Friday, February 18, 2011

Chattel House - a fading history

Well at least we have Gladstone Yearwood film documenting this unique and delightful architecture and lifestyle of Barbados. He too laments that, alas, the chattle house is fading from the landscpae and in 10 years we may not see them again. In their place, concrete and high rises and condos, will tower. Once it was law in Barbados that a building could not be higher than a coconut tree, but alas, that too has passed.

The film is an icon of a passing age. It features a mix of characters talking about the chattel house, its purpose, community, building style and its uniquely African heritage. Tempered by available resources, wood cut to standard size imported from America, replaced African mud as the main construction material. The film also features the communities that grew around these homes. Barbados became a community of villages and Gladstone introduces us the villages and its charters. You will smile at the saga boys on the dance floor and the spirited banter of the people.

The small homes were build by plantation workers, who needed to be mobile. Some say the chatel house was the first mobile home. Plantation owners hired people to work the land and provided them with a spot of land on which they could build their houses. The plantation owner could fire the worker and take back the land. So workers build simple structures set on rocks that could be folded up and and load them onto wagons. This was cheeper than building a new house which required buying wood. There were no glass windows in the original chattel house just open Jalousies and sash windows.

The African workers were skilled craftsmen and they build houses that often resembled grand villas but on a smaller scale. The houses, much prized possession, were often ordained with filigree, a Victorian fretwork of interlaced decorative design, that filigree the roof and windows.
Gladstone Yearwood