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Estate Whim Museum’s national spotlight draws resources to preserve cultural heritage

Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, walk past the great house while touring the Estate Whim Museum today.
Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, walk past the great house while touring the Estate Whim Museum today.

ST. CROIX — A representative from the National Trust for Historic Preservation discussed resources available to help restore the hurricane-damaged buildings and great house at the Estate Whim Museum today before touring the historic sugar plantation that is leased from the government and operated by the St. Croix Landmarks Society.

The representative’s visit to the Whim Museum came following the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s unveiling on May 1 of its 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The Whim Museum made the list because additional resources are needed to repair its colonial-era buildings that have been repeatedly damaged by hurricanes.

Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, visited the museum’s 12-acre grounds to learn more about the ongoing disaster recovery efforts.

“It’s always helpful to meet those that are advocating for these places in their context and learn more about their preservation strategies and their efforts to preserve and activate these spaces, and then also it gives us opportunity to find ways that we can see resources and support from the National Trust advancing those efforts,” she said.

Tolbert, a resident of Indiana who traveled to the Virgin Islands for the first time, met with Landmark Society’s leadership and other leaders in historic preservation throughout the island to promote other programs available through the National Trust, a nonprofit organization that has led the movement to save America’s historic places for more than 70 years. She said she visited many churches that might be able to benefit from the NTHP’s Preserving Black Churches program.

When it comes to the inclusion of the Whim Museum on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, Tolbert said the list is used as an advocacy tool to raise awareness. She said inclusion on the list can also connect the Whim Museum to additional resources, including NTHP grants or technical assistance as well as other partner organizations nationwide.

“We try to be a support and resources to these sites as they look toward the future to say, ‘what are the opportunities out there that align with their preservation strategies that are applicable at the moment,’” she said.

Tolbert’s visit coincided with National Historic Preservation Month, which the NTHP established as a weeklong celebration during the second week in May in 1973 before extending to a monthlong celebration in 2005 to provide an even greater opportunity to celebrate the diverse and unique heritage of the country’s cities and states, according to the NTHP. This year’s theme for Historic Preservation Month, “People Saving Places,” shines the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places — in big ways and small.

Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, said the Whim Museum’s inclusion on the 11 Most Endangered list is a “blessing.” Since the announcement at the beginning of the month, she said the Landmarks Society has received a few donations and been contacted by someone who wants to partner with the organization on its restoration efforts.

Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, left, and Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, exit the “My Granny House” exhibit while touring the Estate Whim Museum today.
Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, left, and Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, exit the “My Granny House” exhibit while touring the Estate Whim Museum today.

In addition to grant opportunities, Dow said individuals can help by making financial contributions, visiting the Whim Museum and paying the entrance fee, or donating materials and furniture.

“Everybody can be a part of cultural heritage preservation and a part of this recovery, and we welcome their participation,” she said.

The Save Whim Museum advocacy group, which has 216 members who permanently live on St. Croix or travel between the island and the U.S. mainland and Europe, submitted the application for the nomination to include the Whim Museum on the 11 Most Endangered list.

Michael Connors, founder and principal of the advocacy group, said the push to have Whim Museum included on the list was done to take the urgency of saving the historic structures off the island.

“We needed more people than just people of St. Croix to know about this in order to do it,” he said. “It was too big a fight to do it alone.”

Since debuting in 1988, the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places has proven to be a highly effective tool for shining a light on the threats facing the nation’s greatest treasures, according to the NTHP. Due to the efforts of the National Trust and its passionate supporters, the 11 Most Endangered list has often provided the decisive force needed to preserve important cultural landmarks.

Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, middle, talks with stakeholders while visiting Estate Whim Museum today.
Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, middle, talks with stakeholders while visiting Estate Whim Museum today.

Carol Quillen, NTHP president and CEO, said in a statement that this year’s list shows how the collective idea of American history has expanded in recent years, along with the ideas about which places are worth saving.

“Seventy-five years ago, widely recognized sites of national history were largely confined to the East Coast and ‘historic preservation’ was synonymous with the great architecture of our Founding Fathers,” Quillen said in a statement. “That foundation is still important, but today there’s more recognition that history ought to help us tell the full American story, including that of groups and places previously left at the margins. That expanded perspective is reflected throughout this year’s list, particularly in the three sites located outside of the contiguous United States.”

Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, visit the watch house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.
Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, visit the watch house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.

In addition to the Whim Museum, the two other sites on the list located outside the U.S. mainland are the Sitka Tlingit Clan Houses in Sitka, Alaska that provided shelter for multigenerational extended families of the Tlingit people who lived together in clan houses, and the Tangier American Legation in Tangier, Morocco that became the first American public property located abroad in 1821 and subsequently served as a U.S. diplomatic mission for a record 140 years.

The exposure from the Whim Museum’s inclusion on this year’s 11 Most Endangered list is just one way the Landmarks Society is being put in the spotlight to receive restoration resources. Whim Museum is also slated to receive disaster recovery funding.

The St. Croix Landmarks Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and celebrating St. Croix’s rich history and cultural legacy, is working with the Office of Disaster Recovery to spend disaster recovery funds stemming from Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the restoration of the buildings at the Estate Whim Museum, according to the Landmarks Society.

Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, visit the bath house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.
Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, left, and Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, visit the bath house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.

Dow said a team of architects and engineers are expected to visit Whim Museum toward the end of the month to reassess the hurricane damages. She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated back in 2018 that it would cost more than $1.5 million to restore all the buildings, noting every structure on the site sustained damages. She welcomes grant funding available through the National Trust and donations in addition to the disaster recovery funding.

“We need lots of resources and we want to make sure that at every step we do everything so that these buildings are gonna be resilient,” she said.

While a signed Memorandum of Understanding between SCLS and ODR will expedite the long-awaited repairs, the recent designation of Whim Museum as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places has brought national attention and resources to the ongoing efforts to restore the museum to optimal condition, according to Valencio Jackson, Landmarks Society board chair.

The Landmarks Society recently announced that the signing of the MOU and designation of Whim Museum on the NTHP list will put the Whim Museum on a steady path toward full restoration.

Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, left, and Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, discuss the great house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.
Sonia Jacobs Dow, St. Croix Landmarks Society executive director, left, and Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for Preservation of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, discuss the great house while touring Estate Whim Museum today.

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. said in a statement that he’s “deeply committed” to the preservation and celebration of the Virgin Islands’ rich cultural heritage. He said Estate Whim Museum is not only a treasured historical site but also a living testament to the resilience and spirit of Virgin Islanders.

“This collaboration with the St. Croix Landmarks Society and the Office of Disaster Recovery exemplifies our dedication to restoring and enhancing Estate Whim Museum so that it may continue to educate and inspire both residents and visitors about the profound legacy of our island,” Bryan said in a statement. “Let us move forward together, fortified by our past, as we rebuild and revitalize this cornerstone of Virgin Islands history.”

Tom Eader is the Chief Reporter for WTJX. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, Eader received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University, where he wrote for his college newspaper. He moved to St. Croix in 2003, after landing a job as a reporter for the St. Croix Avis. Eader worked at the Avis for 20 years, as both a reporter and photographer, and served as Bureau Chief from 2013 until their closure at the beginning of 2024. Eader is an award-winning journalist, known for his thorough and detailed reporting on multiple topics important to the Virgin Islands community. Joining the WTJX team in January of 2024, Eader brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the newsroom. Email: teader@wtjx.org | Phone: 340-227-4463
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