CRM Journal

Research Report

The University of Virginia's Falmouth Field School in Historic Preservation

by Louis Nelson


The Caribbean is an architecturally complex, culturally dynamic, and remarkably understudied region. The indigenous peoples who have inhabited the region for millennia, the Europeans who settled there beginning in the 15th century, and the Africans who arrived in the region through enslavement beginning in the 17th century, all left their distinctive imprint on the built environment. Vulnerable to damage from hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic activity, the architecture in the Caribbean has adapted to the region's challenging and often volatile climate. The rich yet fragile architectural heritage of the Caribbean speaks to its multiculturalism, the intensities of climate, and the struggle for economic survival.

For the last three years, the University of Virginia's Falmouth Field School in Historic Preservation has worked to document this fragile heritage. Each summer, approximately 15 advanced undergraduate and graduate students from the university and other schools (including Mary Washington and Columbia Universities) travel to Falmouth, a small port town located between the major tourist destinations of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on the north coast of the island of Jamaica, for a month-long historic preservation experience.

Founded in the late 18th century to serve the lucrative sugar plantations along the north coast, Falmouth retains many of the spectacular colonnaded, two-story houses built by the town's prosperous merchants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A handful of the small, one- and two-bedroom frame buildings inhabited by the town's free black and enslaved artisans also survive. They stand as evidence of the town's complex economic and racial composition that dates back more than 100 years.(1)

After the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica in 1830, the town of Falmouth languished. The construction of a railroad later in the 19th century that bypassed the town accelerated the decline. Until recently, most new construction followed the model of smaller, one-story, timber frame houses reminiscent of those built by the town's early artisans. The concrete block construction that now characterizes so much of the Caribbean constitutes the town's most recent layer of architectural fabric.

Students enrolled in the field school spend most of their time examining and recording the town's surviving historic fabric in detail.(Figure 1) Working in teams of three or four, they produce measured drawings—usually plans, elevations or sets of details according to Historic American Buildings Survey standards—of a threatened building in town. The field school faculty reviews the team drawings on a daily basis, at which time students have an opportunity to see each other's work. Depending on the complexity of the building, these field drawings may take several days, giving those with little drawing experience time to watch the process unfold.(2) Once the field drawings are complete, team leaders translate the field drawings into pencil drawings, which are later translated into drawings for the school's permanent collection.

Figure 1: 3 students measure a small house before drawing it.

Figure 1. Students in the Falmouth Field School in Jamaica take measurements of a small house before drawing it. (Courtesy of the author.)

Each student team includes a public advocate who answers questions, communicates the significance of the buildings and the importance of their preservation to the public, and, increasingly, conducts oral history interviews. These interviews often uncover stories about the buildings and the towns that the teams otherwise would have missed during their research. Many of those interviewed spoke of the significance of the early 19th-century courthouse, for instance, not as a political but as a social center. They fondly remembered the dances held in the building's great courtroom in the evenings. One man reported that 10 shillings paid for a night of dancing until 4:00 am. Others noted the dramatic changes in the volume of vehicular traffic over the years. They remembered when people, horses, and carts, not motorcycles or automobiles, filled the streets.

Falmouth Heritage Renewal (FHR), a nonprofit organization that works to stabilize the town's fragile historic fabric, is the University of Virginia's primary partner in the field school. FHR provides safe, clean housing and local cuisine for students at a reasonable cost in a two-story, early 19th-century Masonic hall with a woodshop on the ground floor and dormitory space on the upper floor. The building's rear courtyard serves as a gathering place for school meals and social activities. Students directly benefit from this environment, which, located in the historic town center, exemplifies FHR's philosophy of preservation, technical training, and economic vitality.(3)

Through this partnership with FHR, students have an opportunity to participate in crafts training and hands-on historic preservation projects. FHR maintains a team of full-time Jamaican carpenters and masons who help restore small historic buildings to active use as housing for elderly and underprivileged Jamaicans. During the field school, each student spends at least one day under the tutelage of a Jamaican carpenter and a Jamaican mason, usually working on one of the town's small houses. The FHR's full-time artisans also oversee an apprenticeship program to train young Jamaicans in their trades. Not only do these young people learn foundational carpentry and masonry skills, they learn essential workplace survival skills, such as how to relate to supervisors and co-workers. This important program trains people for the hard work of hand-executed restoration, and promotes best preservation practices among those entering the building trades. As observed by one of our interviewees, "without opportunities for young people, the town will die."

This past summer, the Falmouth Field School partnered with the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS) Caribbean Initiative on a parallel field school in historical archeology that focused on the former slave village of Stewart's Castle, a major plantation just outside of Falmouth.(4) DAACS field school students from the University of Virginia and the University of the West Indies unearthed the material evidence of the lives of Afro-Jamaicans, while Falmouth Field School students examined the surviving architecture of the plantation slaves' urban counterparts. Students in both programs appreciated the opportunity to switch roles: Student archeologists learned about recording buildings and working with carpenters, and historic preservation students learned how to screen test pits and catalog artifacts.

The Falmouth Field School offers students an education in the complex technical, social, economic, political, and practical dimensions of historic preservation. The program continues to expand and hopes that other universities and institutions will join the University of Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Monticello, the University of the West Indies, the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, and other organizations in the effort to stabilize and preserve Falmouth's remarkable architectural heritage.


About the Author

Louis P. Nelson is an associate professor of architectural history and the director of graduate studies at the University of Virginia.



1. Falmouth Historic Town appears in the World Monuments Watch 2008 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The list is available online at, accessed on January 3, 2008.

2. By the end of the field school, every student will have completed a field drawing.

3. FHR's goals are to record and restore the built environment, provide a laboratory for the training of local artisans in restoration technology, improve the housing stock for local residents, and build a foundation for heritage tourism and eventual economic vitality.

4. Based in the Department of Archaeology at Monticello, DAACS consists of archeologists and institutions engaged in archeological research in the Chesapeake region, the Carolinas, and the Caribbean. The institutions include Colonial Williamsburg, the Fairfield Foundation, Jamaica National Heritage Trust, James River Institute for Archaeology, Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, Mary Washington College Center for Historic Preservation, Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, the University of the West Indies at Mona, Mount Vernon, Nevis Historical and Conservation Society, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, Poplar Forest, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, the College of William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, and DePaul University.