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Government Hill Building Restored to Early-19th Century Splendor

Jan. 29, 2008 — A handsome curving mahogany staircase brought home by a sea captain almost 200 years ago is the focal point of the newest old building on Government Hill.
Little is known about the captain, not even his name. He was likely Danish, but he may have been English or even Scottish. In any event, his legacy is preserved and honored today.
The Government Hill structure surrounding the staircase has had a long and sometimes undocumented international history. What is known is that it has sat sometimes proudly, sometimes in disrepair, on Government Hill — or Commandant Bakken, as it was then called — since 1816, when it was built as a private residence, a townhouse in a neighborhood of wealthy merchants.
Providing a wealth of information (and enthusiasm) about Quarters B, as it is called, were historian Myron Jackson, director of the Cultural Heritage Institute, and Shaun Krigger, architectural historian for the office of Historic Preservation under Planning and Natural Resources, along with the building's architects, Jaredian Design.
Up to about 1820, it was a private residence, Krigger said, and it switched over to use by the Hamburg American Line at some point. After being used by the shipping company, which had a coaling station on Hassell Island, it was then taken over by the U.S. Naval administration, which governed the island after the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917.
"That's how it got its name, Quarters B, from the navy," Krigger said.
The federal government occupied the structure for years until sometime late in the 1970s, when the local government took over the building. During the 1980s, it was used as the office of the budget director.
Fate has not been kind to the building. Twice it has burned. Once early in the 1980s, and later in 1986, a fire of suspicious origin took the building to the ground. Nobody knows about the fire, or at least nobody who wants to talk about it. After the first fire, the building underwent a renovation. No such care was tended to the historic structure after the second fire. It sat, neglected, a burned-out building, until 2006, when then-Gov. Charles Turnbull allocated the money to rehabilitate the building for use as a residence for the lieutenant governor.
That idea was discarded in favor of returning it, once again, to house money matters. The Public Finance Authority moved in two weeks ago.
Rehabilitation, Not Restoration
Architect John Woods of Jaredian Design Group undertook the renovation in early 2006. Woods and Krigger both note that the building has undergone a "rehabilitation" rather than a restoration.
"It's really a rehabilitation as opposed to restoration," Woods said. "We had some modifications to the original design, and with a rehabilitation, you are allowed that leeway."
Every effort has been made, however, to restore the building to its former Greek Revival grandeur, starting with the front entrance, which has a gabled portico recessed from the street, with ionic columns and pilasters. To walk into the building today is to take a step into another century, a graceful, less-hurried time. There's a sense of quiet that permeates the premises, even though today's inhabitants are busily preparing for their first board meeting of the new year.
Julito Francis, PFA director of finance and administration, was up to his ears Monday with preparations for the meeting. However, as befits a gracious host in a gracious building, he arranged for a tour.
Jaredian architect and project manager Kenneth Benjamin was pleased to show off his firm's handiwork. The front room is dominated by the building's focal point, the mahogany staircase.
"We had to design the building around that," Benjamin said.
He notes the careful work.
"We have restored every bit of this," he said, fondly running his hand over the balustrade. "Each raiser and tread had to be milled by hand. The staircase is triangulated, with curves and radius designed for each step."
The staircase was built by Sennet Morris, a St. Croix woodworker.
They were essentially flying blind, Benjamin said.
"There were no photographs, no drawings, nothing left from the original construction," he said. Marble steps greet the lower floor, leading to an arresting and graceful set of arches, which Benjamin said conceal structural work. There's also a two-story elevator that looks like it could have come out of the vintage movie "The Maltese Falcon." The interior is all polished wood, as is the floor.
The tour continued down a hallway leading west.
"This used to be the old Girl Scouts building," Benjamin said. "We renovated it and connected it to the main structure."
The corridor leads to a parking area that can accommodate only a few cars.
Benjamin opens a couple of doors leading into handsomely laid out offices.
"These are for consultants who visit," he said. "They can enter from the outside, if they are working at night, and be perfectly secure."
The building has an elaborate security system.
Consultants who have viewed the premises have said "it is equal to any amenities they have seen anywhere they have traveled," Benjamin said.
Upstairs again, the tour continued to the board room. It is elaborate and totally state of the art. A 56-inch television screen is built in to one end of the room. Each of the seats around the conference table is equipped with a laptop-computer outlet.
Other Renovation Projects
The outside beckoned. Benjamin unlocked one of the floor-to-ceiling shutters and stepped out on an elegant balcony, set off by iron balustrades. It looks down at the first lady's garden to the east, and the Lutheran church below.
"We added this section, facing south," he said. At the western end of the balcony can be seen the rest of what is actually a larger renovation project.
"This is one phase of what we are doing," Benjamin said. "We are in the process of a number of projects on Government Hill. We are improving pedestrian security."
There is a white stucco building undergoing a demolition.
"That's going to be the administrator's office," Benjamin said. "We will be renovating this whole area," he said, pointing to several structures with traditional red roofs.
The old Girl Scout building can be seen, covered in attractive deep-brown shingles. "The old ones were filled with termites," Benjamin said.
The woodwork bears iron hardware latches, true to the original. The shutters and the hardware lend the strictly business conference room a sense of history, something one never loses track of strolling through the rooms. The rooms all have what are called tray ceilings. "They lend a more elegant feel to the rooms," Benjamin pointed out.
The new wing to the east has an opening leading to a stone pathway from the road. "This is the handicap access," Benjamin said, and the elevator is handy to that.
The building cost $3.7 million. Woods, Benjamin and Krigger all have praise for the contractor, Balbo Construction, a local company. "We have had excellent cooperation with the construction company," Benjamin said.
It is constructed out of mass masonry, Benjamin said., not taking any chances with wood. The floors are all hardwood except for the marble tiles downstairs.
All those involved with the project exude pride in the work. Krigger said no detail has been overlooked. He even provided details on the paint. It's a historical paint by Mineral Life International that allows the walls to breathe. "It's hunter green on the shutters, and the walls are stucco grey," he said.
The building is a part of the National Historic Registry.
"We have to address the needs of visitors," Benjamin said. "It's just like visiting the White House. It's the people
's house."
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