Restoration of Government House on St. Thomas is Well Underway

The view of the stairwell from the third floor reveals the old elevator space. A new elevator is wheelchair compatible. (Photo by Dave Davis)

A good facelift is one that doesn’t look like a facelift, and that seems to be the aim for the restoration of Government House on St. Thomas. Upgrade the structure but preserve the character.

Like the restoration of the St. John Battery – which is almost complete – and the St. Croix Government House in Christiansted – which is just in the design stage – the St. Thomas restoration is funded primarily with FEMA disaster recovery funds related to the 2017 hurricanes.

When it’s finished, Government “House” will be a misnomer because the building will no longer contain a residence; all the space will be devoted to executive branch offices and public rooms for meetings and functions.

The three-story, formal brick structure has stood on Government Hill overlooking downtown Charlotte Amalie since Danish colonial days. Designed by Otto Marstrand, the building was begun in 1865 and competed in 1867. It replaced an earlier structure from 1819, according to government records.

It became the governor’s official residence in 1871 and remained so after the transfer of the islands to the United States in 1917. It housed a series of U.S. Navy governors, followed by civilian governors appointed by the U.S. president and, finally, locally elected governors beginning in 1971.

The subject of the governor’s residence has sometimes been a point of controversy, with critics chastising various chief executives for eschewing the official housing.

Government House on St. Thomas is undergoing repairs and renovations. (Photo by Dave Davis)

In recent years, however, it has become commonplace for governors to live elsewhere, sometimes in their own homes, sometimes in another government building and sometimes in rental property paid for by the government. Former Gov. Alexander Farrelly is the last to occupy Government House; his tenure ended in 1994, and the current governor is the fifth to succeed him.

Now the government maintains a three-bedroom rental unit for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and his family when the St. Croix resident is on St. Thomas, according to Government House spokesman Gerry Yandel. The cost is about $3,000 a month, or slightly lower, he said. He declined to say where the residence is located, citing security concerns.

The governor’s new third-floor office sports fresh paint. (Photo by Dave Davis)

Clearly, Government House has not been in livable condition since at least September 2017 due to hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“It suffered tremendous damage as a result of the storms,” said Dave Davis, special assistant to the governor with oversight for capital projects and facilities.

Davis said the restoration is well underway and expected to be completed by the end of June. The first phase, remediation of mold caused by excessive water brought by the storms, was completed months ago.

A St. Croix business, J. Benton Construction, LLC, is the contractor. The company bid $4.1 million for the contract.

The total cost is likely to be higher than that, Davis said. The FEMA funding is coming as an “actual cost grant,” rather than as a specific dollar figure. While that means there is some flexibility, it also means satisfying strict FEMA accountability standards. The grant requires a 10 percent local match.

While Davis is keeping an eye on expenses, he is also balancing historic preservation strictures with modern accessibility requirements.

To comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the existing elevator had to be replaced with one large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Two lifts also had to be installed, one on the outside of the building to transport people unable to use the staircase from the street level to the first floor of the building, and one inside to get them from the first floor to the mezzanine, where they can board the elevator.

Moreover, the V.I. State Historic Preservation Office, part of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, consults regularly on the project.

“They’re involved with just about everything,” Davis said. “It’s been a good working relationship.”

In a separate interview, Sean Krigger, director of the State Historic Preservation Office, said he attends weekly meetings on the project and advises on how to keep the historic integrity of the building.

The elevator, which is being built by Otis, was a “critical” part of the design, Krigger said. “I was able to find a spot for it” where “it doesn’t disrupt the historic spaces.”

Davis said it is going in near where the old elevator was. It should be installed this week.

New condensers replace old air-conditioning units. (Photo by Dave Davis)

Also, soon to be installed is central air-conditioning to replace unsightly AC units in the grand ballroom on the second floor, he said. That’s to preserve the elegant ambiance of the ballroom, which has been used for public functions for generations.

The FEMA grant also includes money for computer equipment and things such as light fixtures and furnishings, Davis said. The original estimate was $400,000, but FEMA is revising that amount, and probably will increase the figure.

Some of the items damaged in the storms are being or will be sent off-island for repair and others – including the grand piano from the ballroom – are being refurbished by individuals or companies in the territory, Davis said.

Some 12 to 16 light fixtures were sent off-island late last summer, Krigger said. That includes several crystal chandeliers and some wall sconces.

“Some of the crystal was broken,” Krigger said. “One of the chandeliers fell.”

But other pieces primarily need cleaning and rewiring. That work is the contractor’s responsibility; J. Benton has subcontracted with a New Hampshire company for the lighting repairs. Krigger said that the company packed up the fixtures “very carefully” to transport them stateside. “We should have the fixtures back before the end of the summer.”

Other furnishings include couches, tables, side tables, armoires and chairs.

“There are a few reproduction pieces in the collection, but a lot of them are antiques,” Krigger said. Some items were broken, but the major damage was done by water. The heavy rains battered the third floor and poured down onto the second.

There is also a substantial collection of fine china, silver and other high-end dinnerware, notably a large silver service from the era of the Naval governors that includes a candelabra as well as flatware with Navy insignia.

“The government is working on an application for FEMA” for money to repair furniture, artwork and artifacts, Krigger said.

As bad as the storms were, Krigger said he thinks some good can come out of their destruction, if the government’s collection of fine pieces is restored and if they can be appreciated by the public.

“I hope this will be a shining example of what a museum can be,” he said.

Reporting on other restoration projects, Davis said the work at the St. John Battery is almost complete. The Water and Power Authority has reconnected electricity at the site and landscaping is ongoing. As for the St. Croix Government House, a Virgin Islands firm, Springline Architects, has been hired and is working on the design drawings.