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Historical Architecture

Testament to Britain’s influence is the architecture of the many historic structures still standing today.

The traditional wood and stone structures, coral was also used in construction, lending a unique Barbadian flair. Jacobean, Georgian, and Victorian styles dominate the landscape, and these were mostly constructed by slaves. The iconic Chattel House was also constructed by slaves and is an integral of the island's architectural legacy. The vivid colours of these chattel houses shows the West African influence.

As you travel around the island you will see many examples of the Chattel House, a distinct form of architecture that is unique to Barbados. The design of these small wooden houses dates back to Emancipation, when the former slaves were allowed to build a house on a piece of plantation land. Because they did not own the land, the house could not be built on a permanent foundation, in case it had to be moved. The solution to this challenge was to build a wooden house and rest it on a base of coral stone blocks, so that they could literally move house if so required. Hence the name chattel house, as a man's movable possessions were called his chattels. Despite its humble origins, the chattel house evolved into a carefully planned structure, with several distinct design characteristics and a variety of intricate adornments.

European colonisation of the Caribbean left a rich architectural heritage. Of the English speaking Caribbean, Barbados is perhaps the most fortunate in its profusion of old buildings of all types. These are chiefly late Georgian or Victorian, but include a significant number of earlier structures, including, astonishingly, at least eight major seventeenth century houses and several from around 1700.

Over the 389 years since settlement in 1627, Barbados has developed a unique range of domestic styles – sufficiently interrelated that it might be described as having its own Barbadian architectural ordinance. Georgian designs have had the greatest influence, replacing earlier medieval house forms, most of which must have been demolished in the Great Hurricane of 1780 or earlier, by storms of lesser severity.

Continuous British presence ensured a continuity of the principles of balance, symmetry and harmonious design, which characterised the Georgian style. The conservative Barbadian personality no doubt contributed to more uniform styles. The other major influences were the materials, the climate and the “financial wherewithal”. Coral limestone covers most of Barbados and the extensive inland terraces of old sea-cliffs made quarrying easy and cheap. Hence the use of stone predominated, except for the post-emancipation smaller wooden “chattel” houses, which had to be movable.

The climate, notably high temperatures and heavy rains, required and produced ingenious solutions. With experience of the tropics came wide verandahs and jalousied windows.

Demerara windows (borrowed from Guyana), high, ventilated gables and “tray” ceilings all came into use. Hurricane risks dictated more squat, horizontal buildings and inspired coral stone parapet roofs, including a unique “Barbadian parapet” to protect gabled or hipped roofs from high winds. Indeed the combination of the need to build for strength and the supply of coral stone, and perhaps the traditional conservative nature of the Barbadian, are responsible for the profusion of fine old plantation ‘Great Houses’ and churches still to be seen in Barbados today.

The financial state of the country at various times also had a major influence on building patterns. Barbados attained wealth and importance quickly, with in twenty years of settlement. In 1638, Colonel James Drax and other planters pioneered sugar and by the mid-1640s it was a great commercial success. When Bridgetown was destroyed by fire in 1666 and by hurricane in 1675 there was wealth enough to rebuild in fine style.