Koal Keel

Time Warp

Photo: Rene Guinto

There’s a discernible shift in the atmosphere as you drive through the Old Valley. As you mount the hill, it’s almost like passing through a portal: time drops down a gear, and modern Anguilla falls away.

At the crest of the hill stands one of Anguilla’s prettiest buildings. The Warden’s Place is also a member of “Anguilla’s Big 3,” a group of three landmark residences (the other two are the Wallblake House and the Landsome House).

It was built around 1780 by African slaves and Irish indentured servants for a French/Dutch family from St Maarten. The family, one of several sugar-merchant families with properties in Anguilla, used the house to preside over a plantation of about 200 acres of sugar, tobacco and cotton that extended as far as Crocus Bay. Opposite the manor stands an old yellow house with a red roof: the estate’s former slave quarters.

As drought and famine struck Anguilla, the owners abandoned their fiefdom, and their land was parcelled out to a series of owners. The building eventually came into the hands of Gussie Hodge, who leased it to the British Government as a residence for the medical doctor assigned to Anguilla. During the early years of the twentieth century, a long list of official British representatives resided here. These officials also acted as the Chiefs of Police and Magistrates, and so the house was dubbed “The Warden’s Place.”

After the revolution of 1967, official roles changed, and the house once again fell vacant. Alan Gumbs acquired the property in 1973 and began to renovate in 1984. Alan commissioned Adrian Kobbe to manage the renovation, putting Kobbe’s professional training in architectural conservation to good use. He worked alongside Evans Harrigan, who managed the construction project. Adrian remembers, “The house was in a saveable but very run-down state. I wanted to bring it back to life, to give it a soul, to make it a real house again.” The restorers debated rebuilding the house as it had been found (with later additions) or removing these “improvements” and returning it to its original form. Eventually, they decided on the original design.

During the renovation, the layers of whitewash that had suffocated the original stonework came off. At last released from its blanket, the stone sorely needed repair. Replacement stone was collected by row-boat from Scrub Island by James Ruan, a master stonemason. Workers also discovered a nineteenth-century attempt at a septic tank, abandoned. Fast-forward to the twentieth century: a new bathroom was installed in its place. They also discovered that the gaps between the original floorboards had been sealed with cotton, a resourceful improvisation for resin.

As always happens when updating a historic property, the restorers faced tradeoffs. The beautiful wood shingle roof needed repair, but re-shingling would mean losing the original carved interior woodwork. Adrian comments, “We reached a compromise. We would leave what was there on the inside and cover the old shingles with galvanised sheets.”

The accommodation laid out on the upper floor would have consisted of a drawing room, dining room and bedroom. Indentations in the doorways reveal that jalousie screen shutters once hung here.

The old rock oven on the property was built using a lime ash mortar, made by burning a mix of hardwood and sea coral for days or weeks. The resultant ash was then mixed with sand and water to produce the mortar. The oven was repaired using the same materials.

In 1989, KoalKeel restaurant was installed in what used to be the house’s garden, appropriately serving food where provisions would once have been grown. The restaurant took its name from “Coal Keel,” a West Indian expression for “coal kiln.” The renovated rock oven took centre stage, slow-cooking everything from bread to roast chicken, just as it had done centuries earlier. Sea grape wood was the preferred oven fuel; its unique flavour is captured in the food.

A prestigious wine cellar was completed in 1989 to store 15,000 bottles 17 feet below ground level. Built of stone taken from Limestone Bay, the cellar’s staircase and walls then matched the stone structure of the original house. KoalKeel has now closed. Owner Lisa Gumbs now runs a wholesale bakery and an in-flight catering business for visiting aircraft right from the house.

What of the future? Lisa says, “We plan to bring the house back to life through its past, researching the lives of its many previous occupants. We have a lot of historical family information and hope the house will become a museum, possibly combined with the slave’s quarters building across the road, once more uniting the two properties.”

The house, here today in its original form but still holding more historic mysteries for the future, invites us all to do a little time travel.

All images copyright Rene Guinto.

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About the author

Sarah Harrison spent four happy years on Anguilla, leaving (reluctantly) returning to live in the UK. She is now working as a freelance writer, investing in thermal layers, and trying to fix up an old house that is in constant need of attention.