Saving City Hall
The world’s cultural heritage is always at risk in times of war or when fanatics come to dominate an administration. At the present time the ancient souks in the historic part of the city of Aleppo in Syria, have fallen victim to the civil war there, while the tombs of Timbuktu have been destroyed in Mali - not as a direct act of war, but as a direct act of vandalism on the part of fanatical Salafist rebels. As a consequence Timbuktu’s great collection of manuscripts in both public and private hands is now at risk. The souks as well as the tombs were world heritage sites. Over on this side of the planet, Guyana has its own variation on the vandalism theme; its material and cultural heritage has mostly been destroyed by neglect – in the humid tropics every bit as destructive as war or fanaticism. In fact, both the PPP and the PNC administrations have an equally bad record in this respect; while they have preserved a few items, they have allowed buildings of major historical and/or architectural interest to fall into disrepair and finally, into dust. The PNC’s great shame was the Palms; that of the PPP, the New Amsterdam Hospital, both of them designed by Cesar Castellani, after whom in a bitter irony Castellani House was named.
The problem in this country is a lack of sensitivity to the cultural heritage in its larger sense. If a western European government, say, were to neglect a major national historical monument in the way in which our governments have neglected the material heritage of this nation, there would be a public outcry from the supporters of all parties. The relevant minister responsible would find his career trajectory curtailed, and the party of which he was a member would have a political price to pay. Not here. The material heritage has never figured in the campaign of any political party seeking office locally – although since the two main parties are both equally guilty, there is perhaps nothing to gain for either of them by pointing fingers. And as for the career of the minister responsible for the dereliction, the one under whose portfolio the hospital building fell, for example, was promoted. Even the new kid on the political block has shown no obvious interest in this country’s heritage.
The public building most under threat at the present time is City Hall. That it has been allowed to deteriorate to its present state is partly a consequence of the philistinism which infects the government’s thinking, and partly a consequence of the fact that the majority of those who sit around the horseshoe table are not members of the governing party. Despite the fact, therefore, that former president, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo did give some funding for the limited rehabilitation of one portion of the structure, in a general sense it has fallen victim to the political game which is being played between the government and the municipal authorities. It is not inconceivable, for example, that were the Ministry of Local Government to impose an IMC on the city - which they have made no secret of wanting to do - they would operate with more indulgence where the matter of restoring City Hall is concerned. In other words, even the nation’s heritage is grist for the political mill. The problem is that the natural processes of decay cannot be postponed to accommodate the manoeuvrings of politicians.
City Hall was designed by Father Ignatius Scoles during a particularly active period of public building, but that is hardly the whole story. The actual construction was undertaken by a small army of local artisans, and the professionalism with which they executed an intricate design is testimony to their skills. These were the men whose predecessors had invented the Demerara shutters, and who created the unique design of the colonial era house with its natural form of air conditioning based on a sound understanding of how air circulates. These were the men who made decorative fretwork and individualistic front doors; these were the men who could build anything from the law courts to a small cottage and from a church to a mandir, adapting the requirements of Hindu worship as communicated by the pandit, to the building materials available and then giving it a finishing flourish with external balustrading and fretwork. These were the men who could build a house without an architect’s drawing according to the vague requests of a house-owner, and these were the same men who could build a large public edifice to exact specifications. They remain largely anonymous, although that is surely not the reason that we have shown such contempt for their handiwork and the traditions which they handed down to us. If the government allows City Hall to go, therefore, it will not just be thumbing its nose at Father Scoles’s masterpiece, but also at the forefathers whose creativity and hard work made it a reality.
The administration is full of idle talk about tourism, but does not apply its mind to the kind of things which need to be done in order to attract tourists. No one travels from North America, say, to see any of the minuscule malls sprouting up like mushrooms all over the capital, or to take a guided tour around the glass offices which can be seen in their thousands everywhere in the small towns of the US. But do they have a Georgetown City Hall in the United States? They do not, which is what makes our capital unique, and why outsiders would want to see it. Every other country, including places like Barbados and Suriname know that heritage means tourist dollars, so exactly why this commonplace connection hasn’t yet been made by those who govern us is not at all easy to explain.
Last week, the Trinidad Government donated TT$2 million to the Catholic Church for the restoration of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Port-of-Spain. According to the Trinidad Guardian, Prime Minister Ms Kamla Persad-Bissessar noted at the handing over that there was structural damage to the 159-year old building and 23 key areas have been identified for urgent repairs, including the roof and bell tower. The cathedral, she noted, is one of the oldest in the English-speaking Caribbean, which was raised to the status of a minor Basilica in 1857, and is a treasured historical landmark. Her government clearly recognizes the importance of heritage buildings.
City Hall has been allowed to deteriorate for so long that the government may need international assistance for its restoration. (There is no question of the Mayor and City Councillors being in a position to do it.) The way to proceed was suggested by Dr James Rose and accepted by Mayor Hamilton Green before the last government left office, namely, getting an international expert to look at it and indicate what needs to be done and how much it will cost, following which an approach would be made to international funding agencies. So what is the present government dithering for? Is there nobody in the Office of the President with some sense of the importance of saving City Hall and a capacity to operate with a degree of dispatch? Will the Ministers of Local Government, Culture and the acting Minister of Tourism not apply some pressure in Cabinet? And will the rest of us not let our voices be heard if the custodians of our heritage continue to sit back while it falls into ruins?