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.