A bit behind schedule and a lot above the original cost estimate, renovations to Government House on St. Thomas are expected to be completed in about two more months.
Dave Davis, special assistant to Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and the man with oversight for capital projects and facilities, put the delay down to the difficulties of dealing with historic property and complying with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“When you’re dealing with old buildings, you just don’t know what you’re going to find,” he said. In this case, one thing was a deck that had to be demolished. There also was the need to install a lift outside and a new elevator inside, both of them large enough to accommodate a wheelchair.
The showcase of Charlotte Amalie’s Government Hill, the structure took two years to build, from 1865 to 1867. It became the official residence of the governor and his family beginning in 1871. For more than 100 years it housed the families of governors, first those from Denmark, then those appointed by the U.S. government, and eventually those elected by the people of the Virgin Islands.
It has been the site of formal dinners, public receptions, historic meetings, and the occasional angry demonstration. In more recent decades it has been used for executive offices. The last governor to use it as a residence was Alexander Farrelly, who left office in 1994.
Government House was heavily damaged in 2017 by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and has been unusable since then.
Its renovation is being funded through a disaster grant from FEMA with a 10 percent match from the local government. The work is being done by J. Benton Construction.
The company’s original bid was $4.1 million. As of this week, the cost sits at $5.1 million, Davis said.
Davis said he had predicted some increase when he spoke to the Source early in March. At that time, he predicted the project would be complete by late June.
Wednesday, Davis said the contractor is committed to turning the building over to the government by Nov. 24, although he said it may happen as early as the end of October.
All that’s left, he said, “are finishing touches, so to speak.” Those include some “minor tiling” and getting the new elevator certified for use.
There is a separate FEMA disaster grant of $289,267 for repair and restoration work on the contents of Government House. That is to cover office equipment such as computers as well as artwork and furniture, including some antiques.
Like the grant for the construction work, the funding is an “actual cost” grant, meaning FEMA will increase it if the local government can make a legitimate case for more money, Davis said. The original figure came from an assessment made shortly after the storms and the cost is likely to have increased in the past four years.
FEMA has also committed funding for counterpart structures on St. Croix and St. John that were also damaged by the 2017 storms.
Work at the St. John Battery has been completed and the building was turned over to the V.I. government last March, Davis said.
On St. Croix, Springline Architects has made an assessment of the work needed on Government House in Christiansted and on the Arthur Abel Complex in Frederiksted (AKA the Old Danish School).
“We’re concentrating on the Frederiksted complex” first, Davis said, because it needs the most repair.
Christiansted Government House is in fairly good condition and is being used for several government offices, he said, adding, “that’s where the governor lives as well.”
Davis took Ananta Pancham from the Source on a photo-taking tour of St. Thomas Government House Wednesday. The general footprint remains the same as before the renovation, but some modifications have been made.
An outside elevator allows access from the street level, taking passengers to a courtyard outside the first floor. A second elevator inside runs from the first to the third floor. For those not using the elevator, entry, as before, leads up an outside staircase to a large lobby featuring a sweeping staircase. Several offices will also be on the first floor. The second floor boasts the grand ballroom and a formal dining room as well as a kitchen. The third floor, which used to be living quarters, is now devoted to the governor’s office, a conference room, a kitchen, and an office for an assistant.