Barbados’ Chattel Houses Find New Life

Barbados’ Chattel Houses Find New Life

Chattel House: Barbadian slang for a small , movable house made of wood. The term harks back to the country’s plantation days when a plantation owner housed slaves in these houses, which were designed to move from one property to another. Today, the island is dotted with colorful – and, today, charming – chattel houses. The article below, published in Barbados’ The Nation newspaper, tells more. –Jane

Barbados chattel house

An east coast Barbados chattel house in need of TLC. Photo by Jane Hoyos

THE CHATTEL HOUSE is back, even though it never left.

The houses are being demolished, yet more are dotting the landscape.

People are moving out of them, yet they are filled with business.

And this, says Senator Professor Henry Fraser, is the renaissance of the chattel house.

So while the old, dilapidated, termite-infested chattel houses are dismantled, Fraser notes, there is a resurgence as people now see them

as business places, some located in upscale neighbourhoods, as day care centres and tourist attractions.

“It is one of the elements of the Barbados tourist brand,” Fraser stresses.

“We have historic houses, warehouses, shop houses, lighthouses and mansion houses. It is one aspect of the visual heritage of Barbados.”

So called chattel house villages have been established in St Lawrence Gap, one on the West Coast and one on the grounds of historic Tyrol Cot, in Codrington Hill.

What makes the chattel house dynamic is its value of adaptive reuse.

Chattel house design by Earthworks

Earthworks pottery finds inspiration in Barbados' chattel house design. Photo by Jane Hoyos

They can be turned into any sort of business – a restaurant, a barber shop, a hair salon or a day care centre.

“All these adaptive reuses of chattel houses mean that somebody can, with a modest outlay, acquire a business place. This is the renaissance of the chattel house,” noted Fraser, as he told a story of a matriarch and patriarch who moved their chattel house from St Philip to Christ Church, passed it down to their son, who passed it on to his daughter who now, not only calls it home, but has opened a hair salon in it.

“So there are multiple architectural, climatic and economic reasons why the chattel house architecture is a whole rich story of a people,” he noted.

But despite this, he noted the wooden structure was still seen, in some quarters, as a relic of the past, slavery, the dark century of 1838 to 1937,the plantation society, poverty and pre-independence.

“An architect friend of mine once told me you are not appreciating the aspirations of people who want to move from 1 000 square feet to a big house of 3 000 square feet and the chattel house is just not satisfying people’s middle class and professional aspirations,” he noted, with a touch of humour.

“Some people,” chipped in international photographer Bob Kiss, “see them as representative of a difficult past.

“There are some who see the chattel house as a vestige of slavery and I think they are absolutely wrong.

“The chattel house is a song of freedom!” he stressed. And the evidence is there. Lovingly tended houses at Carlton, St  James; Wildey, Brittons Cross Road, Brittons Hill and Villa Road in St Michael; Pilgrim Place, Christ Church and Around TheTown, Speightstown – that one almost a century old.

Some have been so well maintained that they now proudly display Barbados National Trust plaques.

3 Responses to “Barbados’ Chattel Houses Find New Life”

  1. Stephen says:

    They’re lovely and it would be a great shame to see them disappear altogether, but in a hurricane zone, I’m pleased to see more people in concrete houses. So often you hear of Chattel Houses in a fire and a person’s life disappears in minutes; so sad.

  2. That chattel house need some repairs.

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