The Freemasons Hall in Company Path, Georgetown, the largest and oldest of the buildings owned by Freemasons in general in the city and possibly the country, is in a disreputable state. Why it was allowed to deteriorate to such a point is a question worth asking, when regular maintenance and repairs over an extended time-frame would have obviated the present crisis.
Buildings fall down in the city or are demolished all the time without a whisper of objection from the public, but in this case there is some interest – and concern – because of the presumed age of the structure. According to the late nineteenth century historian, James Rodway, the Union Lodge erected the building in 1816. The District Grand Lodge of Guyana website, however, phrases that more carefully, saying that Union Lodge had its first building on the site now occupied by Freemason’s Hall, which carries the possible implication that another one may have been put up subsequently on the site in its stead. If that is what they believe, they give no hint of when this occurred, and exactly how old, therefore, the present edifice may be.
When our reporter interviewed Chairman of the National Trust Lennox Hernandez, he just described the building as “old”, without putting any date on it. Certainly, if the basic structure of the Freemasons Hall which is standing now dates back to 1816, it would make it older than St Andrews Kirk, which was opened in 1818 (although the frame had already been completed by 1811). Wooden edifices of that vintage are exceedingly rare in the country, never mind the city, and for that reason alone might warrant being gazetted by the National Trust. The Hall has not been so gazetted, however, although it has been listed, a more provisional recognition of its status.
In reference to what happened after 1816, the website says that “The deeds to this property were granted to Union Lodge on May 10, 1827.” It then goes on to relate that after various vicissitudes (the details of which it supplies), eventually in 1970 the District Grand Lodge took over the administration of the building; however, title to the land and buildings remains with Union Lodge.
The exterior of the structure certainly does not convey the impression of being two-hundred years old, although it might well be the case that the frame is that age, and the façade has undergone facelifts from time to time. What would be of interest is whether the frame is greenheart or some less durable wood, and whether any of the boards for the walls are hardwood. In the case of St Andrews, for example, it is its greenheart skeleton, so to speak, which no doubt has played a role in its survival. At some point in the British period, colonial buildings began to be constructed out of imported pine, a very soft and easily worked wood, which is excellent for the purposes of delicate fretwork, but leaves a lot to be desired in a tropical climate in terms of longevity.
What can be said is that Freemasons Hall does rest on low brick footings and not concrete pillars, a testimony to the fact that it is not of very recent vintage.
In our stories on the subject, most recently last Thursday, we had reported District Grand Master Doodnauth Persaud as saying that owing to the historic significance of the building, the National Trust was responsible for it, but did not want to give any money to execute the repairs. For his part, Mr Hernandez clarified that the Trust does not own the building and was as a consequence not responsible for its maintenance. He conceded it would take millions to repair it, given its condition, and while there were non-gazetted buildings which the Trust had assisted in terms of repairs, this was contingent on whether money could be provided. As far as this was concerned, he said, they had budgeted already for this year, and no funds would be available beyond that. Furthermore, and most critically, the Lodge had never approached the Trust for money.
Our reporter asked Mr Hernandez what would happen if an owner wanted to demolish a building such as the Freemasons Hall because of a lack of money for rehabilitation, and he responded that the Trust would assist if the structure were recognized as being of such importance that it should not be destroyed. In those circumstances, he explained, it could be issued with a preservation order and taken over. However, he went on to observe: “With Freemasons Hall we have to ask ourselves what makes … [it] so important that we would have to spend so much money taking it over? … It is old, yes, but how important is it? That has to be assessed.”
Well of course the Hall is not the most aesthetic of edifices; what would qualify it for preservation would be its age, if that can be established, and its historical significance in terms of the cultural life of this country.
But to return to the question asked at the beginning: why was the building allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair in the first place? Was it because the District Grand Lodge and the Union Lodge both thought the other should bear the cost?
Was it because one or the other or both lacked the funds at critical points? All that can be said where that is concerned, is that outsiders never got the impression that the Masons attached to this Lodge were so impecunious they could not have tapped some source of funds for repairs as they went along.
The face of Georgetown has changed dramatically over the decades since independence – mostly for the worse. The beautiful buildings, both large and small which would attract the tourists everyone likes to talk about, are being effaced from the landscape at an alarming rate. More and more Georgetown is becoming a poor copy of a small US mid-western town, and the skills and aesthetic vision which went into making it unique have disappeared too.
As it is, the District Grand Lodge website is advertising its “New Masonic Centre for Future Generations” and is asking for donations. It is accompanied by a large picture of what the expensive-looking centre – which is being built elsewhere ‒ will look like. The National Trust lacks sufficient personnel or resources to stop the obliteration of the material heritage, and has to confine its efforts to critical buildings such as St George’s. If the Masons can be one of the major groups raising the money to build a new centre, why can’t they secure donations to rescue their own historic Lodge?