There is a certain mystique about old buildings that have stood the test of time, of battering weather conditions and the changing influx of its dwellers. Alongside their historical appeal, the monumental standstill of built heritage against an evolving architectural landscape makes it hold its own aesthetic, representing the splendor of the past.
On the domestic frontier, the listing of Levuka as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013 was a hugely celebrated affair, as longtime effort by residents to recognize the architectural value of Fiji’s first capital and up-skill a dutiful maintenance finally came to being.
The town is full old relics, with many descendants of early European settlers retaining family homes and estates on the town’s hilly, waterfront.
First converged by foreign sailors and settlers in 1820, the town dully entered a new sphere of recognition in 2013 when it was declared a UNESCO-listed heritage site- a first in the country that propelled this now sleepy port town into a regional landmark alongside several other South Pacific heritage listings.
“Each building, concrete step and memorial stone of this historic port town tells a story of the early years, the bravery and perseverance of the pioneers who endured unknown and challenging circumstances to create the opportunity for the later generations, including those of us here today and those who will follow after us, to be part of world history. By dint of their hard work, sacrifice and foresight, they laid the platform for this historic event which we are now celebrating,” former President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau noted during its inscription as a world heritage site.
“In fact, Fiji’s transformation from a primordial island to its current form of – a thriving economy imbued with a great blend of people with varying ethnicities, culture and traditions, a modern island nation universally accepted as the hub of the Pacific - all started in Levuka.”
A considerable number of these listed homes in the former capital are over a hundred years old, and made from prized, imported hardwood such as American Oregon timber. The dwellings remain in varying degrees of endurance, many no doubt pushed into near dereliction after the rampage of the category-5, Tropical Cyclone Winston in early 2016.
The Ovalau Club- where membership was first select and women were initially barred- is one of the many sites that have been listed within the bounds of UNESCO – the first in Fiji.
The Masonic Lodge- which was razed to the ground after accusations of witchcraft- the Queen Victoria Memorial Hall and the Levuka Bowling Club are all part of the scattered sites along Beach Street, where several homes also featured private tennis courts as an ode to the recreational indulgences of its formative European residents.
Early German settlers built the town’s most prized lookout, a missionary building on what is now known as Mission Hill, though the building was dismantled and replaced by two private homes and a community hall, as noted in Levuka, Living Heritage, a collection of historical accounts on the town by residents. In 1876, German trader, Johann Heinrich Frederick Vollmer built the family homestead known as Lomaloma, named after the village of his wife, Adi Pasemaca, who hailed from Vanuabalavu in Lau. The houses on this hill are accessible by steps, or to be precise, 100 steps, making the mount a memorable expedition for many visitors. The Royal Hotel is the oldest continuously operated hotel in the South Pacific
When the capital was transferred to Suva in 1882, buildings and municipal streets rose rapidly on the waterfront of Suva Bay, particularly around Cumming Street, one of the first to be developed north of Nabukulou Creek in the early 1900s, as noted by Albert Lee’s historical notes on the city.
“The Marks family owned most of the land on the north side of Cumming St and the Terry family (the name commemorated today by a footway-“Terry Walk”- owned most of the land on the south side on which boat building was the main activity.”
It was a massive inferno in February 1923 that destroyed most of the wooden buildings in the Cumming Street area, and the aftermath led to the reorganization of the fire brigade and a change in the building bylaws which then only permitted that commercial buildings be constructed in stone, brick or concrete.
During these formative years as a capital, most of the buildings were owned by the firm James McEwan, including those in Thomson Street, named after the firm’s Principal, William Ker Thomson, a Melbourne merchant.
“The present Morris Hedstrom Supermarket and department store site is situated on land once owned by the larger business concerns dominating the commercial scene at the turn of the present century (1900s)- firms like Henry Marks & Company, Walter Horne and Brown & Joske, which have now gone out of business.
“On the left, just past the Honson Building- one of the tallest in the area, the Garrick Hotel block-owned by the firm of D.Gokal & Company- this building with an architectural style dating back to the 1920s, replicates an earlier timber building called the Pier Hotel, which derived its name from its location close to the old Queen’s Wharf off Pier Street,” Lee noted.
