Fiddling while City Hall crumbles

The Georgetown City Hall has long been recognised as one of the more picturesque representations of Gothic Revival architecture in the city, and in Guyana as a whole. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based private non-profit entity dedicated to “saving the world’s most treasured places,” says that the Georgetown City Hall “is thought to be one of the best examples of British Victorian design in the Caribbean.”

However, successive administrations of the Mayor & City Councillors of Georgetown have presided over this building’s continuing decay, seeming not to place sufficient import on the condition of the building in which they are headquartered. Quoting the World Monument’s Fund again, “Georgetown City Hall was included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch because it is in a state of deterioration due to a lack of resources and awareness of its significance. Its preservation would provide an opportunity for training in the traditional craftsmanship of the region and help to secure reuse and long-term stewardship of the building.”

For a building which is considered worthy of preservation both locally and internationally, it is quite surprising at first, and then agonisingly painful to see the extent of foot dragging, red tape and passing of the buck that has been occurring over many years as the building continues to slip into possible irreversible decay. Because the very purpose of preservation seeks to retain the exact design, materials and construction methods to as great a degree as possible and is not simply a repair job, it behoves those interested in the process to move swiftly and professionally, making detailed records of the structure, and planning the acquisition of replacement materials and the rebuilding process in great detail and with precision as the aim. Logistics such as the temporary displacement of the current inhabitants of the building to another location would have to be carefully worked out.

In 2014 we reported on the partnership between the National Trust of Guyana and the World Monuments Fund to facilitate the Georgetown International Heritage Conference which discussed the protection of historic buildings. In 2017 we reported on Mayor Patricia Chase-Green’s announcement of a proposed launch of a restoration fund for the building. We also touched on the CEO of the National Trust, Ms Nirvana Persaud’s statement earlier in the year that the European Union funded Compre-hensive Restoration and Sustainable Conservation Management Plan was to have been completed by the end of 2017.

Considering that the original construction of the City Hall was completed in June 1889, this majestic feat of architecture and construction is nearly 130 years standing, and this is quite a formidable achievement – for the building and its builders. It behoves the current inhabitants and the relevant government agencies, particularly the National Trust, to have a pragmatic approach to the issue of the restoration of the building. The ability or otherwise of the City’s management to avert a catastrophic failure of the City Hall will be the single defining characteristic of this current gaggle of Georgetown’s Councillors.

Just this February, no less a person than the Town Clerk himself was reported as warning Councillors that the City Hall may no longer be fit for meetings after a section of the building actually collapsed! If this was any other building in the city, the very City Council would have been duty bound to send in their engineers and inspectors with a view to temporarily closing the building down to prevent loss of life, limb and property until repairs and renovations were done. The City Council is indeed in a very conflicted state on this matter at the moment, being responsible for ensuring the soundness of construction in the city while their headquarters crumbles around their feet with evidence of decay quite visible to the public.

And the apparent lack of clarity in the approach to the issue and the depth of contradiction was also evident in that February meeting since the council was apparently advised, according to the Mayor, that the building was “structurally sound.” This Council is resident in the building, they hold weekly meetings in the building and some of them have been in this position for many years now, yet they have these waffling, uncertain discourses about the state of a building that any casual passer-by can easily say with no uncertainty is in a decrepit condition and in need of urgent intervention to prevent a catastrophic collapse.

The Town Clerk’s comments include, “I made the point that what we have over our heads that’s preventing storm water from coming through on us whenever it rains is a piece of canvas, tarpaulin, that’s preventing the water from coming in,” while the Mayor’s own offerings included, “I am not the engineer and we were told by one consultant that we should continue to occupy the building… because if we remove from it, it’s going to deteriorate much faster. But everyday it’s deteriorating and so we can’t stretch the life of it longer than we should… so we have to make arrangements to remove ourselves from it as early as possible to save the loss of life and limb by anyone.”

The above contributions from the managers of the city of Georgetown who have occupied the said building on a weekly basis for many years are a clear case of “fiddling while Rome burns.” While the European Union’s promised intervention by way of plan for rescuing the building is expected shortly, one can only wonder at the capacity for the City Council to execute or participate in the said plan, assuming that the plan upon submission is given the green light or sees the light of day anytime soon.

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