Bermuda naval dwelling was an architectural bellwether
Ireland Island, Bermuda
Like all ill-fated Ford Edsel of the mid-1950s, the Commissioner's House at the Royal Naval Dockyard here was ahead of its time. Built in the 1820s as a residence for the dockyard officer in charge, the house on the westernmost tip of this Atlantic island could well be among the first dwellings in the world to use structural cast iron in place of wood.
The English used cast iron for bridges as early as the 1770s, and it showed up in cathedrals in the early 1800s. But it was not until some 30 years after the building of the Commissioner's House that structural cast iron found its way into general use in large buildings.
Cast-iron innovations such as this helped pave the way for the age of steel and skyscrapers, which was yet to come.
In addition to this unique technology, the house has the historical distinction of possibly being the oldest stone building in the carefully planned naval complex. It now is part of the Bermuda Maritime Museum and is currently being renovated after 20 years of neglect and abuse.
Perched on a desolate rampart between the now-defunct dockyard and the open sea, the derelict house has been pillaged by vandals and salvagers. The once-proud residence, with its wide verandas of Yorkshire paving stone, has been stripped of valuable brass trim and other metals used for such things as plumbing and roofing.
When restoration work began last year, the house had few windows left and rain poured through the rafters during storms.
The house has been certified as still structurally sound, and the sturdy iron understructure claims part o the credit for this. For example, in one corner of the house there is a gap between the iron veranda upright support and the eave. But the iron- framed roof has not even sagged.
The roof trusses are made of straight pieces of cast iron, bolted together in such a way that they can flex for thermal contraction and expansion. Vertical iron rods are used to reinforce the trusses.
"Of course, it's not part of our own Bermuda architecture in any way, because it was entirely designed in England . . .," says historian William Zuill. "But it is an interesting example of the architectural heritage brought from England."
The Portland stone used for the main walls of the house was quarried, cut to size, and numbered in Britain. This meant that the stones could just be put together as building blocks when they reached the island. The cast-iron trusses and girders used to support the floor and roof where similarly prefabricated.
And while sturdy Bermuda cedar trees were still plentiful at the time of construction, the wood flooring for the house was brought from overseas. Indeed , except for the locally quarried stone used for the basement walls, the house is a two-story British import.
This imported heritage may help explain some of the more dubious design features of the house, such as the attached carriage house and stable with room for two carriages and 11 horses. These things were standard equipment for English houses of the era. But when the Commissioner's House was built, there were no roads connecting Ireland Island to the rest of Bermuda.
Experts say the house, designed by one of the leading naval architects of the day, was an experiment by the Royal Navy, meant to test the feasibility of replacing timber with cast iron in large buildings.
In the early 19th century, the Royal Navy was "at the front edge of new technology," says Jack Arnell, chairman of the Bermuda Maritime Museum Association. This thirst for innovation may have been the motive behind the unusual design of the Commissioner's House.
But while a step ahead of the technological drummer, the house did have its problems. Designed more for the English countryside than a rocky island outcrop , the house tallied up a hefty cost overrun during construction. This lead to an inquest by a nettled Navy Board in London in 1826.
Historians believe some of the added cost was due to the discovery that the building site was underlaid with crystallized limestone and unexpected caves, forcing the builders to raise the house over an aboveground cellar. Local designers also had to fudge a connecting hall between the elevated house and ground-level service building.
It's also believed that some of the materials earmarked for the house were actually put to use in other dockyard buildings. This misdirecting of costly materials may have been what was really bothering the Navy Board. But in the end, the board relented and the house was completed.
Ironically, the controversial house served its intended purpose for only a decade before the position of commodore superintendent of the dockyard was abolished in 1837. In subsequent years it changed hands many times and served many purposes, including that of a barracks for 112 British marines, before it was abandoned in the early 1950s.
The current restoration work is aimed at making the house into an administrative center for the entire maritime museum. The house would be divided between exhibition rooms, offices, and curatorial storage and workshops.
"If the Commissioner's House didn't exist, we'd probably have to build it," says museum director and archaeologist Edward Harris. "because the museum is a success and we need the room to grow."
Dr. Harris, who is overseeing the restoration work, says the first step has been taken with the repair of the roof and windows. The stone walls are being sandblasted and the surrounding grounds cleared as well.
But one look at the plaster-littered entry hall reveals that most of the work still lies ahead. The house is a badly weathered shell, with rotting floors and crumbling walls. Plans are to restore the entry and about six of the adjacent first-floor rooms to their original condition while, at the same time, renovating the rest of the house to modern standards.
Dr. Harris seems to take the size of the project in stride. "Today, with modern technology, it's nothing to fix up a ceiling," he says, emphasizing the benefits of plasterboard sheets and preformed decorative friezes.
One of the second-floor rooms will be devoted to the history of the house.
Most of the work so far has been done by weekend volunteers. This has kept the cost of the project down. But estimates put a $2 million price tag on the revival of the Commissioner's House. THis has raised some opposition from individuals who claim that the house will sap donations which might have otherwise gone to the museum.
But Dr. Harris is hopeful the house will eventually become a keystone to the museum operation, reclaiming its place as the focal point of the dockyard.