Gingerbread Houses of Haiti


“The Architectural style that beautified the landscape of Haiti”

 

The Gingerbread house style in Haiti gave a breath of color and freshness to an era that was somewhat gloomy and monotone, going against the architectural norms of its time and defying its critics even unto this very day.

 

 A Product of Innovation

Gingerbread Houses stemmed from innovation in saw cutting known as the Steam-Powered Scroll Saw, which could cut the wood into thin boards that could be shaped and fashioned into an array of floral and geometric designs, making it extremely accessible to middle and Lower-Class people of the time.

 

Before these advances in technology, Carpenter Gothic, from which Gingerbread Houses get their distinct look, was the latest style of choice for the wealthy and some fortunate working-class people.

 

Carpenter Gothic was the result of an American revival of European Gothic structures from the early 1800s in wooden form, incorporating Turrets, Pointed-Arches and Gables, mostly without much adornment on a timber frame.

 

Haiti Changed the Dynamic of the Gingerbread Movement

 

Hotel Oloffson

Built by Demosthenes Simon Sam of the powerful Sam family in the 1880s, Hotel Oloffson became the inspiration not only for the Gingerbread movement, but also for famous writers, actors, and musicians to come.

 

The Game Changers

Around 1895, Georges Baussan, the famed architect from Port-au-Prince who designed the National Palace of Haiti, traveled to Paris alongside his colleagues, Joseph-Eugene Maximilien, and Leon Mathon, to study French Architecture in the Ecole d’Architecture.

 

Here they would adopt the techniques they would later use to begin designing and constructing Gingerbread Houses in Haiti, introducing new weather adaptations like elevated ceilings with heat-dissipating turrets, ampler windows and doorways for natural airflow, and spacious extended verandas.

 

But it would be the vibrant and energetic blues, greens, yellows, and pinks, decorative frameworks, and one-of-a-kind artistic patterns, that would set the Trio’s architectural take on Gingerbread Houses apart from those in the international community.

 

Baussan, Mathon, and Maximilien are credited with building the vast majority of Gingerbreads that are seen in Haiti today, most notably:

 

The Peabody House

Nothing says “Authentic Gingerbread Grandeur” like Mathon’s 1912 design and construction of the Peabody House in Pacot, a true testament to the artistry of the masters. 

 

Maison Dufort

Also a Leon Mathon creation, the Maison Dufort is a wonderful example of using Clay, Brick, and uncut stones as a foundation for its upper wooden structure, which has been almost completely renovated to its former glory in 1910.

 

Making a Comeback

 

Up until the 1920s, Gingerbread Houses were still coveted structures among the people of Haiti, but with the arrival of new building materials like cement and iron beams, for example, the government mandated that all houses and buildings be made with these, as there were also fears of mass fires due to the Gingerbread’s wooden structure.

 

The architectural tenor had changed rather quickly.

 

But around the end of the 1940s, people once again began to model parts of their homes after the Gingerbread style.

 

As time progressed though, many in Haiti started to develop an anti-elitist sentiment towards the beloved Gingerbreads, equating them to colonialism and French dominance, however, that all changed after disaster struck in 2010 and a high magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti to its core.

 

While concrete and metal buildings and homes were left in rubble by the quake, only about 5% of Gingerbread Houses were severely damaged, prompting many to consider wooden houses for their resilience to tremors, and sparking a nationwide preservation movement.

 

Organizations Fighting the Cause

 

World Monuments Fund

Since its founding in 1965, the WMF (world monuments fund) has worked with governments and partner organizations like the World Monuments Watch, to preserve and reconstruct forgotten or abandoned historical sites around the planet, completing more than 700 projects in over 100 countries.

 

FOKAL

Working closely with the WMF, which provides additional funding, FOKAL focuses on the documentation of these historical sites, and the development of trade skills like carpentry and masonry in underprivileged communities to aid in local projects.

 

The Architects Foundation

In homage and celebration of the work of Viviane Gauthier, and her lifelong contribution to the Arts in Haiti, the Architects Foundation provides financial and marketing support for the Madame Gauthier Villa in Port-au-Prince, along with scholarships to aspiring architects for the reconstruction and conservation of this Historical Gingerbread House.

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