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Friday, February 23, 2024


July 13, 2001 – The St. Thomas son of a baron is looking more and more like the king of the hills.
First Government Hill and, now, Blackbeard's Hill.
Michael Ball, representing his father, Baron Vernon Ball, closed Thursday on the purchase of the hotel and restaurant complex currently known as The Inn at Blackbeard's Castle. Six months ago, he did the same thing on the adjacent property that most recently was called L'Hotel Boynes.
The dual acquisitions are a marriage made in the expectation of tapping into the island's biggest source of income: the cruise ship traffic. And the Balls are putting their money where a lot of tourism industry experts' mouths have been for years: on heritage tourism.
The Balls' plan is to create a visitor attraction emphasizing St. Thomas history on about two acres of property newly surrounded by a white picket fence. And they expect to have it up and running in about three weeks.
For the last 12 years, Michael Ball has been managing Hotel 1829, which is owned by his father and was originally the home, completed in 1831, of a family named Lavalette. About three ago, the Balls purchased the property behind the hotel, on which sat the ruins of a home dating from the early 1800s. Painstakingly restored and authentically furnished in West Indian period furniture, it became the Haagensen House museum and private functions facility, which opened last year.
Michael Ball arranged for the St. Thomas Historical Trust to operate the museum, curate the collection of antiques and give tours of the house and the "Kongens Quarter" (King's Quarter) neighborhood. And he hired Felipe Ayala, longtime trust activist and former member of the Historic Preservation Commission, to serve as executive director of Haagensen House.
Those partnerships are being extended to the new complex on Blackbeard's Hill.
The Inn at Blackbeard's
The Balls acquired the Blackbeard's property from Craig and Amy Van Skaik, who had bought it from the Small Business Administration in 1999 and renovated it extensively. About a year ago, the Van Skaiks, who then lived on St. John, sold their home and moved to Los Angeles.
The hotel and restaurant opened in 1982 and were operated until the mid-1990s as Blackbeard's Castle Hotel by Bob Harrington and Henrique Konzen. When that business failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, Patricia LaCorte took over the restaurant, naming it Cafe Lulu. When the Van Skaiks and their partner, David Abers, acquired the property, they brought the food and beverage operation in-house. LaCorte, a longtime local restaurateur, took the name of her place to the North Side, gave it a tweak, and has been operating Lulu's Cafe at the old Ferrari's site ever since.
About a year ago, the Van Skaiks "were putting out feelers, and we started talking," Ball said. "We had the idea of putting the two properties [Blackbeard's and L'Hotel Boynes] together and making it a package for the cruise lines, all managed by the Historical Trust."
The stone tower of Blackbeard's Castle was a declared a national historic monument in 1994. Although the Van Skaiks renovated the structure, built in 1679 and originally called Skytesborg (Danish for "Sky Tower") a couple of years ago to make it available for private dining, "We'll probably keep it closed for the tours," Ball said. And, he said, visitors "will be told that Blackbeard never set foot in the place — much to my chagrin."
Ayala says that Blackbeard — Edward Thatch by proper name — operated out of Port Royal, Jamaica, "and he would not have stayed in a tower built by the Danish, who were trying to capture him." Still, some literature has it that the pirate, who had a long, braided beard, used St. Thomas as a base from 1716 to 1718, the year he was killed in a battle off the coast of North Carolina. No way, Ayala says, but he adds, "We tell both sides. We tell them there is a lot of lore about pirates, and there are lots of books on pirates in the museum gift shop."
The Blackbeard's restaurant closed at the start of June, while the 10-room hotel continues to operate, Ball said.
Villa Notman
"We bought L'Hotel Boynes when Sam was ready to sell," Ball said, referring to owner Samuel Boynes, who purchased what previously had been called The Mark St. Thomas Hotel in the mid-1990s after years with Frenchman's Reef and a hotel career harking back to Chicago's Playboy Club. "He came to us; we didn't go to him," Ball said of Boynes. "He was interested in what we were doing with the historic walking tours."
Boynes, whose sons helped him operate the eight-room hotel, showcased the property's historic nature and his own family history in the decor and furnishings. It was a regular stop on various walking tours for several years.
