Sunday, February 25, 2018

Our built heritage

The National Trust of T&T has published a very attractive and informative book, The Built Heritage of Trinidad and Tobago, issued to celebrate the golden jubilee of Independence. The term "built heritage" refers to a country's buildings and man-made sites, whether these are still in use or at least still standing, or now only remnants or ruins—as opposed to its "natural heritage", its landscapes, animals, plants.

The first section, written by well-known art historian and architect Geoffrey MacLean, provides a succinct history of the country's built heritage through a discussion on prominent buildings past and present, most of them situated in or around Port of Spain. He also considers, though very briefly, the work of T&T's leading 20th-century architects, notably Anthony Lewis, Colin Laird and J Newell Lewis, and their signature buildings. (Trinidad's great 19th-century architect and builder, Scottish-born George Brown, is frequently mentioned in this and the next section.)

Section 2 provides written descriptions and photographs of 50 heritage buildings or sites. The latter are of high quality, and often include both recent and historical photographs, so that we can compare what the building looks like now with its appearance in the past. For instance, on pp. 132-33 we see the Tobago House of Assembly building, completed in 1825, as it is today, and as it was in the late 19th century—showing that it is now a poor replica of the original.

These 50 buildings, of course, were selected from a far larger number of historical buildings and sites. (A list of "properties of interest" recently compiled by the National Trust, which was kindly given to me, includes 381 such properties, and this number is sure to go up.)

Of the 50 selected buildings, 28 are in or around Port of Spain, and 10 are in Tobago, leaving just 12 situated elsewhere (no San Fernando building made the cut). Places of worship account for 11, there are 13 originally constructed as private residences, and six are forts.

Inevitably, a significant number of the chosen 50 are fine town mansions and estate great houses, built for and by the wealthy landowners and businessmen of past eras, most famously the Magnificent Seven (not counting QRC). The fact is that such buildings have a far better chance of survival than the houses of the poor, or even of the middle classes (though thankfully quite a lot of the latter have, in fact, managed to survive).

So too with solidly built military or naval forts, constructed to withstand sieges and attacks, and Christian churches usually built of stone or brick.

Many have pointed out that in a postcolonial society like ours, people don't always feel that the buildings of past landowners, businessmen and colonial officials, or British/French forts, should be preserved and maintained. They may not feel any deep sense of connection with these places. Their ancestors didn't own or live in them (except perhaps as servants) or run them.

Yet they represent the country's history in a tangible and visible way. And, as members of Citizens for Conservation have said over and over again, they showcase the craft and skills of ordinary people of the past. "Someone's grandfather's father painted those buildings and did the work on them", to quote Rudylynn Roberts, chair of the group.

The preservation and maintenance of those interesting, outstanding or characteristic older buildings which still survive is the main business of the National Trust. Its book is a fine record of many of them. But its task is urgent.

One of the selected 50, Mille Fleurs of the Magnificent Seven, is described as being "in an advanced stage of deterioration": "the building does not have a future if the present situation continues" (p. 75) Another, the Mayaro Post Office (pp. 120-21), is also now derelict, though you would not know that from the photographs taken in 2000 and the accompanying text. (Mayaro's most famous son, Michael Anthony, has spoken and written about this building many times.) Most people know that the two iconic colonial-era buildings, the President's House and the Red House, are both currently closed because of serious damage.

And it was only in August last year that a magnificent example of an estate great house—and unlike Barbados or Jamaica, we don't have too many of these—disappeared forever. This was the McLeod House in Chase Village, demolished in a few hours. Closer to where I live, the St Joseph Police Station, a fine, sturdy colonial-era structure, also disappeared, a few years ago, almost literally overnight.

The Trust deserves congratulations for its interesting and visually appealing book on our built heritage. But what is needed now is action.

There are hopeful signs: thanks to the tireless, privately funded Citizens for Conservation, public awareness of this issue is growing. Recently too, three ministries and the Trust organised a tour of the Magnificent Seven and the President's House, which was attended by one minister (Mr Cadiz) and ministry officials.

Needed now: enforceable procedures for "listing" buildings and sites for protection, resources to help private owners to maintain their properties and to restore and maintain those the government already owns, and implementation, implementation, implementation.