The “Cruz Bay Town Historic District” is unique among the four historic districts in the Virgin Islands. Unlike the other three National Register districts in the territory (the towns of Christiansted, Frederiksted, and Charlotte Amalie). The National Register of Historic Places is the United States federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects deemed worthy of preservation for their historical significance.
The context and period of significance of the Cruz Bay district are not exclusively pinned to Danish colonial history or architecture. In fact, Cruz Bay’s primary context and period of significance focused on the development of the town by Native Virgin Islanders and the social, cultural, and economic history of the people of St. John.
Historically, Cruz Bay’s remote setting and small natural harbor set it apart from major networks of international trade and commerce. Left to its relative solitude, a distinct St. Johnian culture evolved there. Self-reliant, grounded in deep religious faith and supported through hard work and cooperation by close-knit family networks. The people of Cruz Bay endured long years of hardship with little prosperity.
After the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States in 1917, North American influences began to filter into Creole society, especially after a detachment of United States Marines were stationed in Cruz Bay in the early 1920s. With this sometimes contentious outside presence, came a growing sense of worldliness and a more cosmopolitan outlook. These perspectives quickly gained traction in the late 1940s with the arrival of increasing numbers of continental tourists and transplants, and the return of what became the first generation of local men from service in the U.S. Armed Forces after World War II.
To the modern eye, the simple, timeworn vernacular cottages and aging colonial-era buildings of Cruz Bay began to appear passé or obsolete. For those who could afford it, cinder block and concrete, reinforced with steel rebar, soon became the preferred building materials of the day. With this shift in construction practices came a new architectural style influenced by a somewhat stark World War II-era United States aesthetic, which in the Virgin Islands often incorporated Latin-American (primarily Puerto Rican) inspired flourishes, such as cast-cement balustrades, decorative metal grillwork, and bright paint colors.
It was the post-transfer period of transformation and renewal, between the late 1940s and 1960s, that many of the buildings in the Cruz Bay Town Historic District were either significantly modified or first created. Depending upon the skills, financial resources, and design sensibilities of the individual owners, the buildings constructed or updated during this era reflected a merging of traditional Colonial West Indian and mid-twentieth-century American-modern architectural design and building practices. The resultant somewhat utilitarian character of these buildings might best be summarily categorized as post-transfer Neo-Vernacular Architecture.
Perhaps the single most defining aspect of early post-transfer vernacular construction on St. John was the ongoing use of West Indian built sailing craft as the primary means of transport for imported building materials and supplies. Powered only by sail, these stout wooden cargo vessels supplied St. John with everything from cinder block and cement, to fuel oil and Coca-Cola.
There are few places under the United States flag where the maritime traditions of seamanship and sail-borne freight were upheld for as long as on St. John, where commercial sailing vessels regularly called at the port of Cruz Bay through the early 1970s. This long-upheld tradition of maritime commerce and transport has left an indelible mark on the architecture and cultural landscape of the Cruz Bay Town Historic District.
Written November 16th, 2018: by David Knight Sr. — David was first brought to St. John at the age of 9 months old by his parents who built a home in Cruz Bay in the late 1940s. He is a freelance cultural resource consultant, historian, and author.
Featured image courtesy of Dr. George H. H. Knight, overlooking the town of Cruz Bay ©1950