The elegant, turn-of-the century “gingerbread” houses of Port-au-Prince, detailed with fretted wood and intricate latticework, constitute a uniquely Haitian architectural heritage and an important example of a post-colonial building style. In addition to serving as emblems of Haiti’s rich past, they have become symbolic of the country’s rebuilding after the devastating earthquake of January 2010. To the Haitian people they are reminders of a time of prosperity and creativity, and their survival in Port-au-Prince is an inspiration for a future when Haiti will flourish once again.
Building community through restoration and education
In October 2009, the Gingerbread Houses of Port-au-Prince were included on the 2010 World Monuments Watch in order to raise international awareness about this unique architectural heritage. Many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair, and political instability and economic strife had precluded substantive preservation efforts in recent decades. Less than three months later, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, wreaking immense destruction to the country’s built fabric and infrastructure. Even though many of the gingerbread houses suffered significant damage, most of them resisted collapse and protected many lives, demonstrating the value and contemporary relevance of their hybrid design. After the earthquake, the Haitian government prioritized the structures for international conservation assistance. Within weeks we were in the field, working with local and international institutions to coordinate assistance efforts and to forge a collaborative project aimed at the recovery of the Gingerbread Neighborhood. Our efforts combined with those of the Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP), and ICOMOS, with additional support from the Prince Claus Fund. These efforts led to an assessment mission to evaluate the conditions of the gingerbread houses, the results of which are published in Preserving Haiti’s Gingerbread Houses: 2010 Earthquake Mission Report.
The Gingerbread Neighborhood was included on the Watch again in 2012 to encourage further recovery work in Port-au-Prince. In September 2012, the celebration of Watch Day included a tour of the gingerbread neighborhood, a presentation on its history and significance, and a drawing competition.
The next phase of the project focused on capacity building and education. With the collaboration of the Institut du Patrimoine Wallon (IPW), local artisans received training in traditional construction and conservation techniques. The site of these efforts was the Dufort House, located in the Bois Verna neighborhood, a typical gingerbread house owned by FOKAL since 2011. The building required structural stabilization and seismic reinforcement, and underwent termite treatment and other repairs to its structural frame between 2012 and 2016. Dufort House was inaugurated in March 2016 with guided tours and the opening of an art exhibition. The ultimate goal of this partnership was to promote the emergence of a cadre of skilled heritage practitioners and to develop a body of educational materials that can advance conservation efforts in the Gingerbread Neighborhood and throughout Haiti. Our combined efforts were supplemented by workshops for owners of historic buildings to expand their awareness of preservation opportunities.
Thanks to these and other efforts, the recovery of the gingerbread heritage continues in Port-au-Prince. Aided by a renewed appreciation and budding expertise among the community, conservation of the gingerbread houses will be a benefit to neighborhood businesses and residents, and also to the Haitian community at large.