March 20, 2002 – Although the greathouse at the Whim Plantation Museum is built like a rock, the grand dame of St. Croix's historic buildings had lately been showing her age. On record as being owned since 1743, the building predates Emancipation by more than 100 years.
Wear and weather have taken their toll. "The headers above the windows and doors were cracking. For safety reasons they needed to be taken out and restored," Whim director Nancy Finegood said.
Except for major roof repairs after Hurricane Lenny hit in 1999, little work has been done on the greathouse since the St. Croix Landmarks Society leased the building from the V.I. government in 1954.
However, the structure is now in the midst of an extensive renovation, thanks to a $133,600 federal Community Development Block Grant. The work is being done by Primco, a St. Croix construction firm owned by Primus Suffren."A lot of what we're doing is learning as we go along," Finegood said.
Myron Jackson, director of the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Office of Historic Preservation, said there are many challenges associated with projects such as this one, which he said can best be termed a conservation effort.
Jackson, who served as a consultant on the project, said it is sometimes difficult to convince contractors to use old-time methods and materials — like lime plaster instead of concrete and a square peg in a square hole fastening, called mortise and tennon, instead of nails. But when repairs are needed, "If the work isn't historic, there's nothing to show another generation," he said.
Finegood said Ulla Lunn, a Danish architect at the SBSRAdgivning center in Copenhagen, provided advice on the project. The center provides training for craftspeople in traditional work methods for use in restoring and repairing historic buildings.
The Whim greathouse project involves a lot more than replacing the headers. The bricks are being repointed. A new drainage pipe around the moat that surrounds the greathouse will keep the structure dry and mosquito free. Termite-riddled and rotting shutters are being replaced. Obsolete pipes will be removed to get rid of insect nesting places. Cracked plaster will be fixed, and the annex room's water-damaged wallboard will be removed.
Finegood said planning the renovations has been a trip back in history. When a work crew took out the headers, they found that the supporting beam was wood, with much of it still in good condition two and a half centuries after some long-ago craftsmen put it in place.
No one knows who built the house, Finegood said, and it has had many owners, among them the MacEvoy family, which also owned other estates around the island.
The U.S. government bought the entire Whim Plantation in 1932 and attempted for the next 15 years to use the vast expanse of property for homesteading. While the project was not a success, it did break up the acreage. The V.I. government then assumed ownership of a dozen acres that includes the Whim Museum greathouse.
The greathouse is remaining open during the renovations, which are expected to wrap up by Sept. 30. Hours currently are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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