A Philanthropist in Paradise
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
A Christmas present of unimaginable magnitude. That’s what was bestowed on the people of the Virgin Islands just days after that holiday in 1946. The generous benefactor was Arthur S. Fairchild, former wall street genius, long time island resident, and philanthropist.
And what was this gift? Land. And not just any old land. Mr Fairchild deeded to the people – not the government (a very wise move knowing what governments can be like) – 56 acres of decidedly the most beautiful area of St Thomas – Magens Bay. Besides the beach – recognized as one of the world’s top ten – there is a coconut grove, the mangrove behind the beach, and the arboretum, which had been established by Mr Fairchild in the 1920’s.
Just who was this humanitarian and why ever would he do such a thing? Arthur S. Fairchild was a self made millionaire due to his talent in investing (he was once president of the NY Stock Exchange); well bred, educated and well travelled; a bon vivant who enjoyed being able to live the sort of life that he had earned. His wealth enabled him to travel the world in search of his personal Eden – and in 1917 it seems he found it here on the 18th parallel. He proceeded to purchase parcels of land whenever they became available, amassing some 900 acres in the process.
The center of his domain was a former plantation greathouse called Louisenhoj (named for Louisa Rohde, nee Magens, daughter of the prominent Danish family that had controlled much of the land adjacent to the bay), which had been abandoned in the 1860’s after the emancipation of the slaves. Sugar cane (with its spin off products of rum and molasses) and cotton had been profitable crops throughout the islands before the abolition of slavery and Estate Zufriedenheit (the name of the plantation) was no exception – and neither were the hard times that followed. By the time Fairchild acquired Louisenhoj, the greathouse was only a ruin (actually not a long process in the tropics – witness the almost total defoliation wrought by Hurricane Hugo and the lush growth covering all the scars only a few months later). Its rebuilding wasn’t quite true to original style (an understatement!) as Fairchild was a fan of the Italianate style and he and his architect proceeded to design what the islanders now refer to as “The Castle.” Perched on the crest of the ridge that bisects the island of St Thomas, a truly castle-like setting, the view afforded from every room and every terrace was and is breathtaking. To the south, the town of Charlotte Amalie and the harbour; to the north, Magens Bay, Hans Lollik and the islands beyond.
The house itself is a magnificent amalgam of Caribbean and European style. Three ft thick walls constructed out of local stone, studded with bits and pieces collected from historical edifices around the world. There are mosaic stones from the palace of Tiberius (they are placed at the entrance gate, spelling out the Latin word “Salve”). Other bibelots and bits are from Elsinore Castle, Tintern Abbey, Rome’s Coliseum, the Rock of Gibraltar, the Temple of Zeus, and Cheops’ Pyramid (far from being considered damaging, such souvenir hunting was accepted practice earlier in this century)! And not to be outdone by other ancient homes or buildings, Louisenhoj even has a resident ghost (really!).
This project of Fairchild’s is unfortunately not open to the public (it is still a private home) but his other project, the Arboretum, has been recently restored after more than 40 years of neglect and is once again available for public enjoyment.
Fairchild was a great lover of gardens and exotic flora. The grounds around Louisenhoj are a veritable delight, chockablock with an uncountable number of plant species. But his beautifying of his surroundings didn’t stop there. He set aside 5 acres of land adjoining the beach at Magens Bay for an arboretum – a place for all to enjoy peace and quiet and the beauty of nature. Not content with just pruning and clipping and propagating the local species, he scoured the globe for a wide variety of seeds. There are 200 different species representing 71 plant families growing in the arboretum. Among them are 20 species of trees that grow wild only in the Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico and do not occur naturally anywhere else in the world. And of these 20, 9 are found only in the arboretum.
There are representatives from Asia including the Martinique Magnolia and the Chocolate Tree (smells like but I wouldn’t use it to bake a cake). Lots of palm trees including the
Tyre Palm (that’s the one that they use to make all the bags and hats), Royal Palm (native to Puerto Rico), African Oil Palm and
Canary Island Date Palm.
Some others are Rain Tree (from Mexico and South America), Trumpet Tree, Fiddleleaf Fig, Casuarina Pine and the ever useful
Painkiller Bush (the leaves are crushed or bruised, heated, rubbed with a soft candle or “barrel lard” and placed on the pained or swollen area. It can also be used for heart trouble. Don’t scoff! These local remedies are amazingly efficient – think of belladonna or the foxglove!)
There are also some ficus trees that will make the one in your living room look like a blade of grass.
There are many smaller plants, too, including hibiscus and
Although Fairchild was a master at obtaining the material to establish the arboretum, he didn’t fool himself for a minute that he would be up to the task of planting and maintaining the monumental undertaking. To this end he sought out a likely candidate for the role and settled upon a young man named Alphonso Nelthropp. Fairchild and Nelthropp were a match made in heaven. They shared a vision that was brought to fruition with the one’s financial backing and the other’s talent. Fairchild sent Nelthropp to study horticulture at New York’s Botanical Garden and to the University of Puerto Rico’s College of Agriculture. The knowledge gained enabled Nelthropp, with Fairchild’s backing and encouragement, to create an oasis of serenity and loveliness.
In 1991, as part of the national Rotary Club theme of “Save Planet Earth,” the Charlotte Amalie Rotary Club embarked upon a 3 year restoration project to return the arboretum to its former splendor. On 17 June 1995 dedication ceremonies for the Alphonso Nelthropp Arboretum were held and Arthur Fairchild’s gift to the people of the Virgin Islands is once again a pleasure to behold.
Mr Fairchild, we thank you.