The U.S. Virgin Islands: Another Reason

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For the strongest sense of the Virgin Islands’ past, travelers should head for St. Croix, where two towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, still look the way they must have under the Danes. Almost all of Christiansted is yellow, painted or treated with a lime wash to harmonize with the original yellow Danish brick. So many buildings date from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century that much of the town has been declared a National Historic Site. In Danish West Indian buildings, in the old days, life was lived on the second, cooler floor, and you got there by climbing an impressive exterior stair. You can see this design at Government House (1747), the Customs House (1751-1830), and at Fort Christiansvaern (1749).

Built on the waterfront, Christiansted’s fort was designed to protect shipping from raiders, and William Cissel, the curator, has a lot of sympathy for the Danes sent to man it: “The term of enlistment was eight years, there was no social class on the island for the enlisted men to mix with, and they had to wear the same wool uniforms they wore in Europe.” With its sunny yellow walls and dark green shutters, Fort Christiansvaern is a singularly unmilitaristic-looking place until you come to the cells used for solitary confinement. Alexander Hamilton’s mother was imprisoned here once for refusing to obey her husband. When released, she declined to return to her spouse, bore Alexander out of wedlock on the island of Nevis, and then brought him back with her to Christiansted. Young Alexander had his early financial training in the trading houses of the town. The store he worked in burned down during the 1960s but it has been rebuilt, and a shop called Little Switzerland occupies the space today.

I asked Cissel what quality he associated with the Danes as a colonial power and he answered, “Organization.” They had a building code for Christiansted in 1747 that, by regulating construction materials and the width of streets and alleys, helped prevent fires. An agreement between inspectors and merchants gave the town the arched colonnades that are its most distinctive feature: merchants were allowed to extend the second story of their buildings out over the sidewalks. They gained extra living space upstairs, and the town gained protection from sun and rain for pedestrians.

From Christiansted, drive down treeshaded roads to Frederiksted, a sleepy port town on the western end of St. Croix. It was here that the Danish governor-general Peter von Scholten freed the slaves on July 3, 1848. Thirty years later, conditions had still not improved much for blacks, and on October 1, 1878, a labor insurrection broke out. A third of Frederiksted and many nearby plantations were burned. When replacement houses were built during the 1880s, Victorian architectural flourishes turned up on native styles. It’s a great pleasure to walk the streets today. A cruise ship turns up occasionally, and there are a few shops geared to the tourist trade, but Frederiksted remains unspoiled.

Each island offers a sense of the great age of exploration and colonization.

Just outside Frederiksted is Estate Whim Plantation Museum, open about 360 days out of the year. On Whim’s grounds, you can visit the woodworking shop that carved Frederiksted’s gingerbread, and a sugar mill. But the heart of the place is the house itself. It is far less grand than its counterparts in the American South, and it is, people kept reminding me, not typical of West Indian great houses. Built of stone with rounded ends, Whim has only three rooms, and it is surrounded by a moat. No records survive to explain who built it or when, but one theory holds that it was intended more as a pavilion for entertaining guests than as a primary residence.

Tall trees have grown up to shade Whim now, and standing in any of its spacious, window-lined rooms, the overwhelming impression is not of wealth or past grandeur but of airiness, of the triumph of architecture over climate. There is no glass in the windows, only louvered shutters, and open doorways connect the rooms. Whatever breeze there is moves freely throughout the house. William Cissel invited me to visit one other house before I left the islands, the one he grew up in, and it impressed me in the same way. The day was hot enough to warrant air-conditioning in the car, but when we went in and opened the shutters, the house felt cool. “There’s always a breeze,” my host explained. “The windmill always got the best hill on the plantation, but the great house got the second best.”

—Jane Colihan TO PLAN A TRIP