Heavily damaged by the 2010 earthquake, the Iron Market, a regal 19th-century structure in Port-au-Prince, has been miraculously revived by architect John McAslan.

Photo © Danick Verret

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One year after a massive earthquake struck Haiti, many areas remain in shambles. Yet in the throbbing center of Port-au-Prince, there is at least one success story: the resurrection of the Iron Market, a striking historic landmark that reopened on January 11.

The building’s remarkable, $12 million restoration was overseen by the U.K.-based architect John McAslan and funded by the Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien (his company, Digicel, is one of the leading cell-phone providers in Haiti). Determined to give the anguished city a symbol of hope, O’Brien wanted to complete the project by the quake’s first anniversary, on January 12, 2011. “It was a massive undertaking,” he says. “We had 1,000 people working on it. In the last month, we went 24 hours a day.” 

The January 2010 quake caused further damage to the Iron Market and killed several vendors.
The January 2010 quake caused extensive damage to the Iron Market and killed several vendors.

The gleaming green and red building comprises two 20,000-square-foot, naturally ventilated halls. Rising 35 feet at their highest points, the halls are linked by an unusual clock tower featuring four 75-foot-tall minarets. “What makes the market so unique are those extraordinary minarets, which give the building its distinctive height and visibility,” says McAslan. Prefabricated in France, the iron structure initially was destined to serve as a railway station in Cairo. For unknown reasons, it ended up in Haiti, where it was inaugurated in 1891.

The building, known locally as the Marché Hyppolite, served as a vital retail hub for more than a century. In May 2008, however, a fire gutted the north hall, shutting down half of the site. Last year’s quake caused further damage, and killed several vendors.

To some, the mangled edifice seemed beyond repair. But Robert Bowles, a UK-based structural engineer who specializes in historic structures, had a different take. Bowles, a partner at the firm Alan Baxter, was hired shortly after the quake to assess the market’s restoration potential. “My initial impression was quite optimistic,” he says. “I have looked at bomb-damaged buildings. I know that at first, in the immediate aftermath, things look horrible. Once you tidy things up a bit, and the building looks better, you often can make more of it than you think.”

Working with the Haitian group Institute for the Protection of National Heritage (ISPAN), McAslan and his team devised a rehabilitation scheme that called for restoring original iron components that were in decent shape, and using steel to reconstruct elements that were beyond repair. The team also aimed to use salvaged material wherever possible.

Repairing the clock tower proved especially difficult. “It was so disfigured,” says Aamer Islam, a principal at Axis Design Group, a New Jersey-based civil engineering firm. “It was like an immense jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out how everything fit together.” In the end, the tower’s unstable legs were mostly rebuilt with steel, yet its top portion was carefully refurbished by Haitian craftsmen. The clock itself was shipped to France and reconditioned by the original manufacturer.

While the north hall had to be completely reconstructed, the team was able preserve much of the south hall, as its iron frame had endured the quake quite well. Both halls got new corrugated steel roofs, along with features like column anchors and X-bracing to ensure that the structures could withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. The entire complex now meets International Building Code requirements. McAslan says he’s amazed they were able to complete the restoration so quickly, especially given all of the logistical challenges in Haiti. “It’s kind of a miracle,” he says. “It’s the sort of thing photographs can never convey.”

The market’s inauguration, held on January 11, drew some 1,500 people, including former President Bill Clinton. O’Brien has agreed to manage the market for 50 years. Plus, he’s considering building smaller-scale bazaars in other parts of the city. “We have to get people off the streets, out of the sun,” he says. “They make more money under a roof, and their products don’t perish.” Certainly there are many needs to be met in this traumatized country. With aid drying up and major rebuilding initiatives in limbo, the restoration of this towering landmark signals that all hope is not lost.