July 18, 2004 Giselle Richardson recalled her childhood and older folks dancing in the street, and dance in the street they did once again Saturday as hundreds young and old celebrated the opening of the French Heritage Museum.
Giselle's father, Alan Richardson, and others of the Frenchtown Civic Organization, brought the museum from dream to reality with help from friends.
The stone structure had sat bereft in the heart of Frenchtown since 1995 when Hurricane Marilyn destroyed its roof. The civic organization replaced the tarp each year. Members longed for the day when that tarp would become a roof, and when the roof would house a building preserving and displaying French cultural items.
That day came Saturday. The former blight in the neighborhood is now its jewel. Richardson with FTCO President Henry Richardson were beaming as Alan thanked the many volunteers who helped create the museum. "It's been a long year, and a long day," he said.
The Richardsons got official approval in 2002 from the 24th Legislature for a lease on the building. They had lobbied about four years to get it.
Henry Richardson said he has no idea how many helped with the project. "Sometimes we would have paid labor, but usually people just stopped by and helped, maybe 25." At almost any time of the day or night in the last year, workers could be seen moving building blocks or hammering away, or one might see Allan busy at a chainsaw in the makeshift workshop set up in the back.
Henry Richardson said in one day volunteers went through 27 bags of cement and they had mixed it all by hand. Their labor is evident not only in the museum. Nearby cement block islands encase palm trees surrounded by colorful flowerbeds.
The building's handsome mahogany shutters are the work of Edward "Harmon" Killebrew and Allan Richardson. Killebrew cut the mahogany from trees felled by Hurricane Marilyn in the Western Cemetery. Richardson fashioned it into the cathedral shaped shutters that front the building.
Richardson gave special thanks to Don deWerd, who gave his architectural skills in designing the facade of the building. "I've been here about 40 years," said de Werd, "and I wanted to help. I love the architecture."
The bright yellow building bears a cathedral facade, graced on either side by flowerbeds filled with bleeding hearts, ferns and other plants. Prominently displayed on the side of the front flowerbed is a bright red and yellow fire hydrant, which actually works. Anyone who has lived here for a while knows instantly the hydrant is the work of resident artist Allan Richardson. It displays his style.
One of the female volunteers was Melicent Gagliani. Her excitement was evident as she circulated through the burgeoning crowd, which kept growing as the afternoon wore on. She pinned red, white and blue commemorative ribbons on all.
The Richardson brothers, the volunteers and other FTCO members were recognized in Saturday's ceremony. Cindy Richardson-Hunt and Giselle Richardson, daughters of Henry and Allan Richardson, shared mistress of ceremony honor. They introduced local dignitaries who heaped praises on those who brought about the museum.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, who traditionally hosts French Heritage Week each year, lauded the work of the organization. She noted the hard times the French had on the island when they were fresh from St. Barts migrating to Northside and Frenchtown. She said the museum now gives everyone a chance to see how the French lived then.
Delegate Donna M. Christensen noted the museum's significance to the entire community and praised the organization's efforts. "Although this building never was used as a fire station, it has nurtured children, nurtured health, and today it will nurture French culture," she said.
Honorary French consul Odile de Lyrot, expressed her enthusiasm. De Lyrot, head of the Friends of French Culture, later expressed disappointment that no one from the Tourism Department or the Taxi Association was represented. "This is a great destination for the taxis on their tours," she said. Henry Richardson said, in fact, a tour bus had stopped at the museum that morning for an impromptu tour.
Claudette Lewis, Planning and Natural Resources assistant commissioner, has been instrumental in the FTCO getting community block grants to help with the project. She commended the work the group has done and said DPNR would continue to work for the preservation of the project.
The stone building was originally constructed as a fire station in 1944, but there was a serious problem. "The fire truck wouldn't fit through the doors," Henry Richardson said, so the station was abandoned. It became a kindergarten in the early '50s, under the guidance of Altergracia Wenner. For years it was the primary educational experience for the community.
In the '70s it was converted to a health clinic named to honor of Florina Olive and Mercidita Bernier, public health nurses, who ran the clinic for years. Many in the crowd Saturday remembered them. Former senator Donald "Ducks" Cole said he used to live nearby, "over by the ball field path. I used to come here every Monday morning for my allergy shots," he said.
Yvonne Moolenaar has more than one memory. "I went to kindergarten right in the building," she said as she looked at the many displays in the museum, "and my daughter was a nurse in the clinic." Elizabeth Aubain looked at the framed picture of Olive, "I remember her," she said, "I used to bring my kids here for their injections."
Music played all day and well into Saturday night all sorts of music. The 73rd Army National Guard Band seated in the brightly red, white and blue decorated bandstand played the traditional music, and highlighted "La Marseillaise." On the other side of thebuilding a scratch band comprised of Richard Berry, and Ronnie Bryan, Ralph Quetel and Percy Nurse, playing accordion, guitar, quero or squash, and banjo, respectively, serenaded with " Drunk and Disorderly," and other old tunes.
People, hundreds of people, danced to the music in the closed-off street. The Seabreeze band and the All Stars Steel Orchestra replaced the Army band after 5 p.m.
After the ceremony, which was punctuated now and then by a rain that nobody minded, Allan Richardson and former teacher Wenner cut the ribbon and the museum was opened to a well-mannered crowd filing in single file to the relatively small room, where they were treated to a lavish smorgasbord provided by Frenchtown resident Gerard Freylinger.
They were greeted first by a manikin dressed in an old French style dress donated by Henry Louis, St. Bart's deputy mayor. In a letter, Louis expressed his regrets at not being there in person, but said he will donate to the museum a 632-page book, a compilation of more than 6,000 biographical entries of the early French on St. Barts.
Just beyond the French faux lady, is an enormous mahogany four-poster bed on loan from Ellen Mulraine Boschulte. The little room is packed with treasures. Every inch of the room is utilized.
From the ceiling hang fish pots, filled with colorful fish replicas. There is a display of "Gooses," or old irons, sewing machines, pictures, and an old-fashioned toaster. "The museum is awesome," said Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, "and I've never seen anything like that toaster. It has a gadget where it extends, turns around and flips the toast over."
Occupying places of special honor were the musical instruments of two of Frenchtown's late and well-loved musicians – the accordion of Gustave Quetel, and the tambourine of Sebastian Greaux, which he made himself. The Richardsons are worrying now about storage space. They have encouraged the community to bring things, and the response simply doesn't end. People can donate to the museum, or leave things on loan bas
is, they said.
The museum will be open five days a week. Volunteers school students doing community service and senior citizens – will staff it.
The event brought out people from across the island, by no means just French. In fact, there were more senators than you could shake an amendment at. "It's really wonderful," said Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, "it's so great they have done this." Sen. Louis Hill agreed. "It's so important to preserve our heritage not just French, all of us this is just great to see."
Allan Richardson thanked engineer Alton Adams, whom he called his mentor. Adams said later, " This is a great day for Frenchtown. It shows what you can achieve. The French have contributed so much."
Another volunteer, Tom Brunt of MSI building Supplies, agreed, "Everybody pitched in. It's a work of love."
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