The property often referred to as the Bertrand Marson house is one of the most historic homes in the Cayman Islands.
Built in 1908, it has survived several hurricanes to remain steadfast as a landmark in Cayman Brac.
Now owned by Nancy Gurr Baldwin and her brother Harry Gurr, the house is filled with treasures which have been handed down through the generations.
Nancy and Harry are descendents of James Hunter who built the house and his niece Valarie Hunter Borden Marson, a cousin they refer to as Auntie Dot, who lived with husband Bertrand Marson in the house many years ago.
“Auntie Dot left the house to my parents (Alla Mae Eden Gurr and Sydney Harry Gurr) as they cared for her in their home in Tampa until her death,” Nancy explains.
“Another note of interest is that my great, great grandfather was William Eden of Pedro St. James (the Englishman who built the historic house in Grand Cayman, often referred to as the birthplace of democracy in the Cayman Islands).”
Nancy and her two brothers, Harry and Chuck, inherited the house when their mother passed away in 2006, although Chuck sadly died in a motorcycle accident six years ago.
And, although Nancy lives in Florida, she and her husband Van spend part of the winter each year in the old family home on the Brac.
The property, officially called Cliff House, has four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and library.
“The structure of this house is beyond compare to modern day homes,” says Nancy.
“It has survived, virtually unharmed, the storm of 1932 and Hurricane Paloma in 2008, since I’ve owned it. If you go in the attic, it is built like an upside down ship to move with the wind. The main house is built out of mahogany and the additions are concrete and tied into the main structure, making this old house very strong. Also, for ventilation and cooling, most of the walls do not totally connect to the ceiling. It was a very well thought out home for its day and time and we have Uncle Jim (James Hunter) and Bert Marson to thank for that.”
One of the most enduring features of the house is the library floor which is painted in squares of different colours.
“It really needs to be redone but I don’t have the heart to do it since Cousin Bert (Bertrand Marson) spent many hours doing it using powdered paints,” says Nancy.
“The house also has original flooring and there are many bumps in it. I don’t want to change it because it is part of the personality of the house. I only wish the walls could talk.”
Most of the furnishings in the house belonged to Auntie Dot, with Nancy adding a few items over the years.
“I have had fun decorating with things that were in the house and shells, etc. common to the island,” she says. “I call my style ‘shabby chic’. I also have wonderful mementos of my great grandmother (Emma Georgianna Hunter), Auntie Dot and my Grandmother Eden (Emma Leila Hunter Eden) as well as things that were in my mother and father’s home. There is a clay pot (water jug) that belonged to my great grandmother. There are also iron cooking pots, etc. that are very old and I imagine used when they had a caboose (outdoor kitchen) for cooking before the kitchen was added.”
One of the greatest pieces of furniture in the house is the grand piano which takes pride of place in the living room.
“Years have taken its toll and the ability to play it is really lost, but I love it and it will always have its place here as long as I have the house,” says Nancy. “I love imagining people gathered around it, Auntie Dot playing it, and lots of singing and wonderful memories being made.”
Nancy’s Auntie Dot was the daughter of wealthy Brac couple William and Angeline Borden, who took her to Jamaica to be educated.
According to an historical account written by Burnard Tibbets of Cayman Brac, it was during this time that Dot met Bertrand Marson, who was serving in the British Military Detachment in Jamaica as a communications officer, installing and maintaining telephones.
The couple married and returned to Cayman Brac where they lived in Cliff House and operated stores in West End, Stake Bay and Creek.
Not only did Mr. Marson install a telephone system to link the shops (you can still see the area in the house where the equipment was located) but he was later commissioned by the Cayman Islands Government to run a similar service throughout the Brac, using coded ringing to summon certain persons who were served by the system.
Mr. Marson was also the second person on the Brac to have a car, imported the first truck, which he customised for island requirements, and opened a vehicle repair shop.
He also operated a daily scheduled bus service between West End and Spot Bay, sheltered people in Cliff House during storms including the hurricane of 1932 and provided for children of men lost at sea, amongst many contributions he made to community life.
In the 1940s the couple moved to Tampa to educate their son but returned regularly to the Brac, according to Mr Tibbets.
Regretfully Nancy and her brother, who also lives in the US, are considering selling the house as the journey to the Brac, combined with the upkeep of the property, is becoming increasingly difficult.
“It would make a lovely bed and breakfast,” Nancy suggests.
“Or, since it is next to West End Park, it would be a wonderful addition (to Cayman Brac) as a museum or a place to house dignitaries, when they visit to get the feel of old time island life. It will break my heart to sell the house, though, as I love it so much.”