Seized by the Portuguese from the Sinhala kings in 1587, the historic city of Galle was the most important port in Sri Lanka for centuries. In the 17th century, under Dutch rule, a fort was constructed around the city to protect both the citizens and maritime commercial interests. While these fortified walls somewhat shielded the city from the full impact of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, substantial water breached the ramparts, making Galle one of the hardest hit areas of Sri Lanka.
In early 2005, the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) conducted a survey the conditions of cultural heritage sites in Galle and the surrounding area. The Old Dutch Hospital, attached to the ramparts facing the ocean, was noted in this study as a site of particular interest due to its poor state of preservation.
The hospital once served Dutch and other Europeans who came to Galle during its time as a thriving international port. After the surrender of Galle Fort to the British in 1796, the hospital became the Chief Administrator’s Office, a function it served until 2003.
How We Helped
Following the survey, the Old Dutch Hospital in Galle emerged as a priority for ICOMOS as a historic structure with great potential for adaptive reuse. Through funding from American Express, WMF and ICOMOS were able to complete a conditions assessment, and begin urgent repairs and conservation work in 2006. Restorations of the roof, walls, windows and other architectural details, as well as updating of the building’s sewage system, continued until December 2009 when water seepage caused a portion of the two-story building and colonnade to collapse. After addressing this unforeseen issue, the restoration project was able to continue.
Why It Matters
The 2004 tsunami was devastating and brought international attention to the region. While the initial priority was humanitarian relief for the surviving injured and displaced, in time communities began the process of rebuilding. A 2005 report on the impact of the tsunami on monuments and sites of significance along the Sri Lankan shores notes that “in catastrophes of this nature… restoration is a very special contribution towards preserving and carrying out the memory of the past into the rebuilding of the future.” Through the preservation and restoration of the Old Dutch Hospital, and, more generally, the historic city of Galle, some sense of familiarity and comfort was brought back to the region and its people.