First Published March 26, 1988

The A.J. Mc R. Cameron Column

THE uniqueness of Georgetown’s architecture has often been written about, but then perhaps the point cannot be repeated too often. Visitors are invariably impressed, and even those from the West Indies deem it the most attractive city in the Anglophone Caribbean. At the very least this surely constitutes a major natural asset for any future tourist industry.

Natural asset though it may be, it must not be taken for granted that it will survive indefinitely without any effort on anyone’s part. One of its obvious attractions is that it is numbered among the few capitals in the world constructed mainly out of wood. It is the versatility of this building material which allowed such scope to the inventiveness of 19th and early 20th century craftsmen, whose individuality was expressed in their fret­work and front doors. It used to be said of George­town (no doubt with some exaggeration) that no two front doors were alike.

If wood has been used to dramatic creative ef­fort in this country, it must also be acknowledged that it has exhibited some major drawbacks as a building material. Climate and termites have a way of taking their toll on wood here, as also has fire. This latter hazard has swept away some of Georgetown’s most beautiful structures, includ­ing the Post Office Tower building.

Not only do extra precautions have to be observed to protect wooden structures from fire, but special care has to be taken in their maintenance, if they are to be pre­served for future gen­erations. It is this, in particular, that we have been extraordinarily casual about. Magnifi­cent houses — and even public buildings have been allowed to deteriorate, simply through neglect.

The central Palms building is a classic case in point. Built in 1878 by one of Guy­ana’s most talented early architects, Cesar Castellani, it now stands reduced to little more than a shell. This was the building that contemporaries consid­ered too grand for the “indigent” of the city; one wag even suggest­ed that it would have been more appropriate to make it into the residence of the gov­ernors.

The Palms may be an outstanding ex­ample, but there are many other structures in Georgetown sorely in need of mainten­ance, and preserving the look of a city involves more than the preser­vation of the odd pub­lic building.

It means, among other things, sensitising the public to the value of what is around them; it means a functioning National Trust to iden­tify historic or parti­cularly aesthetic struc­tures for preservation; it means a function­ing legal procedure for preventing the destruc­tion of buildings iden­tified by the Trust; it means (in these days of astronomical costs for wood) some form of concession to make it worth the while of an owner to repair an attractive old building, rather than pull it down altogether and build again in concrete; it means, most of all, the will on the part of au­thorities – particularly the City Council – as well as private individ­uals to preserve George­town’s unique charac­ter; it means in the older parts of George­town a preparedness to build in harmony with the surroundings when erecting new structures.

Older cities in many other parts of the world have stringent regulations about the preservation of historic build­ings, even when these are in private hands. Alterations have to be in consonance with the period style of the building, and new struc­tures in historical areas have to incorporate the features of older style.

These kinds of regulations do not just pre­serve history for his­tory’s sake; maintaining the character of older city brings in money in the form of tourism. Tourists notoriously are unimpressed by the modern — they can see that in any city in the world. What really at­tracts them is the his­toric.

For economic rea­sons, therefore, and not just for historic ones, it is in the interest of Guyanese to take notice of their architectural environment. For example, the new nine-storey commercial complex currently be­ing built by Toolsie Persaud Ltd., in Water Street — laudable as it may be as an economic investment in the country — would seem from the artist’s sketch which appeared in the Chronicle to be out of consonance with the traditional styles of the Garden City.

Fortunately, it is being built on a site where it will do absolutely no harm to the look of the area whatsoever. Fire destroyed whatever character Water Street had once many years ago.

Although the build­ing in and of itself is inoffensive enough, the problem in general with this kind of building lies in the fact that it lacks individuality of any kind. This is mid-town America transplanted to Georgetown, and its style is replicated in hundreds of cities across the world.

This is in contrast to the efforts made by the architects retained to design the new American Embassy com­plex in Kingston. De­spite the massive scale of the building, they went to a great deal of trouble to incor­porate local design features  particularly where decorative detail was concerned  so there would be harmony with the surroundings. The end result will be some­ thing that enhances the beauty of the city, rather than detracts from it.

 

In this anniversary year of remembering those who went before us, and recognizing their contribution to the culture of Guyana, there would seem to be no more enduring act of homage than preserving the structures they created, whether it be the Palms, the Hindu Temple at Providence or a private home.

After all, the people who made the largest contribution to the distinctive Guyanese archi­tectural style were local carpenters, artisans and contractors.

In conclusion, two questions:

  1. Since it appears beyond the resources of Government to rehabil­itate the Palms, is there no- private agency or agencies willing to un­dertake the project? Since there seems to be money available to build structures to ac­commodate the already advantaged, are there no sources of money around to rebuild a thing of beauty lo ac­commodate the disad­vantaged?
  2. Whatever happen­ed to the two build­ings dismantled by the Americans to make way for their new embassy complex? The plan-was for the Guyanese authorities to re-erect them somewhere else. Where are they?