Preservation as Resilience: The Mission of Falmouth Heritage Renewal

By Andrew James Leith, M.A. Historic Preservation (currently enrolled); M.A. in Social Sciences (Anthropological Archaeology), University of Chicago (2016)
Mr. Marlatt stands on the porch of an early 20th century bungalow in the heart of Falmouth, Jamaica, surrounded by four sweaty, but infectiously enthusiastic undergraduate students from the US. Economics, sociology, biology, and political science majors—they are truly an interdisciplinary crowd, each here at this moment as part of a once-in-a lifetime field school opportunity, working closely with the Falmouth Heritage Renewal (henceforth, FHR).
The shade of the brightly painted stucco house frames a proud 18th century church tower to the south- the oldest in town, and an early 19th century frame cottage to the west, which appears barely a faded origami flower, about to be torn apart and whisked away on the next breeze. The dichotomy between high Georgian and humble vernacular suffuses the atmosphere. Yet beneath aesthetics exist deeper issues that permeate Falmouth. Which history should be privileged through preservation? What stories need to be relayed into the future? How might preservation convey and enable a historically and continually dynamic and generative environment? Finally, under the shadow of colossal cruise ships, how might Falmouth heritage empower those who produced it without forcing them to the periphery as others take notice of this dynamic town, and in doing so, begin to affect property values?
Mr. Marlatt is the president of the Falmouth Heritage Renewal US, and a deeply passionate advocate of an intrinsic model of heritage preservation, which functions as a tool of community empowerment and sustained local agency. The students have just completed two weeks of historical archaeology and are embarking upon a two-week introduction to historical preservation. They are fortunate participants in a service learning opportunity, yet they are outsiders. Outsiders may be oversaturated in a societal ideology that condenses our heritage–what we are shaped to believe needs to be preserved, to the monumental and grand. Mr. Marlatt offers them a story as a reminder of why he is invested in the preservation of Falmouth’s unique cultural landscape, and why he cares so deeply about the diversity of vernacular expressions.
Fifteen years ago Mr. Chris Ohrstrom founded FHR with the help of Mr. Marlatt. Mr. Marlatt traveled to the north coast of Jamaica frequently from his home in the US. On one visit he grew quite ill.  An employee at his hotel, who also happened to from Falmouth, prepared meals and was genuinely compassionate throughout the course of his illness. On a later visit he found that she was no longer employed by the hotel as she was in hospital herself at that time, incurably ill.  Mr. Marlatt contacted her son and sent her a gift to assist with her needs.  He reached out to convey his concern and support. A month later, home again in the US, Mr. Marlatt received a call at his office. This dear woman, the kind soul who cared for him by tending to his meals years ago, phoned him from the hospital. Her ardent wish was simple. She wanted to convey to him directly, her abundant joy in his efforts through FHR to help make her own community better, stronger, and richer.
Academics and aesthetes often lose track of the fact that communities do know their history and are abundantly aware of the significance of their built environment, on a deep and profound level. Decline and decay are not always the telltale signs of disinterest or apathy. In times of fiscal and social duress, who wouldn’t choose to feed their children over the maintenance of heritage?
FHR, under direction of Falmouth resident Ke Vaughn Harding, annually raises funds to preserve, restore, and repurpose Falmouth’s historic vernacular architecture. It then works directly with homeowners, planning and implementing interventions that will revitalize a property, reveal its historical biography, and enable the homeowner to live a more comfortable life today. These projects are often completely funded by the FHR. The buildings range in degree of integrity as well as vernacular morphology. FHR treats each as an individual biography, repurposing any materials possible, and embracing a very broad period of significance, treating later additions and interventions with respect, as contributing elements to the evolution of a structure and the broader story of Falmouth.
The anecdote offered by Mr. Marlatt that afternoon on the porch conveyed two significant messages. First, that effective preservation of a cultural landscape is fundamentally dependent upon community collaboration. Secondly, historic preservation need not be backwards looking, but rather, it can and should be a source of community resilience offering sustainable solutions and reinforcing local pride in place. In effect, the preservation of heritage thus creates a brighter future. This is the work of the Falmouth Heritage Renewal.

