Its often stated that architecture is the face of a Nation, reflecting its cultural origins and subsequent evolution. Clarence House on Commissioners Bay English Harbour, is without doubt an excellent example of this statement. Its story is one of British Royalty, the navy, governor generals and hurricanes. Few structures in the Caribbean can match its tale.
The structure today was built (1804 to 1806) on the remnants of an earlier structure that popular legend holds was built for the Duke of Clarence Prince William lV during his tenure on Antigua while serving in the Royal Navy around 1784. In 1804, construction began on the first version of the stone building we know today as a residence for the Commissioner of the dockyard. It did not serve long in this capacity for with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 British economic and military interests rapidly began to shift away from the Caribbean. With the reduction of the naval dockyard a resident commissioner was no longer required, and the house became the residence of the senior dockyard supervisors until 1856. Continued reduction in economic interests in the Caribbean and the mechanization of naval ships, made the careening stations of the Age of Sail, including the dockyard obsolete, and the grand Commissioner’s House was leased to the Governor of Antigua, Kerr Baillie Hamilton.
From 1856, Clarence House became the official country residence for the Governors of Antigua and the Leeward Islands. In these post naval years of the early 20th century, many dignitaries and visiting officials were entertained there. But it was not always easy living. In 1871, it was severely damaged in a hurricane and was subsequently rebuilt. Each resident governor added to and altered the structure according to his needs and by 1890, it reached its maximum capacity with numerous extensions and additions. Major repairs and alterations were again conducted in 1951, by Governor Sir Kenneth Blackburn in wake of the two hurricanes in 1950 and the structure was reduced in size and the building we know today began to emerge. In the 1990s, hurricanes Luis, Marilyn, and Georges, devastated the residence and outer buildings, and the once elegant architectural masterpiece became a complete a ruin.
In 1996 Governor-General Sir James Carlisle initiated a major conservation project for restoration of the house. To obtain funding, the Clarence House Restoration Trust was formed in the U.K. and registered by the Charity Commission and in 2013, Sir Peter Harrison of sailing yacht Sojana, decided to fund the complete restoration of the property. The goal was to recreate a classic Antiguan/Caribbean historical period formal residence. It had to be financially self-sustainable, open to the public; a “living museum” that interprets all aspects of daily life at Clarence House and the people who lived and visited. Above all, it had to be of the highest standards and a stimulus for “restoration arts”. The stone masonry, fine joinery, interior finish and the many pieces of traditional furniture that were made on Antigua or are original to the house, will tell the the story of the quality and skills of the tradesmen, mostly enslaved Africans of that bygone era. It is all of exceptional quality, beauty and elegance and a tribute to Caribbean tradesmen then and now.
Clarence House is essentially a stone structure with a wood lined interior. The ground floor or cellar, once an area for storage and the work space for the household domestic servants, has been transformed into a modern space for workshops and small conferences. The upper floor, the residential areas for the Governor and his family will be a living museum and open to exclusive tours. The open courtyard with its spectacular backdrop of the building and the naval dockyard will be open for larger events such as weddings. The kitchen was rebuilt to the highest modern standards and quality and the landscaping of the grounds laid out and planted to further enhance the property.
Clarence House is now a major addition to the magnificent collection of Georgian Period architectural structures in the dockyard and is now the crowning jewel in the newly designated World Heritage Site. As a part of the naval dockyard the site will be management by the National Parks Authority. It was formally opened by Prince Henry of Wales during his recent visit to Antigua in October 2016.