Dominica was never a wealthy colony such as Barbados or Bahamas. You won’t find here grand and imposing historic architecture built by tycoons of bygone eras. There are, however, small, intimate and charming plantation houses built in much simpler vernacular style. We were thrilled to visit one of them situated in the high hills above Roseau. Ridgefield used to be a thriving citrus and cocoa plantation efficiently run by a prominent French family. You can still see plenty of fruit trees surrounding the house; in fact, the whole building is enveloped by mature gardens with imposing ornamental trees that make up the backbone of its garden design. When we first saw it, the light was just fading. The heat of the day agitated the essential oils in the plants profusely filling Victorian-style parterres on both sides of the house entrance.
From the entrance gateway, the whole facade is clearly visible: symmetrical and well proportioned with a large portico supported by four columns. Modest in size, it doesn’t reveal the true scale of the house which is hidden from the first glimpse. Although the light is fading, I immediately notice the bright patterns of the tiles on the porch floor reminiscent of Spanish decorative motifs. We enter the spacious and bright main dining room, and suddenly, the whole design reveals itself. The house consists of two wings almost identical in size, creating an L-shape plan. Overlooking the Caribbean Sea, a wide veranda runs the full length of the rear facade connecting both wings. On their axis, the impressive stone staircase leads to the garden. There is balance and symmetry in this timeless design, which emphasises openness, maximising the house’s connection with the immediate surroundings.
The veranda, as in most Caribbean homes, is a centre of family life and one of the most important spaces in the house. This is where owners entertain friends and host parties. From here, you not only behold the sea, but you can also enjoy the vivid colours of the landscape and the verdant tropical garden. In a more secluded part of this garden, a cleverly lit swimming pool blends its cobalt hues with dark blues of the early evening sky.
The estate house had only two previous owners, from the same family with strong French roots. “My earliest memories are connected with this house,” says the owner. “When my uncle lived here, it has always been a family hub. We often gathered here for long weekends and holidays. This house saw lots of weddings and family celebrations. When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to see the New Year fireworks display made by my uncle.” The interiors invoke a feeling of going back in time. On the walls are displayed old family photographs as well as memorabilia connected to the old way of life. One of these is especially cherished by owners. It’s a huge handsaw used for building the house, and now proudly displayed on the wall.
Throughout the house, there are exquisite pieces of French West Indian antique furniture. Remarkably, you can find here most types of furniture associated with Caribbean plantations. One of the most popular is the planter’s chair, also known as a Berbice chair in French Guiana. Perfectly suited for lounging on the verandas of great houses, it is represented here in two versions: with fixed and folding extended arms. Another cool and comfortable piece is the open-caned rocking chair. To this day, these traditional forms of furniture, still remain comfortable seating options, as well as mahogany caned settees crafted in French island fashion, and are treasured in this house.
These traditional forms of furniture are mixed successfully with modern pieces. The decor has developed over the years, and ethnic elements are now combined with traditional furniture that had been in the family for generations. The house feels cool, inviting, tropical and comfortable. The building and its surroundings, the garden, the architecture and furniture reflect the Caribbean style and are very much rooted in history. All are part of the irresistible seductiveness of this place.
A natural palette of ochre, green and gold defines the decor of the main house. By limiting the colours, the owners give full freedom to the brilliant hues of the surrounding landscape and the tropical garden. Wherever the eye falls, a painting, a sculpture, another piece of art provides a point of interest. There are many stories to be told behind the many and varied works of art so skillfully placed throughout the house. “I especially love these charcoal drawings by Gilda Thibaud Nassief, a fine Haitian artist who used to live in Dominica,” says the owner. “It was a very special gift, and I can’t imagine this house without them.”
Little has changed in the house since it was built. All recent renovations were respectful of the past. Even in the kitchen, an old wood oven is well restored and ready to use. The house has retained all its original features, including the striking floor tiles, which I noticed on my arrival. These are encaustic cement tiles, extremely hardy and durable, with their vibrant colours wonderfully preserved. “It amazes me that the house survived intact for almost a century,” says the owner. It even survived the infamous Hurricane David in 1979. At that time, the house sheltered almost a hundred people from the village, whose homes were destroyed.”
Today, the house, surrounded by bountiful gardens, looks idyllic, content and peaceful. Cared for with love, and surrounded by rich memories of the whole family, it will share its charm for decades to come.