Haiti’s Gingerbread Houses
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN HAITI
HAITI’S charming gingerbread houses did not spring out of a fairy tale. They are real. But painted in green, yellow, red, blue, and maroon, their other-age elegance and quaint beauty give them a storybook aura.
Their architectural style combines graceful outlines with a sturdy structure that may be of wood, brick, or a mixture of the two. Some have large windows opening onto projecting, covered balconies that sit upon wooden posts as if resting on stilts. Sometimes concrete or wood columns with iron centers adorn large galleries that lead into the gardens. Everything is adorned with fine, lacy woodwork, and bull’s-eye windows, weathercocks, and domes add a touch of fantasy.
In the early 1900’s, gingerbread houses were popular with the middle-class society of this West Indian land. The cost of importing such materials as yellow brick, asbestos slate, and American pitch pine put them beyond the means of the common people. Today, they are historic showpieces that attract sightseers to Port-au-Prince and other cities. Visitors admire their ornately carved woodwork known as the Carpenter Gothic. This frilly gingerbread style developed in the Americas after the invention of the wood-turning lathe made it possible.
Pointing out another influence in the development of gingerbread houses in Haiti, architect Paul Mathon, whose father, León, was a pioneer of the gingerbread architecture, once told Awake!: “As strange as it may seem for buildings less than a century old, their origin is uncertain. Though we cannot deny the Carpenter Gothic influence, we must look for the source of inspiration in the schools frequented by the promoters of the gingerbread houses. The French influence seems quite evident, though adjustment was made to Haitian life, culture, and climate.”
Haitian architects who trained in France introduced this style of building into Haiti. Paul Mathon said: “They trained engineers and foremen to execute their plans. Carpentry schools produced real experts in woodworking. And there was also an artistic spirit in the air that encouraged the spread of this type of architecture. With the passing of time, all of this was lost. Imitations have been of poor quality.”
The architecture is well designed for providing sufficiently cool dwellings in the tropical climate. Ceilings twice as high as in modern buildings provide greater room volume for air circulation, improving the dissipation of heat. The wide doors and windows with full-length Venetian shutters guarantee good cross ventilation in each room. The abundant use of wood in the flooring and wall paneling also offers good insulation against the outdoor heat. And yet these houses are losing ground to newer styles.
The advent of modern air-conditioning has obviously reduced some of their appeal. Concrete buildings are preferred for their durability, since wooden structures gradually become shells, eaten away by termites. Of course, some architects do incorporate gingerbread styles into these new, more durable houses, and others are restoring old gingerbread houses, using concrete to make the framework more durable.
Even then, gingerbread houses will not recapture their past glory, although some continue to be proud homes. They seem destined to survive eventually as museum pieces—quaint, elegant reminders of a unique Haitian architecture.