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Then & Now: Wattle and daub give way to New Urbanism

Front Pages 18 Nov, 2019 Follow News

Then & Now: Wattle and daub give way to New Urbanism

Our series takes us back in time to appreciate how far we have come as a nation. This week we focus on the architecture of the Cayman Islands.

 

The architecture of buildings in the Cayman Islands has changed dramatically in the time the Islands have been populated, primarily due to the availability of materials for people to build with. With many of the earliest buildings making way for new development, charting the changing face of buildings shines a fascinating light on how dramatically life has changed for Cayman residents since those early years of habitation in Cayman.

According to information found at the Cayman Islands National Archives, it is recorded in a letter dated 1841 that typical Cayman houses were “rude structures but roomy and comfortable and generally put up to suit the convenience of the proprietor without regard to position or formality.”

The letter describes how homes were formed using mahogany or iron posts of 8- or 9-inches square let into the ground from 4 to 6 feet. In between them ran much longer posts called crutches to give pitch to the roof, crossed by ridge poles which supported the rafters. Long slender sticks called wattles were tied to the rafters to which palm leaves were tied to make a neat roof. The sides were wicker worked and plastered with lime, called daub. Kitchens were detached from the main dwelling and called the caboose while store rooms were also separate and called butteries. Eventually the thatch rooves were replaced by corrugated zinc rooves.

 

Caymanian icon

One of the most striking early buildings in the Cayman Islands has to be the magnificent Great House at Pedro St James in Savannah. This structure was brought back to its former glory in the 1990s and now serves as one of the leading tourist attractions on island.

It is built over three stories with stone walls 18 inches thick, that would have, at the time of its construction in 1780, dwarfed the surrounding single-level wattle-and-daub homes nearby. Breezy wooden verandahs, large shuttered windows, and a roof made from slate from England were some of the notable features of the building. The site’s history is colourful – it has been used as a courthouse, jail, Government Assembly and restaurant. It’s best known as the “Birthplace of Democracy in the Cayman Islands” because it was where, in 1831, the decision was made to form the first elected parliament. Later, in 1835, Robert Thompson, sent from the Governor of Jamaica, held court at Pedro St James to issue the proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire.

 

Notable buildings

Elmslie Memorial Church in George Town was constructed in the 1920s by Capt. Rayal Bodden, a naval architect. He designed the roof of the church to resemble a ship’s hull turned upside down. Capt. Bodden also designed the original George Town Public Library, the George Town Post Office, the George Town Town Hall and the Town Clock in central George Town.

 

A new town is built

Fast forward to the 21st Century and architecture took a new turn when Camana Bay first began to take shape in 2008. According to its original architects, Moore Rubell Yudell, Camana Bay was originally conceived as an “antidote to the rapid, auto-orientated growth on the small island of Grand Cayman.” It’s grown from a competition-winning four village master plan into a vibrant town centre that is quickly becoming the communal heart of the island. Following the principles of New Urbanism, Camana Bay is a mixed-use community that promotes walkability, connectivity, sustainability and diversity throughout its design.


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