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Undercurrents: Fort Christian Restoration Work Expanding

Fort Christian clock tower has been renovated. (Photo provided by Sean Krigger)A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

It looks like the renovation project of historic Fort Christian is nearing completion. Really. This time, really.

That’s despite the recent addition of considerably more work.

Understandably leery of making pronouncements or predictions in the 12th year of a supposedly one-year project, (well, longer, if you count the years of false starts leading up to the official Notice to Proceed on the work in 2005) officials are being cautious about predicting when the landmark will actually reopen.

“The timeframe is a little shifting in the sands,” Ingrid Bough, the territorial director of Libraries, Archives and Museums, a division of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said last week. In a follow-up email, she said, “the Division anticipates that it (the fort) will play a significant role in some of the Centennial commemorations events and activities.”

The actual centennial of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the U.S. is March 2017, but activities are supposed to begin later this year, so clearly officials think the end is in sight.

The man who is actually overseeing the project, Sean Krigger, director of the State Historic Preservation Office at DPNR, is especially optimistic.

He said he’s looking forward to the end of construction “which should be in the next couple months.”

Krigger said reconstruction of the roof and work to the outside structure, including the clock, tower already is virtually complete, as is the lime plastering of the walls. All of the above ground service lines have been removed and electrical lines and conduits for telephone and internet installed underground. Concrete has been painstakingly removed from the bricks in the front steps and in the entrance area. Historic light fixtures have been added in the area that was once a church and the governor’s quarters.

“We are next to tackle the restoration of the courtyard,” he said. A supplemental contract for that job is “making its way through legal review.” The estimated cost is “a little over $400,000.”

The brick steps at the entry of Fort Christian were recently restored. (Photo provided by Sean Krigger)Krigger said he doesn’t know the cost for the entire project but “It’s more than $4 million, for sure,” and probably more like $5 million.

The courtyard work will be extensive. The Danes had constructed brick flooring in the open-air yard, which is enclosed by the fort walls. Most of it later had concrete poured over, perhaps as an accommodation when the fort was used as a jail. Prisoners were kept at the fort as late as the 1970s.

The concrete makes for easier access, but it wasn’t in the original design, and, Krigger stressed, the intention is that the fort be historically accurate. So, the concrete must go. The bricks under it have deteriorated and so they will be replaced.

“The idea is to retain as much of the original material as possible,” Krigger said. The roof originally had three layers of golden yellow bricks. When those were removed to reconstruct the roof, one layer was set aside for use elsewhere at the site. They will be laid in the courtyard; if there aren’t enough, the contractor will supplement them with new bricks.

It took 700 bricks just to pave the front steps and the entrance foyer, Krigger said, so it will take far more for the courtyard.

Preparing the bricks is a major task in itself. Masons first have to chip the mortar away from each brick and then, using a grinder, give it what Krigger called “a light dusting” being careful not to damage it. After that, the bricks are dipped in a mild solution of water and muriatic acid.

“It’s really a job to get them prepped,” Krigger said. “You do have to work at it.”

Work in the courtyard also will include marking off an area that will illustrate the footprint of an older tower that was removed more than 100 years ago, Krigger said. The Skytsborg Tower predated the existing clock tower, which was erected during a previous renovation, in 1874.

Before the current work is finished, officials also will replace human remains that were uncovered at the site in the area that housed a church. Krigger said there will be a historical marker placed there.

Until it was closed for renovations, the fort used to be open for tours and it attracted a fair number of school children as well as tourists. It was also used as a venue for community events, including concerts and other performances.

Future plans for both Fort Christian on St. Thomas and Fort Frederik on St. Croix focus on historical, cultural, recreational and educational activities, Bough said, including “historical tours, historical and cultural exhibits, local historical artifacts/displays, cultural and historical workshops and programs, community events, (and) partnership programs/collaborative ventures with government entities and historical organizations/groups.”

Exactly how close the future is, is still a question.

“Dawn L. Henry, Esq., DPNR’s Commissioner, will formally announce at the appropriate time a grand opening or re-opening celebration and outline how the forts will function within the community,” Bough said.

According to testimony given at a ceremony in 2005, Fort Christian is the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands. Construction began in 1672. Its primary purpose was defense of Charlotte Amalie Harbor, but for most of the 1700s it also contained a Lutheran Church. In early times it also served as a governor’s residence and housed some government offices. It was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1971 and became a museum then. 

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