The modern town of Jacmel was established in 1698, after France wrested control of what would later become the Republic of Haiti from Spain. Located on the south coast of the island of Hispaniola at the site of an existing Taíno settlement, Jacmel quickly grew into a key port on the Caribbean Sea and benefitted from the lucrative export of coffee in the nineteenth century. In 1896 the city was devastated by a fire that destroyed most of its traditional gingerbread architecture. Many new structures were rebuilt with fireproof cast iron and brick imported from Europe, reflecting fashion and new technology.
Jacmel suffered greatly in the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries in the city and displacing thousands of residents when their homes were destroyed. In the weeks that followed a team from Haiti’s Institut de Sauvegarde du Patrimoine National identified more than 100 historic buildings that had been damaged in the earthquake. An association of homeowners was also formed in order to find ways to restore the structures. The rehabilitation of the historic center will be an important accomplishment, and we contributed to this significant undertaking by including the city on the 2012 World Monuments Watch. Jacmel has been on Haiti’s Tentative World Heritage List since 2004, and with its rich history it has the potential to become an attractive destination for cultural tourism.
A pilot conservation project contributes to the recovery of the community
On New Year’s Eve 2011, then Prime Minister of Haiti, Dr. Garry Conille, declared 2012 to be the “Year of Jacmel.” The government planned a comprehensive revitalization of the city to make Jacmel a major cultural tourism destination in the Caribbean, focusing on preservation and redevelopment. $30 million was pledged toward this effort by the government of Venezuela. In October 2012 the Jacmel Historic District Committee voted in favor of a pedestrian zone as a core driver of revitalization in the historic center.
Watch Day was celebrated at the Jacmel tourist port in conjunction with the launch of Haiti’s “Tourism Week” in September 2012. The event included a photography workshop for children, and an exhibition of the resulting photographs was displayed in a local historic home. There were also music performances, street dances, presentations about the history of the city, and a light show in a restored warehouse. Jacmel, Haiti Watch Day Activities
In 2015 we collaborated with local and international heritage stakeholders such as Artists Institute, Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (FOKAL), Institut du Patrimoine Wallon (IPW), Bureau Technique du Centre Historique (BTCH), and a crafts school called Escuela Taller de Jacmel to support the initiation of a project in the city. The goal of the undertaking is to implement, document, and promote a pilot conservation project at a local historic house called Maison des Espirits. Constructed in 1917, the building has traditional timber frame walls with masonry infill and a timber roof. It is a Haitian voodoo temple that plays host to public rituals twice a year, and the adjacent covered courtyard serves as a storage depot for costumes used in Jacmel’s carnival. The project represented the type of high-quality restoration work that can be repeated throughout the city, while also providing an opportunity for the development of specialized preservation training on site for a group of Escuela Taller graduates.
Restoration fieldwork at Maison des Espirits was carried out in 2016. A documentary film about the house’s history and the training program was created, along with didactic materials based on the project. With its public function and historic fabric unmarred by recent interventions, Maison des Espirits represents an exceptional opportunity to bring together the local community through historic preservation after a major natural disaster.