Much of Suva’s CBD sits on reclaimed land, and in the 1800s, the sea came right up to the edge of Thomson Street.
“Adjoining the Harbour Centre, the nine storey Dominion House building dominates the street scene with its bulk and height. It stands on piles sunk 80 to 90 feet beneath a shore area which was once a beach.”
The Suva City Library complex was financed by steel magnate and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie and opened in 1908, with two more wings added in 1927.
The site of the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral and Government archives building was alongside the 17 acres of the sevusevu(traditional presentation) incentives which Thomson and Renwick (his co-principal at the McEwan firm) offered free to Government to induce persuade it to shift the capital from Levuka to Suva in 1882.
The present-day Ratu Sukuna House- the first along Victoria Parade- was originally built as Centaur House by Centaur Development Limited in 1974, on the former site of the Melbourne Hotel. It was the first and tallest of the CBD’s early high-rise along the Suva foreshore scene.
Heritage consultant, Bart van Aller nots that the main challenges of heritage homes in Fiji – and particularly Levuka- is to create situations where owners of listed, UNESCO- protected buildings as well as those on national and municipal levels, are supported and encourage to maintain their property.
“The Fiji Government and the responsible underlying departments- as guardians- can create a national system of heritage protection that could help owners with, e.g. free advice and “encouraging maintenance grants”,” added Aller, who has worked closely with the National Trust of Fiji.
“Often owners are more than willing to maintain and preserve their homes but do not have enough means and proper knowledge that is needed to preserve their properties. The Government could initiate a non-departmental public body that includes the functions of planning, listing, awarding grants, heritage research and advice with funding from the government and other sources including international funds. In general, bures (traditional, thatched homes) and other former colonial listed buildings can be very well preserved by giving them their original or new functions, e.g. in heritage tourism.”
The former capital, Levuka, is now a shadow of its colonial past and current residents are a mix of new buyers, most being descendants of the early English, American, Scottish and German settlers or distant relatives who have inherited these homes from bygone family members, though it remains to be seen whether their heritage designation has impacted real estate prices.
“Most people think that owning a listed building implies that nothing can be changed to improve the building. This is a myth. This is not to say, though, that you will never be able to make any changes; you just need to have the appropriate planning permission in place to make sure that you have fulfilled your legal obligations to preserve the building’s character.
“Of course, owning a listed building means that there are some rules and regulations that have to be taken into account. Investments that are needed to preserve the buildings are never a waste of money. The ownership of a listed property comes with a greater responsibility than other types of buildings. It will be up to the owner to make sure that the condition of the property is maintained and preserved for future generations, but the impact of owning a properly preserved listed building means that its added value after restoration will virtually increase.”
For Levuka, restoration efforts have been undertaken after the picturesque coastal town’s battering by a category seven cyclone two years ago, though van Aller remains optimistic about that the town could rise again with the assistance of government authorities and locals, and have a thriving heritage tourism industry.
“What Levuka needs first of all is a proper integral vison to its future, not only as the location of the job- supplying tuna plant PAFCO, but also as a bustling heritage site that will attracts visitors from the tourist areas in the western division. Levuka Town Council will have to lobby for better means of transport matters to Ovalau, such as direct connections with the West, such as direct seaplanes or fast catamarans.”
On a national scale, there are more homes that could potentially be demarcated as heritage properties and regulated to retain their original build, with van Aller noting that important historical treasures can be found all over the country.
“The most import thing is to identify them, record them and select the valuably items so that can be protected. It has been proven that by preserving historical sites the local economy will boost and communities will benefit. It will also create job opportunities.”
And the challenges of heritage property owners begin with themselves.
“Firstly, owners of heritage properties should be convinced of the historical value of their homes and its potential. Their restored homes will contribute to the success of Heritage Tourism in Fiji. Owners should ask for access to the necessary authentic building materials and skilled contractors and craftsmen in order to restore their homes to heritage standards. They can also try to obtain help and advice from the adequate experts, national or international. After a restoration and maintenance plan for the building has been developed, owners will face the difficulty finding the necessary available funds, governmental or private. Never be downhearted but believe in a positive outcome of your efforts!”