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HomeNewsArchivesSIGNS OF RENAISSANCE: HAAGENSEN HOUSE, MORE

SIGNS OF RENAISSANCE: HAAGENSEN HOUSE, MORE

The 99 Steps aren't what they very recently used to be. And therein lies a tale that is generating happiness for business and historic preservation interests — and it is nowhere near to ending.
For decades, the brick stairway from Kongens Gade to the residential road ringing Blackbeard's Hill rose stark and daunting. It passed by the ruins of long-abandoned buildings on both sides and was, in broad daylight, the scene of a mugging that left a tourist paralyzed in the 1980s.
Today, the "step street" has a new lease on life, symbolic of a rebirth of a succession of historic structures on the slope above Kongens Gade and the hill above. It has well-tended bougainvillea and other plantings thriving on both sides, thanks to underground irrigation; rainfall run-off channeled into new brick and stone gutters; sturdy new railings; and, most important, an enticing historic and cultural attraction awaiting climbers nearly at the top.
And there is more to come — the flowering of a partnership between private sector commitment and cash and not-for-profit dedication to historic preservation.
The corporate force behind the changes is Michael Ball, son of Vernon Ball. The father developed Hotel 1829, originally a residence known as Lavalette House, into a small, European- flavored but elegant hotel with a world-renowned kitchen. The son now runs the business and is pursuing an intense interest in historic preservation in the immediate environs of the land of his birth and upbringing.
About two years ago, St. Thomas Historic Trust president Felipe Ayala explains, Michael Ball purchased the property behind the hotel, the remains of a long-abandoned home dating from the early 1800s. "His purpose was twofold," Ayala says, "to increase the hotel space and to save a historic house that was in ruins."
The house was painstakingly restored as a combined museum and functions facility with lavishly landscaped grounds. Haagensen House opened last year as a private venue with meeting, dining and outdoor mingling accommodations for banquets, receptions, weddings and the like. Recently, a deal was struck for the not-for-profit Historic Trust to take over the museum end of the operation. Hotel 1829 hired Ayala to begin work March 1 as executive director of the overall operation, and the Historic Trust hired Brenda Sullivan as house manager. The Trust "manages the house for Michael Ball, curates its collection of West Indian antiques and art, and gives tours of the house and the neighborhood," Ayala explains.
Ball's immersion in historic restoration is both a response and a catalyst to what is going on at the top of the steps. Blackbeard's Hill residents Michele Shulterbrandt Agurkis and her husband, Matthew, a contractor, are restoring the Shulterbrandt family home on the hill. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, architects Robert and Donna deJongh are restoring their home, Crown House, the onetime residence of Gov. Peter Von Scholten built around 1740, in period style.
Recently, Ball acquired the property extending the length of the other side of the steps. It includes five buildings to be restored, including the historic Kirkiterp house. The property greathouse, torn down earlier because it was attracting vagrants and undesirable elements, will be reconstructed, Ayala says, and gardens will be replanted. Already a section of wall alongside the 99 Steps has been replastered.
Meantime, visitors tour Haagensen House daily, finding polished wood floors and the furnishings of an early 19th Century family with children. The then-owner, an accountant at the Bank of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, was married to a member of the Magen family. They had nine children. In the small dining room, the table "is set as if the head of the house were about to come home for dinner," Ayala says. In the pantry, he points out with delight a child's desk, a plant stand and a chair "found in the trash" set out along streets in the downtown area.
Adjacent to the separate kitchen, what was originally a vegetable and herb garden is planted in more bougainvillea and other flowering plants. On other side of the kitchen are what were slave quarters. The wooden building has been restored on the exterior but is not open to tours, for inside today is the full modern kitchen that serves the property's banquet and reception needs.
The Historic Trust owns some of the antiques in the house, and others are on loan from private owners, Ayala says. Philip Sturm, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, as was Ayala until recently, is the curator of the furniture collection. "We want to set up a revolving loan program where we would exhibit pieces for six months or a year at a time," Ayala says.
Haagensen, by the way, is pronounced just about any way you like. You hear Historic Trust people say Hay'-gensen, Hoh'-gensen and Hah'-gensen. Ayala opts for the Hay and quotes the view of Sturm, a native of Trinidad, who holds that "rather than try to say it like the Danes [which would be akin to the Hoh] and still get it wrong, we should stick to an English pronunciation."
