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July 13, 2012

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Raising Awareness about the Importance of Preserving Historic Victorian Colonial Architecture in Belize City

Posted by Ana Maria Espat, Architect
World Monuments Fund

Belize City was established by English settlers in the seventeenth century, mainly due to the extraction of mahogany and chicle. Houses were mainly built of wood with a lower story of brick; polished mahogany was used profusely for the doors and paneling, and often included “gingerbread” details. Some of the public buildings were built of bricks, which came as balusters in cargo ships or were directly imported for that purpose. A clear example is St. John’s Cathedral, which was the first church built in the colony of British Honduras. It was constructed in 1812, although it has undergone numerous alterations over the years. The exterior of the church is of brick; the interior is fitted out mahogany and sapodilla. It is a historical landmark of Belize from the colonial influence of the country's past.

An event that defined the architecture and development in Belize City was Hurricane Hattie in October 31 1961. After this hurricane entire families packed whatever was left of their possessions and left the country for the USA and other places. Those who stayed had no choice but to move inland and the development of new areas of the city began. The city continues to expand very slowly.

Since the 1980s we have seen less use of wood as the main material in the construction of residences in Belize, with reinforced concrete now being the preferred material. Wood is mainly used for finishing. Many older structures are at risk of disappearance due to the lack of maintenance, no interest from the government or institutions to preserve them, as well as fire, hurricanes, and termites. They are ever-decreasing in number and they need to be, if not preserved, at least documented to preserve their historic importance. Most of these buildings can be found in the downtown area and some on the south side of the city, Southern Foreshore, Regent Street, Albert Street, and in the Fort George areas of the city.

Personally I would like to define the colonial architecture of the city as “Belizean Victorian architecture.” It was mostly influenced by the Caribbean architecture of the region. A great example of the Victorian colonial architecture of Belize is Government House, now the Belize House of Culture. The house dates back to 1815, and since it was built it has survived two major hurricanes, one in 1931 and Hattie in 1961. It has had periodic renovations, the most recent of which was 2003. Another good example is the former colonial secretary building next to Government House, which was completely renovated and restored in 2003.

Belizean Victorian architecture was recently included in the 2012 World Monument Watch and this is a big step in the right direction to preserve these magnificent structures.