The yellow ballast brick and stone home will be renamed Villa Notman, for Robert Notman, who built it. A Scotsman who worked on St. Thomas as an engineer, Notman completed the house in 1860, Ball said. It remained a private home well into the 20th century, used by the Anglican Church as a parsonage in the early 1900s and by the Navy when it was administering the territory. It's in the National Register of Historic Homes, and its ornate veranda ironwork has been featured in many a Tourism Department magazine ad and brochure.
The hotel has been closed since the sale was finalized late last year.
Philip Sturm, new president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust, member of the Historic Preservation Commission and noted West Indian antiques collector, has been curating the furniture display for Villa Notman over the last six months. He's furnished the main salon, a child's bedroom and the master bedroom on the upper floor. About 80 percent of the pieces to be displayed initially are on loan from from his personal collection, he said, and the remainder have been lent by other members of the trust.
The owner of the Philip Sturm Hair Studio also serves as curator of the antiques and art exhibited at Haagensen House.
His approach to Villa Notman has been "different from Haagensen House, which has only West Indian furniture," Sturm said. "We are trying to represent the Notman house as it was at the time it was built. The island was an open port and had furniture from everywhere."
Outside, what had been the parking lot for L'Hotel Boynes is now a manicured lawn — 3,000 square feet of grass, a cutting garden and paths. A new wooden walkway connects the small pool at the back of the Boynes hotel and the steps leading up to the Blackbeard's pool.
Restaurateur to make a comeback
Ball asked LaCorte to return and take charge of the kitchen at the restaurant, and LaCorte didn't hesitate in saying yes. For her, it's a delectable deja vue. "I'm excited," she said. "I always thought it was a great venue, and I think Michael has a great vision."
Lulu's won't be affected by her move back to Blackbeard's, she said. "I've been grooming a very solid staff here," she said from the Crown Mountain eatery.
The town property, including the restaurant, will remain under the name The Inn at Blackbeard's Castle. LaCorte said she's "working on the concept" for the menu, promising it will be "something very cutting edge. It will definitely have a Caribbean flair … It's not going to be strictly a tourist-oriented restaurant. I definitely want the local residents there, and the menu will reflect that."
The restaurant will be open seven days a week, initially only for dinner, but adding lunch when season arrives. LaCorte said the kitchen and dining room are getting "a little bit of a facelift, and we will have our own touches." But nothing major, she added, as "the remodeling job that Craig (Van Skaik) did was very well done. The place
is so beautiful just in itself."
A decade ago, the piano lounge was a showplace for live jazz, featuring both local and visiting artists. Will those days return? "I'm not committing to anything," LaCorte said, but not ruling it out, either. As for another staple of the old Blackbeard's — and Lulu's, the annual Easter bonnet contest, she added, "Ask later."
Historic walking tours sell well
What the new venture will offer is a variation and extension of what's available now.
The Historical Trust now markets two guided walking tours on board cruise ships. One, priced at $18, leaves from Blackbeard's Castle and is downhill all the way, including a guided tour of the Haagensen House museum and concluding at Emancipation Garden. The other, which is $25, is an up-and-down tour that also includes stops at the Fort Christian Museum and Frederick Lutheran Church.
From Blackbeard's Castle, the walkers pass L'Hotel Boynes and Crown House (the onetime residence of Gov. Peter von Scholten), tour the Haagensen House museum and grounds, then head down again past Hotel 1829 and 1854 Hus (housing Marisol restaurant), alongside Educators Park, over to the former the Grand Hotel, now Grand Galleria, and finally to Emancipation Garden.
On the tours, Historical Trust guides "refer guests to the Seven Arches Museum and the Weibel Museum at the St. Thomas Synagogue as other properties they may want to visit, and they do the same for us," Ayala said.
The number of persons taking tours during the summer is 30 to 40 per ship on the "down weeks, which alternate with the up weeks," Ayala said. In season, "it can average a hundred and more."
Sometimes it does so even in the summer. "We did 110 people today," Ball said on a recent day. In season, daily totals of 300 and more have not been unusual, he said, and the numbers are likely to go up sharply when season arrives.
"This first year, I was only working with three cruise lines — Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival," Ball said. "This coming year, it's going to be nine or 10 lines, all of the majors. Once you get on with one, and it works, and they get some feedback, the rest of the guys are willing to follow suit."
One key to his success, he said, has been working with people in other areas already doing business with the cruise lines, such the Kon Tiki, Atlantis Submarine, First Class Tour and Limousine Service and Islander Taxi.
