Historic Warehouse Gets New Life at Maho Bay


 Born as a warehouse for a small sugar plantation, circa 1723, this building is getting new life as part of a single-family home renovation at Maho Bay. A descendant of the family that purchased the 18th century Vessup Estate plantation is now converting it into a dwelling. Because of its historic value, the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office has asked that certain architectural features be preserved.

The original shutters still hang from the windows of an 18th century warehouse that sat largely undisturbed in a shaded corner of Maho Bay Beach for decades. Although it is not a registered historic site, documents kept by the National Park Service say this plantation era warehouse played a significant role in the Fortsberg Slave Uprising.

Motorists travelling along Route 20 past Maho Bay Beach have noticed it for years, at the end of the straightaway; a small stone building, shaded by trees, shuttered windows and doors.

Recent activity in the area of that building has brought new interest to beach-goers, passersby and the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office.

Renovations on the 18th century warehouse dating from the Danish plantation era began in February in the area, which was acquired through a deal with Trust for Public Land.

As the required Coastal Zone Management permitting process took shape, more information surfaced about the once innocuous structure and the role it played in Virgin Islands history.

The factory is now being incorporated into the construction of a single family private house, with work taking place under the eye of VISHPO.

The old stone warehouse was a strategic location for rebel slaves who captured St. John from Danish planters during the 1733 Forstberg Slave Revolt, according to documents kept by the Virgin Islands National Park.

During that slave revolt, the island was held for six months until it was re-taken by French and British military.

The first mention of the Maho factory building appeared on 18th century maps and the structure is believed to have been built around 1723, along with an adjacent animal-driven mill. According to records found in the St. John Sites Report 1981-82, the property originally belonged to William Vessup, who was prosecuted for killing a neighboring landowner but later found leniency by helping to round up rebel slaves.

“…the Vessup Estate ruins are noteworthy as a representative buildings of the early settlement period in St. John and as the site of the rebel headquarters during the famous slave uprising of 1733. The association of the estate with William Vessup, a figure noted in the court history of the islands, adds an incidental interest. The factory itself is one of the oldest ones on St. John as suggested by its building materials and its modest size. This gives the estate even greater distinction,” according to the report.

The Vessup property operated as a small sugar plantation during that era but later fell out of use after Emancipation in 1848. Over the next several years, the land was incorporated into a property called Abraham’s Fancy, which was purchased by Harvey Monroe Marsh.

The current owner, Alva Marsh, applied for the permits that led to the current renovation. Permits were approved in February by Department of Planning and Natural Resources’ Coastal Zone Management Director Jean-Pierre Oriol.

In a letter dated February 15, 2014, Oriol told Marsh the building he wanted to modify had historic significance even though there was no formal documentation.

“Therefore, the proposed architectural plans for the rehabilitation of the historic Warehouse will be required to be reviewed by VISHPO,” the letter read.

The doorway entrance facing south towards the roadway was a significant architectural feature that had to be preserved, Oriol explained.

Since renovations began in February, one of the factory walls has been taken down by builders, allowing for the attachment of an adjoining room.

“The proposed conversion of a historic doorway to a window on the south side of the Warehouse will be allowed if the infill wall is recessed back from the outside face of the wall,” according the CZM Director’s letter. “This recessed detail will allow for the historic doorway opening appearance to remain, but will provide the solid infill wall further back to support the new window.”

The CZM Director also noted that archaeological or historic resources may be present below ground in and around the construction site. That detail was also referenced in the 1980s records.

“The whole site has considerable documentary interest in understanding the early settlement patterns and agricultural development on the island of St. John and possesses a rich potential as an archaeological site,” according to that document.