May 10, 2005 Fort Christian, the island's premier historic treasure, got a royal sendoff Tuesday morning, as many of those who have worked hard for this day gathered for a farewell before a period of "conservation and stabilization."
The 325-year-old structure's doors will be closed until hopefully this time next year, when the community will be greeted by a newly renovated structure, boasting a new clock tower constructed from Danish yellow brick.
Myron Jackson of the V. I. State Historic Preservation Office of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, presided over the farewell ceremony in the fort courtyard. The crowd comprised a sprinkling of dignitaries, along with preservation advocates, who have had a hand in the fort's history and various incarnations.
Dean Plaskett, DPNR commissioner, explained the "conservation and stabilization" description was used because the National Park Service would have required the use of 17th and 18th century craftsmanship for the work to be described as "renovation." The territory could not afford such work, he said.
Jackson gave a thumbnail sketch of the fort's history. Dating from 1672, it is the oldest standing structure in continuous use in the V. I. It was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1971.
Christianfort, as it was originally known, was the first seat of government in the Danish West Indies. In addition to its military role, it also housed the colony's first Lutheran Church and governor's residence, a fact remarked on by Pastor Stephan Kienberger of the Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church, who gave the invocation Tuesday.
Over the centuries, the fort has been used as a government office building, prison, courthouse and police station before being designated a museum in 1971, when the V. I. Museum of Fine Arts moved into the lower cell level, even as it was still operating as a police station. The fort is still home to the museum today.
Jackson tried to thank everyone and every organization that has been associated with the museum's welfare. It was an exhaustive task. He mentioned Delores Jowers, curator of the museum for three decades, who was off island Tuesday. He honored the memory of architect Fred Gjessing and De Jongh Associates, who worked tirelessly on the fort for years. Gjessing's widow, Helen Gjessing, was on hand for the ceremony.
Jackson thanked Claudette Lewis, DPNR assistant commissioner, Wystan D. Benjamin, PWD design/construction program manager, and Aloy Nielsen, PWD highway engineering director, who have spent part of the last 10 years trying to move the project along.
George Phillips, acting Public Works commissioner, had some encouraging words. He said he wants "to do something about Main Street, with its asphalt overlays." He said the look of Charlotte Amalie has bothered him, and he vowed to work for change. His remarks met sound applause.
Corinne Lockhart, the past president and an active member of the St. Thomas-St. John Friends of Denmark Society, had an unusual presentation. She presented the fort with 1,000 (virtual) Danish bricks.
Lockhart said that, at Jackson's suggestion when the two of them were on a Danish visit with the society, she was able to secure 2,000 of the yellow Danish bricks which were used originally in the fort's clock tower.
"As we have our society here, the Danes have a West Indian Society. They were happy to get us the bricks," Lockhart said. "They were from the Slenberg Brick Factory, which had made the original ones. The Danish training ship, the Danmark, brought 1,000 to St. Thomas. I didn't know where to store them, but Ed Thomas at the West Indian Co. said he would store them.
"Then," she said, "when we went to get them, nobody could find them because Calvin Wheatly had handled the storage and he had retired but Mr. Thomas came to the rescue, and now we have them." She said she has no idea how to get the remaining 1,000 bricks to St. Thomas.
John Woods, project architect with the Jaredian Design group, gave brief remarks detailing the project. (See "Fort Finally Being Prepped For A Facelift.")
Sen. Louis Hill, who has worked on the project for several years and helped secure the financing for the project, said, "I came at a time when many were working on the project. I was a piece of the puzzle. I am very happy to be here today."
James O'Bryan, St. Thomas-Water Island administrator and Government House spokesman, conveyed the governor's congratulations for the project. Turnbull was at meetings on St. Croix and could not attend, O 'Bryan said.
All the government officials expressed the hope that the Fort would be re-opened "a year from today."
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