June 25, 2004 – A pilot historic preservation project made possible by federal Community Development Block Grant funding has turned a run-down clapboard home into likable, livable space for its owner that will be the focus of a ceremonial celebration on Sunday.
According to Myron Jackson, director of the Planning and Natural Resources Department's Historic Preservation Office, the renovation was done to show Virgin Islanders that old "vernacular" homes of the sort found throughout Charlotte Amalie can find new life at a moderate cost and don't have to be abandoned or torn down.
Hillis Walters had inherited the house on Norre Gade near Memorial Moravian Church, Jackson said, but the condition of the structure made it unsuited for living even before it sustained damage from passing hurricanes. Still, the building remained intact.
"It's a small vernacular frame structure," Jackson said. "It's typical of frame structures found in the Charlotte Amalie district. This is in what is historically known as East Savan, New Town or Upstreet, and it's very indicative of the historic neighborhoods of Charlotte Amalie."
Walters remembers growing up in the house, then moving away but coming home from time to time to see the building bowing to the pressures of time.
She was beset by pressures of her own. A single mother raising children alone after their father died, she was suffered from health problems including paralysis that left her a shut-in for four years. Nowadays, she gets around with a walker.
"When you are young and you've been living there all the time and it deteriorated to the point where it just sits there … and you go away and come back, you see it's still there," she reflected on Friday.
Her aunt left her the home, Walters said, after having told her "I'm going to leave you something. See if you can get it renovated. You're disabled; see if you can get some help so you can have somewhere to live."
She did, but it wasn't easy.
The Historic Preservation Office got involved six or seven years ago, Jackson said. Walters, living in public housing, "wanted to move into this structure and needed some assistance."
Persevering with Persistence and Prayer
It took doing things she had never done before. She testified before the Senate and felt like a fish out of water. People all around her were talking, saying things she didn't understand. But as she tuned in to bits of conversation, she said, she started picking up on things.
Walters found out she might be eligible for a Community Development Block Grant award from DPNR. She had never heard of such a thing, let alone how to get one. Right about then, she recalled, she started to pray. "Out of the blue I just said to myself, 'Lord, I don't know what's going on, but I want to renovate this house.'"
She applied for grant funding but got turned down. Later she heard about the Historic Preservation Office. She showed up at a meeting where she was told to apply again. One day while she was in the process of completing the second application, she heard a knock on her door.
It was a man from the Fire Service. He handed her a citation and told her the house on Norre Gade was a fire hazard and it had to go. She said no, she was trying to renovate it.
More prayer. Another stab at applying for block grant funding. This time she was successful.
"Her goal was to get the house fixed and to get to be able to live in her own home," Jackson said on Friday. "She initiated much of what is going on, and she finally wound up getting some financial assistance."
Renovating the house ended up costing $68,000. Walters chose her own contractor. Historic Preservation got an architect to do the drawings and hired a surveyor. The project got an additional boost from some private contributions. "Over the last several years we've been working and working on a limited budget," Jackson said.
Because Walters depends on a walker and now lives on a hill, getting out to see how her house was progressing proved difficult. Friends and neighbors would stop by and give her the blow-by-blow: "The windows are in." "The roof is fixed."
One day her daughter came for a visit and asked if she could drive Ma by the building to have a look. Walters said no. From the time she began to dream of rebuilding the house, she could see it in her mind. Every detail.
Impact Beyond the Building
When she finally saw it completed, Walters said, the house was just as she had pictured it in her mind's eye. She marveled at the effect the renovation had on the rest of the block, too. Broken sidewalks were mended. Other homeowners put on new coats of paint. Even the Moravian Church did a little sprucing up.
"It was like an eyesore on the street, but then this eyesore started to be revived, and it's like bringing new life to the whole neighborhood," she said.
The renovation was undertaken as a demonstration project, Jackson said, as a way of opening the eyes of a community to the possibilities of making the old new. Vernacular houses in Savan and elsewhere in historic Charlotte Amalie and row houses on Kronprindsens Gade could all be turned into affordable housing, he said.
Doing so would have the social effect of restoring communities to their original character, Jackson said. Old people and young families seeking starter homes could settle down. But the government can't do it, he said. That kind of large-scale renovation would have to be done through public-private partnerships.
"It's been done in other jurisdictions in the United States. It's nothing new," he said.
For Hillis Walters, Sunday looms large. That's when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dean Plaskett are scheduled to come and snip the ribbon to officially reopen her dream house. After that, she said, it's moving day.
Part of the reason she wanted to restore the family home was for the next generation — "to leave a legacy here for my kids," Walters said. Historic Preservation personnel are her heroes in the undertaking, she said: "They made my wish come true."
As a person who likes to be around people, Walters said, living as a shut-in is something she wants to leave behind. All she can think about now is sitting on her renovated porch and watching the world go by.
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