"We've created our own house tour," Ayala says, "and we also conduct walking tours going downward — from Blackbeard's Castle, past L'Hotel Boynes and Crown House, through the Haagensen House museum and grounds, past Hotel 1829 and 1854 Hus, past Educators Park and the Grand Hotel, and ending in Emancipation Garden." In addition, he says, "We can put together custom tours anywhere in Kongens Quarter."
Ayala, St. Thomas born, just turned 30. He developed his interest in historic homes and antiques from childhood, when his godmother, Gwendolyn Kean, "would take me to visit the homes of old families in the district." In his adulthood, he counts Sturm and Edith deJongh Woods as his major mentors. He talks unself-consciously in terms most people of his generation would not recognize — Kongens Quarter rather than Kings Quarter, Commandant Gade instead of Garden Street, the flat lands of New Town in reference to the area between Coconut Square — today known as Roosevelt Park — and the ball park, a.k.a. Lionel Roberts Stadium.
The Historic Trust sees "the future of St. Thomas as a tourism destination tied to this renaissance of cultural and historical interest," he says. And with that in mind, he adds, one goal of the organization is to acquire "the top floor of the Camille Pissarro Building" and turn it into a museum dedicated to the famed French Impressionist artist who was born there and spent his formative years on St. Thomas. Another goal is to open the former residence and dental office of Dr. Gerhard Sprauve on lower Garden Street as a museum. "All of his old instruments are still in there," Ayala notes.
The one ruin on Kongens Gade, across from the property Ball now owns, is the charred remains of the government's old Budget Office, destroyed by fire in the 1980s. Ayala envisions that former residence being restored oneday for use as a local art museum.
Ayala had a successful career as a floral designer for Silk Greenery in Fort Mylner before taking his new position. Happily, he says, he didn't have to leave one job entirely to take the other. By working during the day at Haagensen House and continuing to serve select clients in the evening at Silk Greenery, he says, "I'm in the wonderful position of being able to indulge both of the passions of my life."
Haagensen House tours are offered seven days a week between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Reservations are required for groups and appreciated for all. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Guided walking tours are by arrangement. Those interested in a self-guided historic look at Charlotte Amalie need look no further than the MAPes MONDe shop located within the house, where for $5 they can purchase a copy of t
he Historic Trust's town walking tour booklet that Ayala put together years ago.
The Historic Trust is a membership-based organization that has monthly meetings and presents occasional workshops. Dues are $20 a year. For more information about Haagensen House or the Historic Trust, call 774-9605.

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The 99 Steps aren't what they very recently used to be. And therein lies a tale that is generating happiness for business and historic preservation interests -- and it is nowhere near to ending.
For decades, the brick stairway from Kongens Gade to the residential road ringing Blackbeard's Hill rose stark and daunting. It passed by the ruins of long-abandoned buildings on both sides and was, in broad daylight, the scene of a mugging that left a tourist paralyzed in the 1980s.
Today, the "step street" has a new lease on life, symbolic of a rebirth of a succession of historic structures on the slope above Kongens Gade and the hill above. It has well-tended bougainvillea and other plantings thriving on both sides, thanks to underground irrigation; rainfall run-off channeled into new brick and stone gutters; sturdy new railings; and, most important, an enticing historic and cultural attraction awaiting climbers nearly at the top.
And there is more to come -- the flowering of a partnership between private sector commitment and cash and not-for-profit dedication to historic preservation.
The corporate force behind the changes is Michael Ball, son of Vernon Ball. The father developed Hotel 1829, originally a residence known as Lavalette House, into a small, European- flavored but elegant hotel with a world-renowned kitchen. The son now runs the business and is pursuing an intense interest in historic preservation in the immediate environs of the land of his birth and upbringing.
About two years ago, St. Thomas Historic Trust president Felipe Ayala explains, Michael Ball purchased the property behind the hotel, the remains of a long-abandoned home dating from the early 1800s. "His purpose was twofold," Ayala says, "to increase the hotel space and to save a historic house that was in ruins."
The house was painstakingly restored as a combined museum and functions facility with lavishly landscaped grounds. Haagensen House opened last year as a private venue with meeting, dining and outdoor mingling accommodations for banquets, receptions, weddings and the like. Recently, a deal was struck for the not-for-profit Historic Trust to take over the museum end of the operation. Hotel 1829 hired Ayala to begin work March 1 as executive director of the overall operation, and the Historic Trust hired Brenda Sullivan as house manager. The Trust "manages the house for Michael Ball, curates its collection of West Indian antiques and art, and gives tours of the house and the neighborhood," Ayala explains.
