if we didn't have a plane to catch.

Our last glimpse of Bermuda -- clear water gleaming on the reefs, white rooftops punctuating the green landscape -- receded beneath the wing of the plane as the island vanished beneath the clouds. We wondered at its good fortune: a tiny island with an enormous wealth of natural and architectural beauty, and just a three-hour flight from Toronto, but indeed a world away.


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