[us_single_image image=”8725″ size=”full”]

Pictured right, FHR President William C. Marlatt.
Falmouth Heritage Renewal, a US 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity and a registered not-for-profit
organization in Jamaica, was founded in 2001 by Christopher F. Ohrstrom, who had a goal of preserving the Falmouth Historic District and making a positive impact on the entire region.  Focusing on Falmouth’s significant history and its Georgian architecture, Mr. Ohrstrom saw an opportunity to preserve a community and the potential for economic vitality based on heritage tourism. For fifteen years, Falmouth Heritage Renewal has been dedicated to this work.  On January 31, 2015, Dr. Ivor Conolley, former director of Falmouth Heritage Renewal, stepped down. Since that time, KeVaughn Harding has taken the lead in directing FHR’s work. Over the years, FHR has sponsored ten US/ICOMOS interns, making it one of US/ICOMOS’s longest-standing IEP relationships.

[us_single_image image=”8726″]

The Falmouth Historic District, located in the seaside town of Falmouth, Trelawny Parish, Cornwall County, is on the north shore of Jamaica. Recognized as an outstanding and unique example of Jamaica’s rich architectural and archeological heritage dating to the late 1700s, this historic section of Falmouth was declared a Protected National Heritage Site under the Jamaica National Heritage Trust Act of 1985.  In 1996, the site, known as the Falmouth Historic District, was declared a National Monument by the Jamaican Government. The Falmouth Historic District is protected and administered by the Trelawny Parish Council and the Heritage Development Review Committee, an advisory body  created by the Trustees of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. Overall, the Falmouth Historic District contains the largest intact collection of British Colonial architecture in the Caribbean.

[us_single_image image=”8625″]

A recurring theme in Andrew Leith’s work has been the development of heritage as a tool for building community identity.  In his work as a historic archaeologist, Andrew frequently worked with local collaborators, not only excavated and thus producing heritage objects, but also In interpreting those pieces, generating meaning with the goal of some greater public good.
More recently, in anthropological museum collections management, he worked closely with Indigenous communities, facilitating access to their patrimony and in turn learning from them—creating context for otherwise obscure artifacts. Finally, today in historic preservation Andrew seeks in his work to activate history and material heritage as dynamic tools in community stewardship of the built environment.
In apply to for the 2016 IEP program, Andrew shared that he would like to develop a career working internationally with populations to recognize, interpret, and preserve their heritage  — particularly through the use of cultural landscape practice.  He wrote:

[H]eritage can be a profoundly empowering tool. . . . I believe that it is more useful to regard heritage broadly as a process rather than merely a static assemblage of antiquities. Heritage is a unique mix of ideology and objects situated in the present. . . . By identifying and defining our heritage, both ancient and recent, both tangible and intangible, both secular and sacrosanct, we take the first steps in preserving it. In doing so we contribute toward a statement of who we believe we were, and are at a given moment in time.

Andrew’s ethos finds a ready echo in the motto of his host organization, Falmouth Heritage Restoration:  “Preserving Jamaica’s Past for the Future.”  The port of Falmouth during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries was one of Jamaica’s wealthiest and busiest. As a central hub of the colonial slave trade located in a parish then boasting nearly 100 plantations manufacturing sugar and rum for export, Falmouth’s powerful history presents great opportunities and complexities for the present. FHR helps Falmouth tell its story through the conservation of Falmouth’s heritage and in so doing,  it seek to make a positive impact on the community by providing improved housing for its residents, skilled training for its youth, and opportunities for increased economic vitality for the entire region continues.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • This article was informative and interesting. I loved learning about Falmouth and it’s history and about the significance of its past. Andrew’s love for Falmouth’s preservation is quite evident and very moving!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Previous Post
From One Crossroads to Another, San Antonio Hosts Istanbul's Dr. Irem Gencer as Part of 2016 IEP
Next Post
Vacant Buildings for Refugees: A Case study in the Power of Adaptive Reuse of Older and Historic Buildings for Resilience