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@Work: Seven Arches Museum

Sept. 14, 2008 — One of the island's historic Danish treasures, the Seven Arches Museum, is looking for a friend, a new caretaker who will tender the same loving care that Barbara Demaras has provided for the past 24 years.
Demaras, 70, who has transformed the once woefully neglected structure into the tiny jewel it is today, is looking ahead to the time when she won't be able to maintain her home museum. Nestled in a little enclave behind the Lieutenant Governor's building on Knud Hansen alley, the unique structure holds its own in the historic district, though it bears the scars of past hurricanes and fires.
The Danish colonial townhouse dates back to the 1850s, according to the research Damaras and others have pursued. The building bursts with history; it would seem that every brick in the two-story structure has a story to tell.
Utilizing records from the Danish National Archives, along with firsthand observations, historian Birgit Freiesleben published a richly annotated history in 2000, "Seven Arches Museum," which contains maps, land registers, newspaper clippings and censuses dating back to 1841with names familiar today: Bonelli, Petersen, Schaltenbrandts, and, of course, Corneiro.
The Corneiro family owned the home from 1906 to 1965, when it was known as the "Cornerio House," as chronicled in "I Born Here," by Enrique Francisco Cornerio. It is a personal look at his family, an integral part of local history. (Both books are for sale at the museum.) sevenarchesmuseum.com
Freiesleben describes her first foray into the museum: "The gates of wrought iron lead to a garden of stones surrounded by flowers and hosting continually buzzing hummingbirds."
Those birds are in full voice today, along with the racket from eight miniature mutts owned by Demaras and her husband, Philibert Fluck. In fact, a sign on the gate instructs: "Ring the bell. The dogs will stop barking when you enter."
Demaras conducts a leisurely stroll through the house and gardens. The seven arches support the flight of stairs, known as the "Welcoming Arms Staircase," whose distinctive shape flairs out at its bottom.
The dogs follow quietly as Demaras walks into the living room, where tables set with Royal Copenhagen china bask in the morning light, almost beckoning one to luncheon.
Demaras and Fluck searched the West Indies and Europe for authentic pieces to complement the museum such as the china, period furniture, gas lamps and a cast iron chandelier, which Demaras says was one of the first on the island to use electricity.
"We're living in this wonderful home," Demaras says, "which has such a compelling history. I love all the things in it, and each has a story. When I am gone, I want to find like-minded people to preserve it. That would mean the younger generation. I would love to have students come here and learn how to curate a museum."
Meantime, Demaras has her hands full with day to day maintenance of the structure which she and Fluck bought in 1984. "At the time, we had just moved here and needed a place to live; it sort of presented itself. We moved in as tenants in 1984, and when it came up for sale in 1986, we bought it." The museum opened in 1993, the result of nine years of blood, sweat and tears
A bedroom leads off the living room, taking us deeper into the 18th century. An imposing West Indian mahogany canopy bed, covered in cream linen, dominates the room.
Demaras opens a mahogany cabinet filled with artifacts. "I'm always digging up things," she says. "I even found an 1895 carriage lamp."
Poking around a little more, we discover the kitchen, complete with open hearth, which is separate from the house. It is overgrown with night blooming cereus which Demaras says "probably holds it together."
The downstairs, which doubles as the couple's living quarters, is filled with more artifacts, including a French carousel goose. The walls are covered with Demaras' paintings, abstract canvases splashed with bright color.
An artist as well as a curator, Demaras says, "I hope to raise money with these. We have a $150,000 debt on the property which I want to pay off before I donate it. I have a series of smaller paintings at the Caribbean Arts and Crafts Coop downtown. None are more than $100."
Demaras has contacted local historical societies, she says, but so far hasn't had any bidders. "I'm hoping someone will want to continue to preserve it," she says. "It's a living piece of St. Thomas history. It is the heart and soul of West Indian culture."
Demaras can be contacted at 774-9295.
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