Passengers from each ship constitute a separate tour group. They are met at their ships, taken on a driving tour of the hills overlooking the St. Thomas harbor, and then dropped off at the north entrance to Blackbeard's Castle, where they are met by Historical Trust guides who take them on the hour-long walking tour. Afterward, depending on the cruise line, they are picked up and transported back to the ship or have free time for downtown shopping and exploring before heading to the docks on their own.
The Historical Trust also conducts tours just of Haagensen House itself for $8 (children under 12 free, older children, seniors and local residents $4), which includes a cold drink.
Opening soon: the historic hilltop
Visits to the new Blackbeard's/Villa Notman complex are being marketed as a stop on established island tours that are booked at the excursion desks of the cruise ships, separate from the historic walking tours. The price of walk-in admission to the complex is built into the price of the tour. On the ships, Ayala said, brochures and two to three minutes of tour highlights in a promotional video loop will provide information to prospective tour takers.
Historical Trust personnel "wrote the narrative for the whole tour that the drivers use from the time they leave the dock until they get to Blackbeard's," Ayala said.
Tour takers will receive brochures of their own with background information about the properties, and a Historic Trust guide will be stationed inside Villa Notman to show people around and answer questions. Otherwise, it will be a self-guided tour. The ground floor rooms of the Notman home won't be open to regular visitors, "but we will probably use them for weddings in the garden there," Ball said.
Until now, anyone wishing to walk through the Blackbeard's property has been able to do so for free. Once the complex opens, they will have to pay the admission charge, which also will entitle them to tour Villa Notman inside and out, Ayala said.
Paying the entrance fee — tentatively around $10, with half off for children and seniors and discounts for locals — will entitle guests to "use the pool and hang out for the day, if they like," Ball said. "There will be a shuttle from Blackbeard's down to Main Street every 20 minutes, maybe." Food and beverage service at Blackbeard's will be a la carte.
To cope with the anticipated influx of visitors, the trust will turn first to its membership for volunteer guides both to lead walking tours and to greet guests on the hill. Many of those members are seasonal residents and retirees whose schedules are flexible, Ayala said. In addition, he said, there are plans to hire paid guides for season.
Seemingly unfazed at the prospect of much greater demand for its services, Ayala said the Historical Trust, in fact, is looking to focus its resources in other directions, as well.
"In the last year and a half, the trust has slowly been promoting Haagensen House and the walking tour," he said. "Now, it is moving toward acquiring its own building and working on new projects, including Hassel Island."
Viewing history as opportunity
Ball said his father and others he declined to name purchased the Blackbeard's Hill properties under a limited liability partnershop (LLP). "I put the whole deal together," he said, placing the price at "more than $2 million but less than $3 million."
The partnership will seek Economic Development Authority tax benefits. "The company that we are buying it [The Inn at Blackbeard's] from had them, and we will try to get them transferred over to our company," he said.
He said his father, who now lives on the west coast of Florida, was on St. Thomas a couple of weeks ago. The baron — whose title is Italian — looked over the Blackbeard's/Villa Notman complex, his son said, and "yes, he likes it."
Ball, who spent his childhood on St. Thomas, attending Lutheran Parish and Antilles Schools before going off island, has been managing Hotel 1829 for the last 12 years. He makes no bones about what has motivated him to take on the new project. "I'm just trying to make a dollar," he says. "I admire beautiful things. I'm not a historian; I'm an opportunist, a business person, and this is just my way of trying to keep ahead, because things haven't been too hot for the hotels and restaurants.
"We're centrally located, joined at the hip to Main Street, which is where 75 percent of the cruise ship passengers want to go, anyhow. I'm just trying to seek out new ways to keep doing business. And I think there's going to be a big payoff at the end."
Sturm, a native of Trinidad, sees the heritage-oriented development of the property as "one of the nicest in the Caribbean" and a fitting extension of the earlier work. "Michael Ball came to me when he bought the Haagensen House property in such a state of disrepair, and asked me what to do with it," he recalled. "I told him what to do. I planted the seed."
The enthusuastic response of the cruise lines — and, in turn, of the tourists — has proven that today's travelers are interested in more than sun, sand and shopping, Sturm said.
But part of the key to their response, he added, is that "you had to have a product."

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