PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — It wasn't until the 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti's capital that many people even realized that dozens of the city's grandest old buildings were still standing — its quirky and ornate "gingerbread houses" with their fancy latticework, turrets and spires.
Amid the destruction, some Haitians realized time was running out to save the architectural gems, often hidden behind concrete walls, that had been steadily vanishing to bulldozers and cheap renovations as Port-au-Prince became a sprawling and overcrowded city.
"It was when the concrete walls and structures crumbled all around them that you suddenly saw these gingerbread houses from the street," said Lucie Couet, a French city planner working for a Haitian nonprofit group trying to safeguard the old dwellings.
Now, there's an uphill race to save them the graceful structures that, unlike the tens of thousands of modern concrete buildings leveled by the 7.0-magnitude quake, often emerged largely unscathed because of the flexibility of their wooden frames.
Local craftsmen working for the Haitian nonprofit Knowledge & Freedom Foundation, or FOKAL, are learning how to restore the homes to their former splendor. Since masonry and carpentry skills aren't being passed down the generations as they used to be, the dozen young builders are being trained how to work with imported wood, ochre-colored bricks and lime mortar instead of contemporary concrete blocks and cement.
"These old houses are works of Haitian art, not like the concrete block boxes that replaced them," trainee Jean Lucknor Lefevre said while using a trowel to mix lime mortar in a wheelbarrow at one of two dilapidated gingerbread homes bought by FOKAL in hopes of restoring them into showpieces of cultural preservation.
The group's president, former Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis, said the roughly 200 gingerbreads still standing in Port-au-Prince are an important part of the national identity. While their restoration might be seen as inessential given the sheer scope of Haiti's housing problems, she believes it is imperative to protect the troubled country's architectural heritage.
"You see there is a trend, a tendency to say since you are poor, it's like you don't deserve this type of thing (restoration efforts). This is really what we have been fighting against," said Pierre-Louis, whose group is getting support from the New York-based World Monument Fund and the Walloon Heritage Institute in Belgium.
The hurdles are many.
Unlike in many countries in the developed world, Haiti has no government subsidies for restoring privately owned, historic buildings. And as the price of real estate soars amid quake reconstruction, owners of land with gingerbread homes are being enticed by offers from developers wanting to build offices or apartments
Still, some families say they are determined to safeguard their treasured properties for future generations, and FOKAL is providing technical assistance to homeowners who have the financial means to pay for renovations.
At her grand two-story gingerbread home, where a wide porch serves as a local school for aspiring dancers, 98-year-old Vivianne Gauthier said she remembers when the streets were filled with stately houses like hers.
"Even though the maintenance is very expensive, I would never allow this place to be sold or torn down," she said while walking on creaking parquet floors of the house where she has lived since 1918. "Haitians need to know our past."
Haiti's gingerbread design can be traced to three young Haitians who studied architecture in Paris in 1895. They returned inspired to adapt a French resort style of building to their homeland's hot climate, while creating a uniquely Haitian architecture with ornamental patterns adorning eves and doors, decorative tile work on wide porches, and high ceilings and windows to allow for cross breezes.
Construction of new gingerbreads stopped in 1925 when wood was banned from new Port-au-Prince structures to discourage fires.
Perhaps the best known example is the Hotel Oloffson, a 19th century mansion that serves as a key setting for Graham Greene's "The Comedians," a novel about Haiti under dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
The effort to reclaim gingerbread homes actually emerged just before the 2010 quake. Starting in 2009, the nonprofit World Monument Fund included Haiti's gingerbreads in its biennial watch list of 100 endangered historical sites, along with old churches in Eastern Europe and the historic center of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Norma Barbacci, the fund's regional director, says some of the international reconstruction money flowing into Haiti should be steered to saving gingerbreads.
"Restoring existing houses in well-established neighborhoods, even if it means dividing them into multi-family dwellings, is more sustainable and environmentally correct than building new concrete houses in remote areas requiring long commutes and where nobody wants to live," she said.