Vaucluse House–a grand plantation-style house set against native tropical gardens and a heritage sugar factory yard dating back as far as the 1800s, sits comfortably in the heart of Barbados’ central parish of St. Thomas. Plantation houses hold deep historical significance in Barbados, as they were once critical to the island’s thriving sugar cane industry. Vaucluse House is no exception, whose sugar factory at the front of the property may now be defunct, but it remained in full operation right up until 1980.
The three-bedroom, three-bathroom house sits on five and a half acres of land and is your typical Barbadian plantation house with Georgian architectural influences reflecting the deep British colonial ties of days gone by. Vaucluse House is a single-level home with a perfect blend of old-world charm and modern simplicity, encompassing a wonderful combination of antique furniture and quirky, creative artwork–each showcasing various aspects of plantation life.
The dining table, with legs made of recycled wheels and gears from the old sugar factory, clearly highlights Barbados’ ties with sugar plantations and its history as a slave colony. The paintings lining the walls display the culture of the time, as well as some of the more modern West Indian themes such as stilt walkers (or “moko jumbies”) and ladies wearing traditional Creole clothing. Furniture such as the campaign chairs and butler’s tables (commonly used in the 1700s and 1800s) also accentuate the heritage of the property.
Dominican-born Dawn Pionkowski and her American husband Ed, both directors at the Bajan Company Island Furniture Ltd., bought the property in 1989 when they were looking for a suitable space for their expanding furniture workshop.
“At that time, the sugar cane market was dying out in Barbados and a lot of the factories were coming up for sale. We originally saw this property as the ideal space and location for our business, and actually didn’t envisage the house as somewhere we would live,” says Dawn. “It was the old sugar factory that stood out as a place where we could make our furniture. We bought the property and rented out the main house while we operated our business from inside the factory and continued to live up north in St. Peter.” She explains that after several years, she and her husband eventually decided to move everything to the one location, and this November will mark the 22nd year the Pionkowskis have resided in Vaucluse House. Their son, Evan, also grew up in this house which was originally the plantation manager’s dwellings–over 200 years old and measuring approximately 3,000 square feet.
At the front of the property are two stone walls, and as you drive past them towards the main house, the first thing to catch your eye is the sugar factory which has been converted to Dawn and Ed’s large furniture workshop. The entrance of the house itself is unassuming and understated, yet the tastefully decorated greenery reflects the natural beauty of its surroundings.
Once you enter the house through the double doors, the gallery welcomes you into a world of Caribbean culture and history. The main space is comprised of the bedrooms and bathrooms, the living room, family room, dining room, and kitchen, all peppered with a practical mixture of real and silicone tropical flowers, plants and ferns. Although traditional in essence, the home feels airy and spacious, thanks to the thin curtains, open windows and whitewash furniture pieces, all bringing “lightness” to each room. The house is also situated on Barbados’ natural elevation in this part of the country, allowing for breezes to sweep through the property.
As the interior designer of the home, Dawn describes her style as
Each room, with its respective nod to tradition, also pays homage to the eccentricity of Dawn’s personality– fun, cheeky, and vibrant–down to the smallest items such as throw cushions and the choice of upholstery. Two ornate chairs from the Philippines also add an interesting and original splash of Oriental design to the dining area. “I wanted to keep the typical West Indian look of a plantation house overall, but bring it into this era,” says Dawn. “I have always loved traditional style– it reminds me of growing up in Dominica. We decided that if this house had always been a plantation house, let us keep that way.”
To exemplify this vision, Dawn says she liked to find at least one antique piece for every room, and insisted on keeping the interior paintwork as what she describes ”traditional Creole.” This marvellous reflection of the history of the house is a huge credit to Dawn’s eye for detail. She has ensured the interesting mix of old furniture, cultural memorabilia and colourful artwork showcasing Caribbean life and history throughout the house, and has cleverly combined her personal style with traditional Caribbean design. These elements are especially visible in the louver doors, lovingly restored by her and her husband. In fact, most of the furniture in Vaucluse House is 99% solid wood, and was made by Dawn, her husband and the talented Island Furniture Ltd. team.
Another unique aspect of the house is that it is still in its original condition. From the coral rubble house frame, to the coral stone walls, to the exterior plastered coral rubble, the interior light switches, the original safe, the old-growth pine floors (now bleached), and the kitchen fireplace, the couple say they have basically just restored and replaced what was originally there when they bought the house, whilst adding a few additional features of their own.
They have replaced and raised the ceilings with tongue and groove pine tray and installed skylights to improve the natural lighting. They built the stone walls and gating at the front of the property, as well as landscaped the grounds and built a new swimming pool. To make the most of the Caribbean climate and allow for an extra outside living and dining area, they also added a veranda at the back of the house made from treated Southern Yellow Pine. It enables them to capitalise on the view over their lush, well-kept garden, another distinct nod to Barbadian heritage with its native plants and fruit trees (banana, passion fruit, mango, and golden apple).
The newest addition to the house, and Dawn’s self-confessed favourite piece, is the outside bar. Located on the veranda and made from scratch pickled ash wood with a marble bar top, it’s easy to see why. In keeping with her fun-loving personality and the celebration of all things Barbados, the front of the bar is decorated with original prints by Barbadian artist Patrick Foster, all of which playfully depict Barbadian nightlife and frivolity. “We don’t do a lot of entertaining at home, except for big occasions like Christmas,” says Dawn. “But, we do like to sit together at the bar on a Friday evening and relax after a hard week.” And, sitting outside on the breezy veranda of Vaucluse House, taking a step back in time to old-world Barbados, is the perfect way to do just that.