After being closed for more than a decade for renovations, Fort Christian finally reopened its doors to the public on Wednesday afternoon with a dedication ceremony that filled its center courtyard with more than 250 people.
The opening came just in time to mark the Transfer Day centennial, the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Virgin islands becoming U.S. territories.
Attendees eagerly explored the fort’s many rooms and its upper deck area that overlooks Charlotte Amalie and its harbor while being treated to live music and dancing.
Said to be the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands, the fort has significant historical and cultural value to the territory’s people and will serve as a major tourist attraction going forward.
Built beginning in 1671, the fort’s initial purpose was to protect the Charlotte Amalie Harbor. In 1971 it was designated a National Historical Landmark and then become a museum.
Emphasizing the fort’s historical and cultural value, many of the speakers pointed out that the fort has served a number of critical functions throughout its existence.
“We are witnessing something that was almost 350 years in the making,” said Malcolm M. Scheizer, president of the St. Thomas Historical Trust. “This fort through her history has been a place of worship, a place of governance, a fortress of protection.”
For Senate President Myron Dr. Jackson, the fort is a both a cultural treasure and economic driver.
“The restoration of Fort Christian is a significant cultural resource,” Jackson said. “We have the opportunity to reopen its doors to our people and our visitors as a reminder of our struggles, our hopes and our aspirations.”
“The economic benefit to Charlotte Amalie and the territory is enormous. History and culture sells,” Jackson added.
The dedication ceremony began with an abbreviated church service from the Rev. Charles Peters, officiant at Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church, who urged Virgin Islanders to stay committed to the site’s preservation.
“We will never again allow this place to go into disrepair,” Peters said.
Lieutenant Governor Osbert Potter remarked that it had felt as if the fort would never be completed, but now that it’s done he hopes young Virgin Islanders will get to learn more about their history.
The fort’s restoration officially began in 2005. Originally planned as a one-year project, construction carried into a 13th year before its recent completion.
Dawn Henry, Commissioner of DPNR, thanked key members of her staff who were instrumental in seeing the project through, as well as two construction companies, Tip Top Construction and Custom Builders, that worked on the restoration.
In an effort to depoliticize the dedication ceremony, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp said that a number of officials from past administrations should be thanked for their efforts to restore and reopen the fort. He also said that the fire station that abuts the fort will be demolished, so that side of the fort is more visible.
To restore the structure, repairs were made to the roof and outside structure, including the clock tower that serves as its entrance. All above-ground service lines, including electric, cable and internet, were removed and installed underground.
With a focus on historical accuracy, the concrete in the courtyard was removed and replaced with brick in accordance with the original Danish design. The brick was likely covered up when the fort was used as a jail.
During the restoration process, human remains were uncovered at the site. They now rest in a small tomb in the chapel area of the fort.
The fort is expected to draw tourists and school children and will also serve as a venue for community events like weddings and concerts.