Trinidad & Tobago’s houses of history

A combination of neglect and commercial redevelopment has endangered Trinidad and Tobago’s unique architectural heritage for decades. But as Erline Andrews discovers, a handful of private individuals have bucked the trend, investing in restoration projects that give old buildings new life

65 Gallus Street, recently restored by architect Laura Narayansingh. Photograph courtesy Laura NarayansinghThe Boissière House in Port of Spain is a hopeful example of a privately funded historical restoration project. Photograph by Chris Anderson

When attorney Russell Nath decided fifteen years ago to restore one of the last remaining great houses in Trinidad and Tobago, Ortinola House in Maracas Valley, some people tried to convince him not to. “A lot of his friends never had any faith in this project,” explains Nath’s wife Vindra, seated next to him on a plump, saffron-upholstered 1940s-style sofa in the lounge of the house. “They said, ‘Why don’t you knock it down?’”

Looking at photos of the house prior to its restoration, it’s easy to understand their doubt. It seemed like it was on its last legs. The galvanised metal roof was weather-beaten, with sheets missing. Windows were hanging off their hinges. The walls and floors of the wooden structure were rotting. Balusters were gone from the railing around the verandah.

It was a sad reflection of the structure’s former self: the living quarters of a nineteenth-century cocoa estate. It took both imagination and determination to realise the building’s potential. Russell Nath had both.

A recent visit found Ortinola to be a place of peace, quiet — broken only by a windchime and birdsong — and breathtaking beauty. A majestic pink, green, and white colonial-style house, with ornate white fretwork and a wide staircase sits atop a rolling field of well-kept grass and a multiplicity of trees.

“There’s something about the energy of an old estate where people have worked, toiled, and sweated, and the home where they lived,” says Nath, describing the appeal of Ortinola. “There’s something inside everyone that they’ll be able to relate to it.” The family earns income by renting the house for weddings, other special celebrations, corporate retreats, and conferences. And they’ve recently started to once again use the estate to produce cocoa and chocolate.

 

Activists in Trinidad and Tobago, like the Citizens for Conservation group, have been waging a long, hard, and at times losing battle to get the state to do more to save the country’s historic buildings. Another great house — Friendship Hall in Freeport — was torn down in 2012. Several of the Magnificent Seven buildings — palatial, Victorian-era structures around the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain — are in various states of disrepair. And even the nearby President’s House is collapsing, and has not been lived in since 2010. But the movement has been getting unexpected help: a few private individuals who see the value of these historic buildings, and have used their own time and money to save them.

Architectural preservation has been shown to have social and economic value. Heritage trails which include historic structures attract visitors and their attendant spending to neighbourhoods around the world, says Michael Connors, an American decorative arts expert living in St Croix, who has published multiple books about architecture in the Caribbean. He points to Curaçao, Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica for successful historic architecture projects. “Trinidad and Tobago are falling behind a trend that these other island nations have understood, and are now benefitting from,” he says.

The Naths bought the Ortinola estate in 1998 as a place to keep their daughter’s pony. Nath had no personal interest in preservation. They decided to restore the house to try to earn extra income. But although he didn’t intend to, Nath has become a hero of sorts to preservation activists. He won yet another National Heritage Preservation Award last year. The awards are offered biennially by the Trinidad and Tobago National Trust, to honour and encourage such work.

The family home of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul was also nominated for an award after opening to the public for the first time last year. It too was saved from an uncertain fate by the dedication of individuals. Two decades ago, literary scholar Kenneth Ramchand by chance saw a newspaper ad that said the house on Nepaul Street, in west Port of Spain, was up for sale. Bought by Naipaul’s father Seepersad in the 1940s, the famous author lived there from the age of sixteen till he left for Oxford, and it inspired his iconic novel A House for Mr Biswas.

Ramchand was an independent senator at the time, and brought the matter up in Parliament. The government bought the house, and leased it for TT$1 a year to the organisation Friends of Mr Biswas. It’s since been left up to the charity — Ramchand is the chair, and several Naipaul relatives are involved — to restore the house and magnify its usefulness. There’s been an attempt to reproduce what the building looked like when Naipaul lived there, with as many original pieces of furniture as possible. The Friends want to develop the house as a museum and library.

“This was the house that nurtured three writers,” says Ramchand about the importance of the two-storey, plainly designed building. Seepersad Naipaul was a well-known journalist and fiction writer, and Shiva Naipaul, younger brother of V.S., was also a celebrated author.

Over the past two years, the Friends have hosted several events related to the Naipaul family and Trinidadian writing more generally. “The attendance at the events shows that the country needs something like this,” says Ramchand.
One of the distinguishing features of Woodbrook, the Port of Spain neighbourhood adjacent to St James, is the concentration of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “gingerbread” houses. Although you can find gingerbread architecture all over the world, T&T’s is unique. They’re often relatively small houses, surrounded by highly decorated iron fencing, with ornate fretwork, gabled roofs, and finials. Unfortunately, many of them are crumbling, or restored in such a way that they’re awkwardly given modern features like sliding glass doors and concrete walls.

The country’s most famous gingerbread house is the 110-year-old Boissière House around the Queen’s Park Savannah. A popular subject for painters, it was abandoned and in danger of dereliction, until it was bought and restored by businessman Junior Sammy in 2013. It was recently the site of an exhibition of memorabilia by soca star Machel Montano. The Sammy family also stay there occasionally. “It definitely feels like a home,” Sammy’s daughter, Shivonne, told a reporter after picking up a National Heritage Preservation Award.

Less celebrated but just as lovingly preserved is a blue and white gingerbread house on Gallus Street in Woodbrook, restored last year by recently graduated architect Laura Narayansingh, daughter of the house’s new owner.

“One thing I couldn’t stop thinking about as a student is why are such beautiful buildings falling apart in Trinidad,” says Narayansingh. “[They’re] so significant to who we are and how we live.” Narayansingh says she’s received a lot of positive feedback about the restoration. She read a letter from a man who grew up across the street. “When I look at the place, I see memories and smile,” he wrote. “You’ve honoured history and culture and place and time.”

But the restoration and the maintenance of an old house aren’t cheap. It cost the Naths TT$3 million to restore Ortinola. Because the building is built of wood, upkeep has particular challenges. “It’s constant maintenance,” says Russell Nath. What the owners of these houses would like is financial help from other private investors and the state. At the moment, if a building is listed under the National Heritage Act, it permits the owners to receive state assistance. But only thirteen buildings have been listed since the Act was passed in 1991.

In the meantime, positive feedback and recognition will do. “We feel that we’ve done something, if I can say, noble in our lifetime,” says Nath. “We feel very proud about it.”