Submitted by scott on

We took a long afternoon walk, and soon found out that that exceedingly white town was built of blocks of white coral. Bermuda is a coral island, with a six-inch crust of soil on top of it, and every man has a quarry on his own premises. Everywhere you go you see square recesses cut into the hillsides, with perpendicular walls unmarred by crack or crevice, and perhaps you fancy that a house grew out of the ground there, and has been removed in a single piece from the mold. If you do, you err. But the material for a house has been quarried there. They cut right down through the coral, to any depth that is convenient—ten to twenty feet—and take it out in great square blocks. This cutting is done with a chisel that has a handle twelve or fifteen feet long, and is used as one uses a crowbar when he is drilling a hole, or a dasher when he is churning. Thus soft is this stone. Then with a common handsaw they saw the great blocks into handsome, huge bricks that are two feet long, a foot wide, and about six inches thick. These stand loosely piled during a month to harden; then the work of building begins.

The house is built of these blocks; it is roofed with broad coral slabs an inch thick, whose edges lap upon each other, so that the roof looks like a succession of shallow steps or terraces; the chimneys are built of the coral blocks, and sawed into graceful and picturesque patterns; the ground-floor veranda is paved with coral blocks; also the walk to the gate; the fence is built of coral blocks—built in massive panels, with broad capstones and heavy gate-posts, and the whole trimmed into easy lines and comely shape with the saw. Then they put a hard coat of whitewash, as thick as your thumb-nail, on the fence and all over the house, roof, chimneys, and all; the sun comes out and shines on this spectacle, and it is time for you to shut your unaccustomed eyes, lest they be put out. It is the whitest white you can conceive of, and the blindingest. A Bermuda house does not look like marble; it is a much intenser white than that; and, besides, there is a dainty, indefinable something else about its look that is not marble-like. We put in a great deal of solid talk and reflection over this matter of trying to find a figure that would describe the unique white of a Bermuda house, and we contrived to hit upon it at last. It is exactly the white of the icing of a cake, and has the same unemphasized and scarcely perceptible polish. The white of marble is modest and retiring compared with it.

After the house is cased in its hard scale of whitewash, not a crack, or sign of a seam, or joining of the blocks is detectable, from base-stone to chimney-top; the building looks as if it had been carved from a single block of stone, and the doors and windows sawed out afterward. A white marble house has a cold, tomb-like, unsociable look, and takes the conversation out of a body and depresses him. Not so with a Bermuda house. There is something exhilarating, even hilarious, about its vivid whiteness when the sun plays upon it. If it be of picturesque shape and graceful contour—and many of the Bermudian dwellings are—it will so fascinate you that you will keep your eyes on it until they ache. One of those clean-cut, fanciful chimneys—too pure and white for this world—with one side glowing in the sun and the other touched with a soft shadow, is an object that will charm one’s gaze by the hour. I know of no other country that has chimneys worthy to be gazed at and gloated over. One of those snowy houses, half concealed and half glimpsed through green foliage, is a pretty thing to see; and if it takes one by surprise and suddenly, as he turns a sharp corner of a country road, it will wring an exclamation from him, sure.

Wherever you go, in town or country, you find those snowy houses, and always with masses of bright-colored flowers about them, but with no vines climbing their walls; vines cannot take hold of the smooth, hard whitewash. Wherever you go, in the town or along the country roads, among little potato farms and patches or expensive country-seats, these stainless white dwellings, gleaming out from flowers and foliage, meet you at every turn. The least little bit of a cottage is as white and blemishless as the stateliest mansion. Nowhere is there dirt or stench, puddle or hog-wallow, neglect, disorder, or lack of trimness and neatness. The roads, the streets, the dwellings, the people, the clothes—this neatness extends to everything that falls under the eye. It is the tidiest country in the world. And very much the tidiest, too.

Clemens had a good eye for architectural construction and style, and he believed circumstance to be man’s master. Still, he failed to observe that nearly every important characteristic of the traditional Bermuda cottage answered directly to natural conditions. Exposed to brilliant sunlight, high humidity, salt air, heavy rains, high winds, and occasional hurricanes, all of which could assault its fabric and render the interior disagreeable if not dangerous, the vernacular house was built as a barrier against the elements. It became a mass of stuccoed stone walls below a terraced roof of stone tiles. Stone chimneys and occasional stone buttresses countered the thrust from the roof load, and helped to anchor the whole to its rocky site. Mark Twain, again:   "Then they put a hard coat of whitewash, as thick as your thumb nail, on the fence and all over the house, roof, chimneys, and all; the sun comes out and shines on this spectacle, and it is time for you to shut your unaccustomed eyes, lest they be put out. It is the whitest white you can conceive of, and the blindingest. . . . It is exactly the white of the icing of a cake, and has the same unemphasized and scarcely perceptible polish."

In all he wrote about the traditional Bermuda cottage, Mark Twain left untouched the aspect of floor plans, which were typically extended for better ventilation. The roof, thereby expanded, caught more rainwater. Sometimes, the principal floor was elevated to escape the dampness of a ground floor. A raised floor also caught more breeze, and gained better views toward the water. Similarly, the principal rooms featured “tray” ceilings, so named because as they reached into the slope of a hipped roof they remained flat, and thus looked like huge upside-down trays. Such ceilings accommodated warm air, aided ventilation, and enhanced interior spaciousness. (The collar ties between rafters came not at the wall plate, where most efficient, but a third of the way or halfway up toward the ridge board.) Often, the ground story or basement was set into a hillside. It comprised lesser apartments, storage areas, and utility rooms. In bygone times, the ground story embraced slave quarters—sometimes outfitted with leg irons—and stables. But slavery had been ended in 1834.

Venetian Blinds:
...the dwellings had Venetian blinds of a very sensible pattern. They were not double shutters, hinged at the sides, but a single broad shutter, hinged at the top; you push it outward, from the bottom, and fasten it at any angle required by the sun or desired by yourself.

Elsewhere, he wrote of the haunting sounds from shutters rattling in the wind, and told of shutters that served as ready litters for the sick and wounded. But in St. George he paid no attention to the full range of shutter types, or their great power of poetic expression. Top-hinged shutters, known on the Islands as pushout blinds, were propped open with notched sticks or oversized metal hooks and eyes. Side-hinged shutters, louvered or of solid wood in board-and-batten (plainly, the primitive type) or paneling, were also put to use. All kinds of shutters—nicely defined by Joseph Gwilt, the nineteenth-century encyclopedist, as “the doors of window openings”—performed as sunshades. They also protected the caulking of windowpanes from drying and cracking; guarded a house against high winds, rain, and debris hurled by storms; forestalled burglars; and all the while maintained ventilation and privacy. Shutters brought life to inert masonry walls and eased transitions from walls to openings. From their presence, moreover, subtle modulations of interior light could evoke mystery and romance.