Healing our capital’s Heritage buildings

I had intended to write on the Heritage Buildings in our capital for some time, but the UDeCOTT scandal and other public concerns kept me occupied.  The recent shocking collapse of a major part of President’s House eventually acted as a trigger for this article.  As I said at the time, that was a shame and a natural result of seriously misplaced priorities.

“The failure to repair or maintain so many essential buildings is a tragic symbol of our disdain for history and the simple sense of proper maintenance.”

The present position of the Heritage Buildings is one we can only make sense of by adding some context.  In my view, the background to the present situation is –

  • Economic Boom – We are at the tail-end of a 15-year-long and unprecedented boom in our national revenues.  No one could have predicted the huge growth in national fortunes.
  • Construction Boom – There has also been a corresponding boom in construction activity in our country with a large number of new buildings erected in that period.
  • ‘Monumental Architecture’ – Within that building boom, there has been a series of new buildings which could be classed as a modern thrust toward monumental architecture.  That phrase is used here to describe buildings which are long-lasting landmarks of a civilisation, by virtue of their location, size and use.  The recent examples of this Monumental Architecture are Piarco Airport Terminal, NALIS (National Library in POS), Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre, National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA, North), International Waterfront Centre.

Some of the Heritage Buildings in our capital have benefited from repair and renovation and those would include –

  • QRC restoration – The main eastern building has now been refurbished at a reported cost in the region of $44M.  This job took longer than expected and cost an extra $10M over the original budget of $34M, but it is a welcome sight, especially when floodlit at night.
  • Knowsley restoration – This was done recently and the program of works included the addition of a new block in the south-eastern corner of the site.  This building was formerly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but they have recently moved to the International Waterfront Centre.  The expanded and renovated Knowlsey is to become the new home of the National Museum, which is still at its original location, the Royal Victoria  Institute on the corner of Keate and Frederick Streets – see http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,115008.html.
  • Former Shell Sports Club – This is at the corner of Queen’s Park West and Cipriani Boulevard and is now under Petrotrin.  The building was restored over a long period at what must have been great expense and now that it has been completed about a year or so ago, it appears to be unoccupied.
  • Police Headquarters – This is at the corner of St. Vincent and Sackville Streets and was badly damaged during the 1990 coup attempt.  The building was repaired and renovated at great expense, but is now showing signs of poor maintenance.

There have also been these significant failures –

  • Mille Fleur – This is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ along Maraval Road. It was leased to the Law Association, which was revoked in 2004 by the State when they did not carry out the required repairs.  The building was then placed under the control of UDeCOTT for repairs and refurbishment, but there has been serious deterioration in its condition and no sign of the necessary work.
  • Stollmeyer’s Castle – This is the northernmost of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and is also in poor repair; it is also said to be under the control of UDeCOTT for repair and refurbishment.  According to UDeCOTT’s website, both these projects were to have been completed in ‘late 2008’ – see http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,51637.html.
  • Boissiere House – This is on Queen’s Park West, about midway between All Saints’ Church and Cipriani Boulevard.  It is in poor condition and was the subject of the “Save the Boissiere House” campaign, which drew the State into negotiations with the property owners.  Those negotiations appear to have failed in terms of agreeing a price and the building continues to deteriorate.
  • National Museum Building – The original Royal Victoria Institute building is still in use and one hopes that it will not be allowed to fall into disrepair.

The failure to repair or maintain so many essential buildings is a tragic symbol of our disdain for history and the simple sense of proper maintenance.

These are the Heritage Buildings which really need urgent and high-quality attention –

  • Red House
    The Red House
    The Red House

    This is the seat of our Parliament and it is a true failure of repairs and maintenance.  There has been an ongoing repair/replacement of the Red House roof for at least 10 years. There is an immense scaffold which is occasionally relocated and the project literally seems to have no end.  In addition to the roof repairs, which were originally being undertaken by NIPDEC, there is an ambitious program of Red House works set out on UDeCOTT’s website at http://www.udecott.com/index.php/cc/cc_project_item/restoration_of_the_red_house/.  Our Parliament deserves a no less than a solid restoration job and a proper maintenance program.

  • Trinidad Public Library
    Trinidad Public Library
    Trinidad Public Library

    This historic building, at the corner of Knox and Pembroke Streets, is in a sad state of disrepair.  It is in need of a serious program of repairs and renovation.

  • President’s House
    President's House
    President's House

    The western wing of the official residence of the Head of State of our Republic collapsed through lack of maintenance. President’s House is alongside the spanking-new, elaborate Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre, recently opened at a cost in the region of $200M.  This building has not been properly maintained for a long time and it was shocking to hear Colm Imbert stating to the media that it had been declared unsafe about 10 years ago.  Even the parts of the building which are still standing are now also condemned.  There had actually been official functions taking place there up to the day before the collapse.

President’s House has to be a priority project for high-quality repair and renovation.

SIDEBAR: A legal and financial framework

We do not have a legal and financial framework which will preserve our architectural heritage.  The Planning and Development of Land Bill (1997) piloted by the last UNC administration contained provisions which would have addressed many of the issues highlighted in this article.

We need to re-start our discussion on national development, including property and housing.  That discussion must include a place for our built heritage.


3 thoughts on “Healing our capital’s Heritage buildings

  1. Unfortunately, this is a no win situation.
    In most countries there is very little legal or financial framework to restore heritage buildings. All over Europe, once lofty castles are crumbling. Their restoration is left mainly to private owners. The work is slow, expensive and mostly dependant on the volunteer labour of young people looking for an adventure or trying to occupy their vacation time. Money for the restoration is raised by turning the aged building into a tourist attraction.
    An old building featuring craftsmanship from an era long forgotten is no easy task to restore. It is a never-ending task that requires research and use of building techniques of a by-gone era. It would defeat the purpose to use modern construction methods to restore a heritage building. The renovation of the Red House clearly illustrates this.
    Here in Trinidad and Tobago, the only way I see that we can salvage these aging, leaking, rotting buildings is to have a Heritage Restoration Division in the Ministry of Works. A group of committed, passionate Engineers and Architects will have to be hired to lead the restorations.
    Bearing in mind that restoration works are never-ending and labour-intensive, the revolving work force of the Civilian Conservation Corp, MUST and CEPEP will find this an informative training ground. And just like the Emperor Valley Zoo citizens should be charged a fee to visit these restored buildings.

  2. My own historical understanding is that there has existed a “we were slaves of these people” who owned these buildings so why should we want to preserve these reminders of our unhappy colonial past which has dictated the pattern of neglect. Older persons may remember that some years ago, a group of perceived French creoles volunteered to raise funds to restore the railings around the Savannah. The PNM Mayor of Port of Spain threatened to take legal action against them if they dared to try to do any such thing. There was no outcry from the citizenry of Port of Spain. The father of the nation was very much in charge in those days. We often underestimate how much the past still dictates our psychology

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