FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — On a busy roundabout in the heart of this nation’s capital stands an ancient cotton tree, marking the spot where Freetown was founded by freed slaves from North America more than 200 years ago. Walk for a few minutes toward the southeast, past the vendors who line the derelict remains of Victoria Park and through the bustling streets of the city center, and you will find at the corner of two rutted dirt roads a house that looks more suited to the American South than to a steamy West African capital.

A view of central Freetown. A handful of board houses are scattered among the concrete ones.
A view of central Freetown. A handful of board houses are scattered among the concrete ones. © TOMMY TRENCHARD - Fatmata Dean, a matriarch who has lived her whole life in a small board house nearby, is also proud of her home. “Everyone has a different style, but I’m proud of my bod ose,” she said. “We take care of it. When a part of it gets damaged, we change it.” But their enthusiasm for these old homes is not typical, and Ms. Smith says she knows she is fighting an uphill battle. After decades of neglect, many of the board houses are rotting through, the mahogany boards that make up the walls finally succumbing to the relentless battering of successive rainy seasons. Others teeter at precarious angles and shake when the wind is strong. Many have been fixed up so many times that any remaining boards are concealed behind a patchwork of rusting corrugated zinc sheeting. Lamin Sesay, 30, said the worst thing about his home, a weather-beaten board house in the center of town, was the pests. “Anytime you put down food, the rats will eat it,” he said. “And bedbugs are a problem, too.” He complained that the noise of the street passed straight through the thin wooden walls and kept him awake at night. The board houses are also expensive to maintain. With the once-thick forests of the Freetown Peninsula now bare or protected, timber is hard to come by and is much more costly than concrete.

The Young House, as it has been known for as long as anyone can remember, is a two-story dwelling constructed primarily from wooden boards and painted a bright lemon yellow, clashing starkly with the squat concrete buildings around it.

It is what is known here as a board house (or bod ose in the local Krio language), one of an ever decreasing number still standing in the capital and the surrounding villages. Its style is as old as the city itself, brought over from the Americas by the settlers who arrived in several waves from 1792 onward.

But amid rapid urbanization, rampant poverty and a cultural preference for concrete, this architectural legacy of the city’s founding is fast disappearing.

“Every day, more are being pulled down, to be replaced by modern concrete-and-glass buildings,” said Isatu Smith, who as the chairwoman of the country’s Monuments and Relics Commission is responsible for making sure that does not happen.

“The scale of it is alarming,” she said, sitting in her cramped office a stone’s throw from the cotton tree. “If we cannot protect these houses, it will be a major part of our history and our heritage erased. They are a testament to the resilience of people who came from slavery to found this city. They’re iconic.”

Sylvester Johnson, a 35-year-old anesthetist who lives at the Young House, said he did not know how old the building was, only that when his great-grandmother Cecilia Young was born there in 1904, the house had been in the family for generations.

“It’s a legacy,” he said. “I went from a baby to a man in this house. Everyone here knows its history.”


Persuading people to maintain their board houses — many of them on prime real estate in an increasingly crowded city — instead of tearing them down or selling them to developers will require significant financial incentives, but neither the Monuments and Relics Commission nor Architectural Field Office has the money.

Finding a donor to support the work has been a challenge. In a country where education, health services and infrastructure are in a state of chronic disrepair, restoring impractical wooden houses is not high on anyone’s list. “Architecture wasn’t a priority even before Ebola,” Mr. Doherty said.

For now, the burden of keeping up the board houses lies with their owners, and many doubt whether it is worthwhile.

“To keep it like this, you have no idea how much time I have put into it,” said Mr. Johnson, the anesthetist, from the wood-paneled living room of the Young House. “Sometimes, the boards wear out and I have to replace them. And to maintain the wood, we have to paint the house twice a year.”