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Undercurrents: ‘Soft Opening’ on Tap for Fort Christian

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Everybody wants to host the “Grand Opening” of a renovated Fort Christian in conjunction with the Centennial of the Transfer of the Virgin Islands in March. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources, which has oversight for the years-long renovation, has been “making plans” according to department spokesman Jamal Nielsen.

Meanwhile, there’s been talk at the Legislature of a ceremony. A private company wants to donate to cover expenses. The Centennial Commission wants to oversee the celebration.

The biggest hitch may not be coordinating all these entities. It could be missing flooring in the courtyard.

Fort Christian is the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands, according to testimony given at a ceremony in 2005 when it was closed for the renovation. Construction began in 1672. Its primary purpose was defense of Charlotte Amalie Harbor, but for most of the 1700s it also contained a Lutheran Church. In early times it also served as a governor’s residence and housed some government offices.

It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1971 and became a museum then.

Nielsen and Sean Krigger, director of the State Historic Preservation Office at DPNR, voiced confidence that the necessary work will be completed to allow for a sort of soft opening by the end of March.

The decision to re-brick the courtyard was made more than a year ago, adding considerably to the scope of the work that was in the original notice to proceed on the restoration in 2005.

The government awarded the bid for the additional work to Custom Builders, but in the spring of 2016, the deal stalled; the government didn’t approve the contract for months.

It finally shook loose this fall and soon afterward, work started. Krigger said the contract actually runs from Dec. 6, 2016 to Sept. 12, 2017. The main work involves taking up old, damaged bricks in the courtyard and replacing them with a combination of rehabilitated bricks from other parts of the structure, supplemented with new bricks designed to mimic the original.

“They’re moving at a fairly good pace,” Krigger said in mid-January. “We have approximately 60 percent (of the courtyard flooring) completed.”

He said there are two issues to consider. One is that the process for rehabbing the old, reclaimed brick (mostly taken from the roof) is lengthy. The other is that the new bricks aren’t on island yet. They are expected to arrive in early February.

Nevertheless, he said he thinks the work will be substantially completed by the end of March to allow for a Centennial event there in conjunction with Transfer Day, which is March 31. Workers already have laid in the footprint of the Skytsborg Tower. The tower was part of the original fort, but was taken out in a renovation in 1874.

Krigger said excavations and renovations have revealed other changes that were made to the fort over the centuries. For instance, in the “basement” there originally was one long corridor leading to a room to hold munitions. The four cells there now were added sometime later.

Krigger said he does not expect all the work to be completed before September, but “there’s a goal to have the courtyard finished by March.” 

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