Ball's immersion in historic restoration is both a response and a catalyst to what is going on at the top of the steps. Blackbeard's Hill residents Michele Shulterbrandt Agurkis and her husband, Matthew, a contractor, are restoring the Shulterbrandt family home on the hill. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, architects Robert and Donna deJongh are restoring their home, Crown House, the onetime residence of Gov. Peter Von Scholten built around 1740, in period style.
Recently, Ball acquired the property extending the length of the other side of the steps. It includes five buildings to be restored, including the historic Kirkiterp house. The property greathouse, torn down earlier because it was attracting vagrants and undesirable elements, will be reconstructed, Ayala says, and gardens will be replanted. Already a section of wall alongside the 99 Steps has been replastered.
Meantime, visitors tour Haagensen House daily, finding polished wood floors and the furnishings of an early 19th Century family with children. The then-owner, an accountant at the Bank of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, was married to a member of the Magen family. They had nine children. In the small dining room, the table "is set as if the head of the house were about to come home for dinner," Ayala says. In the pantry, he points out with delight a child's desk, a plant stand and a chair "found in the trash" set out along streets in the downtown area.
Adjacent to the separate kitchen, what was originally a vegetable and herb garden is planted in more bougainvillea and other flowering plants. On other side of the kitchen are what were slave quarters. The wooden building has been restored on the exterior but is not open to tours, for inside today is the full modern kitchen that serves the property's banquet and reception needs.
The Historic Trust owns some of the antiques in the house, and others are on loan from private owners, Ayala says. Philip Sturm, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, as was Ayala until recently, is the curator of the furniture collection. "We want to set up a revolving loan program where we would exhibit pieces for six months or a year at a time," Ayala says.
Haagensen, by the way, is pronounced just about any way you like. You hear Historic Trust people say Hay'-gensen, Hoh'-gensen and Hah'-gensen. Ayala opts for the Hay and quotes the view of Sturm, a native of Trinidad, who holds that "rather than try to say it like the Danes [which would be akin to the Hoh] and still get it wrong, we should stick to an English pronunciation."
"We've created our own house tour," Ayala says, "and we also conduct walking tours going downward -- from Blackbeard's Castle, past L'Hotel Boynes and Crown House, through the Haagensen House museum and grounds, past Hotel 1829 and 1854 Hus, past Educators Park and the Grand Hotel, and ending in Emancipation Garden." In addition, he says, "We can put together custom tours anywhere in Kongens Quarter."
Ayala, St. Thomas born, just turned 30. He developed his interest in historic homes and antiques from childhood, when his godmother, Gwendolyn Kean, "would take me to visit the homes of old families in the district." In his adulthood, he counts Sturm and Edith deJongh Woods as his major mentors. He talks unself-consciously in terms most people of his generation would not recognize -- Kongens Quarter rather than Kings Quarter, Commandant Gade instead of Garden Street, the flat lands of New Town in reference to the area between Coconut Square -- today known as Roosevelt Park -- and the ball park, a.k.a. Lionel Roberts Stadium.
The Historic Trust sees "the future of St. Thomas as a tourism destination tied to this renaissance of cultural and historical interest," he says. And with that in mind, he adds, one goal of the organization is to acquire "the top floor of the Camille Pissarro Building" and turn it into a museum dedicated to the famed French Impressionist artist who was born there and spent his formative years on St. Thomas. Another goal is to open the former residence and dental office of Dr. Gerhard Sprauve on lower Garden Street as a museum. "All of his old instruments are still in there," Ayala notes.
The one ruin on Kongens Gade, across from the property Ball now owns, is the charred remains of the government's old Budget Office, destroyed by fire in the 1980s. Ayala envisions that former residence being restored oneday for use as a local art museum.
Ayala had a successful career as a floral designer for Silk Greenery in Fort Mylner before taking his new position. Happily, he says, he didn't have to leave one job entirely to take the other. By working during the day at Haagensen House and continuing to serve select clients in the evening at Silk Greenery, he says, "I'm in the wonderful position of being able to indulge both of the passions of my life."
Haagensen House tours are offered seven days a week between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Reservations are required for groups and appreciated for all. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children. Guided walking tours are by arrangement. Those interested in a self-guided historic look at Charlotte Amalie need look no further than the MAPes MONDe shop located within the house, where for $5 they can purchase a copy of t he Historic Trust's town walking tour booklet that Ayala put together years ago.
The Historic Trust is a membership-based organization that has monthly meetings and presents occasional workshops. Dues are $20 a year. For more information about Haagensen House or the Historic Trust, call 774-9605.