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Our Island Homes: Paintings from the Bryant West Indies Collection

Chattel House by Cheryl S. Jorgenson
Chattel House by Cheryl S. Jorgenson
The paintings on exhibit in Our Island Homes illustrate the typical dwelling found in the West Indies. The vernacular style homes include Chattel , Cunucu and Shotgun styles. The materials and techniques of these structures blend native, European and African architectural styles, reflecting the heritage of the islanders. For artists in the West Indies, these homes have provided inspiration and appear often in their artwork.

The Chattel house is found throughout the Lesser Antilles. It derives its name from the old feudal term for movable property. The first chattel houses were the homes of plantation workers, so named by workers in Barbados. A good example of this type of dwelling is found in Cheryl S. Jorgenson's Chattel House . The Chattel houses are designed to be easily dismantled and moved. After emancipation, a plantation worker's employment was highly transient in nature, and it was less expensive to move a house than build another.  They are typically raised off the ground and set on stone or concrete pillars, usually consisting of two rooms and a verandah or porch in the front of the house.  Weatherboard and corrugated metal siding are popular construction materials.  In old houses, the windows were shutter-like jalousies that could be opened for circulation and protected against hurricanes when closed. Today, glass windows with shutters are more typical. Porches are often trimmed with white gingerbread fretwork.

Cunucu House and Dividivi Tree by Florence Lo
Cunucu House and Dividivi Tree by Florence Lo
Another style of architecture unique to the islands is the Cunucu house. Found predominantly on the island of Aruba, cun ucu is a Papiamento word for countryside, referring to the rugged interior of the island. The style again reflects a blending of traditional European and native styles resulting in a uniquely Caribbean dwelling. This type of home is captured in Florence Lo's Cunucu House and Dividivi Tree . A cunucu house consists of a central section with one or two annexes and a built-on kitchen. The kitchen chimneys are usually distinctive, in a style the Arubans call fagon . The houses typically have sidewalls extending all the way to the top, with one side of the pitched roof flattened off with a gully to collect rain. They are brightly painted with red tile roofs. Unlike the chattel houses, the Aruban homes have thick plaster walls.

House in Carrington Village by Fielding Babb
House in Carrington Village by Fielding Babb
The Shotgun style home is a Central African influenced vernacular style thought to have originated in the West Indies and spread to the United States in the early nineteenth century.  The rooms of the house are arranged one behind the other with the gable side facing the street.  In this way, a shotgun could be fired through the doorways without hitting anything. The rooms tend to be quite small and open into each other.  These are framed houses with corrugated metal roofs. Fielding Babb's House in Carrington Village shows a good example of some shotgun houses in Barbados.

The front porches of the Chattel and Shotgun house styles as well as the traditional American home can also be attributed to th e African influence. It is clear from an exploration of these vernacular architectural styles that the homes of the West Indian islanders are heavily influenced by the cultural heritage and environment of the builders. An example of the African influenced plantation worker huts can be found in Grene Fuhring's Old County Home . Note the thatched roof and wattle and daub walls of the hut.

Old County Home by Grene Fuhring
Old Country Home by Grene Fuhring


Crain, Edward E. Historic Architecture in the Caribbean Islands . Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994.

Turner, Jane, ed. Encyclopedia of Latin American & Caribbean Art . Grove Encyclopedia of the Arts of the Americas. New York: Grove's Dictionaries, Inc., 2000.


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