When the top floor of the President’s House in St Ann’s came crashing down in 2010, architect Rudylynn DeFour Roberts was literally in tears.
“We saw it coming, “she said; the ‘we’ being the Citizens for Conservation, a group of which she is a part, which prides itself as the vanguard and voice for the protection of the natural and built heritage of Trinidad and Tobago.
“The building was in a bad shape. We warned them about that long before; it could have been prevented.”
Three years later, De Four Roberts refuses to talk about the matter. She is still so emotional about it.
In her line of work, an appreciation of spaces — old and new — is par for the course; but De Four Roberts has a passion for old buildings that runs deeper.
“I have the soul of an artist. I appreciate the craft and design that went into these buildings.”
If she had to trace to her love for old spaces it would begin at the gingerbread house owned by her grandfather, a joiner.
As a girl she was fascinated with the kaleidescope the sun created when it hit the stained glass and the fret work and spilled out onto the wooden floor.
It helped too that her first job out of university was as part of the adaptive reuse of an old Luthean Church in Trenton, New Jersey, USA. It was an old stone church which was turned into a theatre.
De Four Roberts comes from a line of engineers and architects. Her father Fenwick De Four, deceased, was a well known mechanical and electrical engineer who guided her away gently from her goal of making a living as an artist to a career in architecture. He thought she could still do art as a sideline and sent her to Howard University in Washington, DC, USA.
Now De Four Roberts can’t think of herself doing anything else.
She continued with her historic restoration projects when she returned to Trinidad and was involved in the setting up of Citizens for Conservation following the 1985 public outcry over the intended demolition of the George Brown House, Queen’s Park Savannah.
One of four children, De Four Roberts grew up in Federation Park. Her younger sister Marielle Ottley is a Civil Engineer; her other sister Rejane, described by De Four Roberts as the “baby”, an interior architect/designer and her brother Fulton, a doctor.
De Four Roberts’s own children Wolde Selassie De Four and Candace represent a new generation in design. Wolde is an industrial designer and Candace is an interior decorator.
Asked to define her ideal space, the laid back, soft spoken architect said traditional best captures her preference.
“I love antique furniture and warm finishes like warm colours and wood.”
She is quite at home in old spaces, she said, because of the comfort that it brings.
“When you’re constantly in a steel and glass atmosphere it is comforting to go into a warm space. It reminds you of where you camefrom.”
Currently two major projects engage the busy Santa Cruz based architect — the mammoth restoration of the Cathedral for the Immaculate Conception the 161-year-old church, a major landmark in the city of Port of Spain and the restoration of the Old Public Library at Knox Street.
Both projects have their own challenges — particularly the Cathedral, but experience helps to keep De Four Roberts’s focus on getting the job done.
She laughed at the reference of the Cathedral being a nightmare what with the various problems that keep popping up as restoration continues.
“I have a good team working on that Cathedral project. From experience we anticipated most of these problems. I think seeing water pour out of the walls, (given the porous walls and the high water table) was the only scary thing I saw.”
“In the past, modern materials were used and these walls are old. Stronger is not usually better.”
De Four Roberts’s expertise is not limited to old buildings though. She also designs new buildings. Still, she derives a certain amount of pleasure upon the completion of a refurbishing project.
“I feel so proud when I see the finished job that I get emotional,” she said with a laugh.
As a woman in a male-dominated profession, De Four Roberts honestly can’t remember being challenged or put down by her male counterparts.
“Maybe because I am Fenwick’s daughter.
“Contractors may disagree with you and argue sometimes but it all depends on your approach.
“I try to be calm most times.”
The Boissiere House at Queen’s Park West is one of the houses De Four Roberts would love to get her hands on as a restorative project.
“I could see it as a restaurant with period furniture, accessible to the public and with an ice cream shop at the back.”
She also has her eyes on an old house near the Piccadilly Greens which she is just in love with.
“I want to see T&T develop a heritage tourism industry to keep old buildings. We know not all can be kept but we have to leave enough for the next generation to touch and experience that part of history.
“You can’t do that with a photograph.”