Perfect, imperfect…future tense

Many of Trinidad’s historical buildings are being bulldozed. As the ‘For Sale’ sign goes up on yet another, a look at how they may be saved

Detail of the fretwork on the porte-cochere. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe front facade of the Boissiere House, 12 Queen`s Park West, Port of Spain, Trinidad. Designed by architect Edward Bowen. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe painted windows in the study. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe study floor. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

Colin Laird looks out of the front of his first-floor office and creases his well-lined face.

“It’s as if I’m not here any more,” he says, surveying the distant outline of Port of Spain’s new glass and steel skyline. “The Trinidad I knew is almost gone.”

Laird is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most senior and highly regarded architects whose work includes the National Library, the original Queen’s Hall and the Brian Lara Promenade. He’s extremely concerned about the number of historic buildings that have been allowed to fall into disrepair or been torn down over recent years.

Now another is under threat. The Boissiere House, on the southwestern edge of the Queen’s Park Savannah, was built in 1904 by the businessman CEH Boissiere, the linchpin of a prominent family which also included the mother of Eric Williams, the country’s first prime minister.

The Boissiere House is considered one of the finest remaining examples of late-Victorian architecture in Trinidad, with its timber and brick frame, gabled roof, gesso ceilings, intricate fretwork, Italian marble front steps and stained-glass windows featuring delicately painted strawberry vines.

“The workmanship is out of this world,” says Laird, who in 1994 was part of a team that drew up a set of recommendations for the preservation of the house. “It is a precious piece of Trinidad history.”

The Boissiere House is now up for sale for TT$45 million. Its owners, who are thought to be members of the Boissiere family, have been reluctant to speak publicly about the sale. But the fear is that anyone who purchases the property will demolish the house, which stands on prime land, and that yet another historic building will be lost.

What needs to be done to save it? And why is it that the Boissiere House and other similar buildings—an essential part of the nation’s history and collective patrimony—are simply being allowed to disappear?

The National Trust of Trinidad and Tobago is charged with the mandate to protect the country’s built heritage. The trust, established in 1991 but only fully functional since 2003, first identifies buildings deemed of historic importance. Once a building is earmarked for preservation, the owners are notified and a dossier is drawn up and sent to the government, which has the final say on listing the property. After a building is listed, approval must be obtained from the National Trust to undertake any construction work, whether restorative or otherwise.

To date, the trust has identified about 200 properties all over the country for protection. Dossiers on 25—including the Boissiere House—have been drawn up.

So far, however, none of the dossiers has been sent to the government, and not a single property has been listed.

Vel Lewis, curator of the National Museum and chairman of the National Trust, says this is because the process for getting a property listed is “complicated.” It is in fact a labyrinthine bureaucratic matter, involving the Ministry of Culture, the Attorney General’s Office, and Cabinet. Lewis admits that it took quite some time for the trust and the government even to agree on what form the listing process should take. Now there is accord, he says, and is confident that matters are finally ready to go forward.

“The matter isn’t given the priority it should be given,” says Rudylynn Roberts, secretary of the National Trust Council. Prof Julian Kenny, a former board member of the trust, is more forthright. “We have never had political sensitivity to the importance of our built heritage,” he declares.

Trinidad and Tobago’s rather lax attitude towards its built heritage stands in stark contrast with some of its neighbours. In the English-speaking Caribbean, Jamaica is streets ahead. The 50-year-old Jamaica National Heritage Trust has over 150 declared heritage sites, including churches, plantation houses and cemeteries. Many, such as Devon House in Kingston, have been purchased by the government and restored, and are now popular destinations for tourists and locals.

The Barbados National Trust has been protecting that island’s built heritage since 1961, including the restored Bridgetown Synagogue (1654), the oldest synagogue in the western hemisphere. In St Kitts, the Brimstone Hill Fortress, built between the late 1600s and the late 1700s, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Guyana National Trust, established in 1972, oversees a number of buildings, including St George’s Cathedral, the world’s tallest wooden church.

It isn’t only that the governments in these countries recognise the value, historic and commercial, of protecting old buildings. There also seems to be a culture of preservation, and an understanding that buildings of historical value belong not only to the owners, but to the country.

This is glaringly absent in Trinidad and Tobago, where the economic upturn has fuelled a serious construction boom. Dozens of new buildings are going up, in many instances on sites where historic buildings once stood. Many are alien in design, taking little account of local conditions.

Roberts, who was a founding member of the group Citizens for Conservation and an architect with the Ministry of Works, says property developers have asked her, “Why do you want to keep old buildings past their usefulness?”

She is quick to note, however, that the National Trust is not against development.

“We understand we can’t save all old buildings,” she says. “We want to keep the best ones, as teaching tools for our children.”

Roberts says the application to list the Boissiere House is being fast-tracked. And a group of concerned citizens, rallying under the banner “Save the Boissiere House!” has organised public meetings and started a petition calling on the government to buy the house and put it to appropriate commercial use.

The National Trust is organising a public lecture on the importance of preserving the built heritage. And, says Lewis, there are plans to hold meetings with the owners of historic buildings to encourage an understanding of how important it is to preserve them.

“People are getting informed,” notes Kenny, who has led a number of successful tours to would-be heritage sites. But, he advises, the public must “sustain the pressure over a long period of time.” Roberts, who on more than one occasion has placed herself between an historic house and an oncoming bulldozer, agrees. “We have to make our voices heard.”
For Colin Laird, the time for action is now or never. “We’ve lost enough of our heritage,” he says decisively. “It’s time to make a lot of noise.”

Going, going, or gone

In and around Port of Spain alone:

President’s House
Whitehall (which houses the Prime Minister’s office)
Killarney (Stollmeyer’s Castle)
Mille Fleurs
Queen’s Royal College
Bagshot House
the Lee House, which was once Laird’s own home

For more information: www.saveboissierehouse.org